The Kurdish-led administrations in both Syria and Iraq faced an existential threat from the savagery of ISIS fighters at the height of their power. Yet, in victory, the Rojava revolution in NE Syria seeks to defuse, through rehabilitation, the time bomb ticking away in the mini-ISIS caliphates being set up by cooped up prisoners – men, women and children – physically defeated but not necessarily ideologically shaken.
While across the border in KRG-controlled Iraq, the time bomb is defused by summary trials and execution.
The case for ISIS fighters to be treated humanely isn’t just future-proofing against the pent-up anger of ISIS generations to come although that would be a welcome side-effect, but is an example of what a justice system committed to transformation of society should look like.
Nassra Khalil, co-chair of the Justice Council in the Euphrates region of Rojava (AANES), explains poetically in an email interview, that their system is driven by ‘the aim of eliminating the soil in which grievances grow and working out solutions that address the root of the problems by tackling these problems and the social structure in which they arose.’ However these admirable aims are constantly undermined by the lack of resources.
British media’s frenzied interest in ‘jihadi brides’ shone a light on the dire conditions in the Al-Hol camp in Rojava which holds over 60,000 ISIS prisoners, women and children, particularly the infamous Shamima Begum who lost her last baby to pneumonia there. This fits in with public expectations of Syrian refugee camps but very few narratives dig deeper to reveal the true picture.
Many Western countries have refused to repatriate their citizens in a shortsighted case of political expedience leaving foreign fighters and the Rojava administration in limbo. Shamima Begum was stripped of her citizenship in a shameful decision by the Supreme Court in February.
Rima Berakat, Co-Chair of the Justice council, responsible for law and order in all of Rojava, outlined the scale of the problem in a Zoom interview. They have approximately 12-15 thousand ISIS prisoners (mostly Syrian and Iraqi, but including more than 800 foreign fighters) awaiting trial. Since 2014, they have tried 8000 Syrian nationals and there are 1000 prisoners on trial at this moment. There are simply too many detainees and too few resources for the overstretched Rojava administration to attempt ideological cleansing of ISIS fighters on a large scale. As ISIS fighters remain a huge security threat, with uprisings in overcrowded prisons and escape attempts, Rojava, ever-pragmatic, has been unable to put its rehabilitation programs into operation apart from the ‘most basic teaching of language, culture and philosophy’. They have adopted a conventional legal strategy of trial and conviction but with humane sentences recognizing differences between those who laid bombs or laid food on the table for ISIS.
They have introduced amnesties for low-level ISIS operatives who have served half their sentences. This is partly to avoid their further radicalisation in prison, living cheek by jowl, with hardened ISIS fighters. This does not include ISIS ideologues or those who were engaged in war crimes, drug trafficking, honour killings, and espionage. Their risk levels are assessed, which includes an assessment of theirs’ and their families’ ideological commitment to ISIS, before they are released into the community. It is also in keeping with Rojava’s ‘decentralized, confederal decision-making on the local level’ reports the Rojava Information Centre: those areas which were liberated by SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) from ISIS are mostly populated by Arabs who have historically been hostile to Kurds and also do not share their revolutionary ideals. A key demand that emerged in consultations with these communities was amnesty for low-level ISIS members.
Responding positively to that demand, according to the Rojava administration, promotes better community relations and is one way of countering ISIS ‘attempts to sow discord, sectarianism and violence.’ To date 4000 women and children and 630 odd men have returned.
Small scale rehabilitation is carried out for groups of up to 20 women who sign up voluntarily in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps by Waqfa Jin, a local women’s group. They undertake consciousness raising sessions which talk about women’s empowerment and education, subverting ISIS teachings indirectly. They also run sewing and handicraft making sessions to skill them up for life outside the camp. In the smaller, better resourced, Al-Roj camp, the women who attend must follow rules such as no ‘black clothes’ and no niqabs, the closest they get to challenging ISIS ideology head-on. Such sessions, of course, do not begin to encroach upon the consciousness of those ISIS women in the now infamous Al-Hol camp who have reintroduced the strict dress and moral codes of their previous lives on pain of death. The Rojava administration is keen to set up separate camps for those ISIS women who are showing signs of rejecting their ISIS history so as to complete their process of deradicalisation. But they lack the resources.
The limited resources that they do have, have been poured into the Huri Centre, where 100 young boys from the age of 11 upwards, known as the Cubs of the Caliphate, who were battle hardened fighters and suicide bombers are being rehabilitated. The decision to staff the centre with women with whom the boys refused to make eye contact or shake hands when they first came to the centre was their first indirect lesson in gender equality. Apart from providing a peaceful environment where misbehaviour is resolved through discussion, not punishment, the young men are exposed to music and the arts – subjects that were banned under ISIS. In fact, the biggest challenge for the administration is the diehard ideological commitment of the foreign ISIS members, be they men, women, or children. Local fighters often joined ISIS for financial reasons because of their attractive salaries or protection of their families and are generally easier to deradicalise.
Across the border in KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) which operates the same penal code as the central government in Iraq, many ISIS prisoners have been executed after a summary 15 minute trial according to Human Rights Watch. All ISIS suspects are tried under the counter-terrorism laws and no distinction is made in terms of severity of charges. The process by which they are identified as ISIS members is flawed, very little evidence is provided at trial, and confessions are extracted by torture. There are widespread allegations of ill-treatment. Human Rights Watch recommends a more conciliatory approach, similar to that in Rojava, to prevent problems in the future. It is well known that prisons have been the hothouse for incubating terrorists of the future: AQI, the predecessor of ISIS, was hatched at Camp Bucca.
The Iraqi system is corrupt: prisons are paid per inmate so there are financial incentives to delay trials; prisoners are made to pay for better food, visits from relatives and access to mobiles. Several hundred ISIS prisoners have been executed since the fall of Mosul in 2017. In November 2020 alone, 21 prisoners were sentenced to death. There has also been an unquantified number of extra-judicial killings of ISIS members by the Iraqi army, wreaking revenge after victory.
Yet the UK government has poured £31million into KRG/Iraq since 2016 via UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) but not Rojava, despite UK’s commitment to global security, its avowed opposition to the death sentence and the importance it places on stabilisation of areas liberated from Daesh’s control. The government website states ‘we will not consider providing any stabilisation assistance in Syria without a credible, substantive and genuine political process firmly underway.’ This makes no sense at all given that there is a substantive political process under way and the UK was part of the coalition which put boots, arms, and training on the ground in the battle against Daesh in Syria. That is exactly the point that Rima Berakat makes, ‘We fought against Daesh together, we captured their fighters together, we must prosecute them together also. One side cannot carry the burden alone.’
I asked the foreign office, ‘If Britain will not take back its ISIS citizens, please explain why it won’t fund the humane regime in Rojava?’ A Government spokesperson responded with an answer to a question I hadn’t asked, ‘Those who have fought for or supported Daesh should face justice for their crimes. We are clear that this should happen in the most appropriate jurisdiction, which will often be in the region where their offences have been committed.’
In fact Rojava is poised to do so. Berakat said it is ‘our right, as victims, to prosecute Daesh because they have violated the laws in this region.’ After years of calling for an international court to be set up in Rojava went unheeded, she announced their intention to put the foreign fighters on trial.
The ISIS fighters should consider themselves lucky as they are unlikely to face as humane a jurisdiction anywhere else. If they open their minds up to the Rojava democratic experiment on earth, they may find that they are no longer interested in 72 virgins in heaven.