Britain facing dilemma over repatriating ISIS fighters

Trump urged European countries to accept the return of fighters rather than risk them being released and possibly committing new atrocities.
Monday 25/02/2019
Alexanda Amon Kotey (L) and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were allegedly among four British jihadis who made up a brutal Islamic State cell dubbed “The Beatles,” sit at a security centre in Kobane, Syria. (AP)
Thorny issue. Alexanda Amon Kotey (L) and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were allegedly among four British jihadis who made up a brutal Islamic State cell dubbed “The Beatles,” sit at a security centre in Kobane, Syria. (AP)

LONDON - The United Kingdom has come under increasing pressure to accept the return of British nationals who fought for the Islamic State (ISIS) and are in custody in Syria.

US President Donald Trump urged European countries to accept the return of fighters rather than risk them being released and possibly committing new atrocities.

“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” Trump tweeted.

“The US does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. We do so much, and spend so much -- Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% caliphate victory!”

While territory under ISIS control has shrunk to almost zero, the fear is that the post-caliphate phase could see high-profile ISIS attacks in the West, possibly by former fighters or a new generation of jihadists recruited and trained by them.

“Despite disastrous military defeats, ISIS is still a threat and is very much alive and is recruiting a new generation of young, mostly male Islamic terrorists,” warned Lawrence A. Franklin in a report for the Gatestone Institute.

The issue has divided British society with some saying the government should not accept the return of anybody associated with ISIS and others saying that so-called jihadi brides and their children should be allowed to return. Some recommended that the United Kingdom should accept the return of all British nationals and prosecute those accused of committing crimes.

A former head of the British Army, retired General Richard Dannatt, said he agreed with Trump on the issue of accepting all returnees. “They are our citizens and we have a responsibility to act responsibly towards them. That means they have got to come back to this country,” he told Sky News.

He called on the British government to establish a system to provide the captured fighters with due process ahead of criminal proceedings.

“They have got to be held while they are talked to and if there is sufficient evidence against any of them… they have to be put through due process and imprisoned if that is the right thing to do,” Dannatt said.

“But I think it is also important that we treat them fairly with justice and tempered with a bit of mercy as well because I think the way we treat them may well have important significance for the way other people view our society."

“We don’t want to see others radicalised and going off overseas in the future. How we treat these people coming back -- fairly but firmly -- we’ve got to get it right,” he added.

Officially, Britain has appeared extremely disinclined to repatriate captured ISIS fighters as seen by a decision to reportedly strip two infamous ISIS executioners -- members of the so-called “Beatles” group -- of their British citizenship.

A group of British fighters had been dubbed the “Beatles” by ISIS captives because of their British accents. In 2014 and 2015, the cell held more than 20 Western hostages, beheading seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers, horrific acts recorded on video.

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, the surviving members of the cell, are being held in northern Syria, awaiting trial in the United States.

“We do not think we have the evidence here to try them in the United Kingdom and we hope that a trial will be carried out in the United States,” UK Security Minister Ben Wallace told parliament last year.

The British government’s decision not to ask for assurances from the United States regarding a possible death penalty was controversial but seen by many as an indication of the United Kingdom’s commitment not to accept repatriation of ISIS fighters.

UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said Britain has the right to strip captured fighters of their citizenship even if that technically left them stateless.

“They turned their back on Britain when they left Britain to cause destruction and commit their hateful crimes,” he said in Brussels last year. “We believe that justice should be done locally and they are no longer part of Britain. British people do not want to see them returned.”

He spoke even more harshly on the issue in December, a few weeks after being named to handle the Defence portfolio. “A dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain… I do not believe that any terrorist, whether they come from this country or any other, should ever be allowed back into this country,” he said.

The government has failed to demonstrate flexibility even on the issue of accepting the return of jihadi brides and their children as can be seen in the decision to strip Shamima Begum of her British nationality rather than accept her return. Given this decision, the prospect of the United Kingdom accepting the return of former fighters grows more remote.

“It seems most of the countries have decided that they’re done with them [captured ISIS fighters]… but this is a very big mistake,” warned Abdulkarim Omar, the head of foreign relations with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is holding most of the ISIS detainees, in comments to the Times in London.

He said that the Syrian Democratic Forces would not be able to hold captured ISIS fighters indefinitely and that it would be best to deal with the issue soon. “[They are] a ticking time bomb,” he warned.