Dealing with captured ISIS members is no easy task for Iraqi authorities

Experts estimate that 20,000 suspects are being held in government jails.
March 11, 2018
An Islamic State member looks out from a cell in the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, last year.      (Reuters)
End of journey. An Islamic State member looks out from a cell in the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah. (Reuters)

LONDON - After declaring victory against the Islamic State (ISIS) in December, Iraq is facing a dilemma in dealing with captured members of the militant group amid domestic pressures and international expectations.

The domestic pressures include genuine security concerns about the resurgence of ISIS, whose threat to civilians cannot be overstated. Hence the need to set an example for would-be terrorists.

There is also the urge for the government to do something — even enact revenge — after a terror attack that left an angry public dismayed at apparent security shortcomings.

International expectations include demands by human rights groups that insist on due process, upholding the law and banning the torture or extrajudicial killing of both suspects and convicts. There is the security concern, expressed by US officials, that mistreatment of innocent people is a powerful recruitment tool for radicalisation and must be avoided.

There is also the wish by European countries for their ISIS nationals to be tried in Iraqi courts instead of being sent home but, for that to take place without risk of being involved in moral conflicts, they would like Baghdad to suspend the death penalty.

There are no official figures for detained ISIS members in Iraq but experts estimate that 20,000 suspects are being held in government jails and approximately 4,000 others are in prisons run by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The number of foreign ISIS members in detention is also unknown but there are reports that about 500 women and 800 children are detained for alleged ties to the group.

Iraq insists that foreign nationals, including women, convicted of membership of ISIS must serve their sentences — including death — in Iraq. Female foreigners who have been convicted solely of illegal entry to Iraq have been allowed to return to France and Russia.

Traffic has not been one way. Iraq extradited Ismail Alwan Salman al-Ithawi, who was ISIS’s minister of religious affairs, from Turkey.

The threat of ISIS, nevertheless, continues in Iraq. Civilians, police and Iran-backed Shia militiamen have been killed in recent attacks by the group.

ISIS members are present in various areas in Iraq. They hide in the deserts of predominately Sunni Anbar province. They have sleeper cells in Shia-majority cities. They have formed alliances with predominately Kurdish militants, such as the White Banners and Ansar al-Islam.

There is a continued threat of ISIS crossing into Iraq from Syria, especially after reports the militants made deals with some of their adversaries in Syria, including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as well as the Assad regime and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

A BBC investigation revealed in November that an SDF-ISIS agreement allowed hundreds of ISIS fighters, with around 3,500 of their family members as well as tonnes of weapons and ammunition, to leave Raqqa and spread across Syria. Some ISIS members, including foreign fighters, reached the countryside of eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border.

A similar Hezbollah-ISIS deal in August gave an estimated 400 armed ISIS fighters and their families passage from the Lebanese border to the Syrian border with Iraq. Many reportedly crossed into Iraq.

With a continued ISIS threat from within Iraq’s borders and beyond, Iraqi courts appear to be engaged in a sentencing spree of suspected militants. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said Iraq executed more than 100 people last year, most of whom were convicted of terrorism charges.

Iraq’s legal system has tough sentences for members of ISIS or those who have helped the militants, even if they were non-combatants. Membership in ISIS could warrant the death penalty. There are concerns that due process may have not been observed.

“Courts continued to admit ‘confessions’ that were extracted under torture as evidence. Many of those convicted after these unfair and hasty trials were sentenced to death,” read a report by Amnesty International.

“Iraq remained one of the world’s most prolific users of the death penalty. Scores of people were sentenced to death by courts after unfair trials and executed by hanging. The death penalty continued to be used as a tool of retribution in response to public outrage after attacks claimed by [ISIS],” the report said.

The rights group accused Iraqi authorities of issuing arrest warrants for lawyers defending suspected ISIS members: “These arrests caused concern among other lawyers that they could be arrested simply for defending [ISIS] suspects.”

Iraq is also engaged in an ideological war on ISIS. Iraqi state TV airs a weekly programme in which ISIS convicts — many of whom have been sentenced to death — confess to crimes and express regret.

In Mosul, Islamic scholars are training volunteers to counter ISIS’s ideology with the messages of peace in Islam.

The volunteers are tutored on “faith, Islamic jurisprudence and the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammad) to allow them to counter the ideas of [ISIS] and its intellectual terrorism,” Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, president of the Ulema Forum of Mosul, told Agence France-Presse.

However, such soft power is likely to be more successful if the government does not contradict the messages of justice and tolerance preached in the forum.