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Who Are the ISIS Fighters in Custody, and How Can They Be Repatriated?

As published in Homeland Security Today:

by Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci

BERLIN: Turkey is currently saber rattling on the Northern Syria border claiming that the Kurdish dominated Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) are one in the same with the PKK terrorist group and simply a front for them, constituting an unacceptable danger for Turkish border security. Turkish politicians are hellbent on entering Syria and have been preparing their military to conduct a “cleansing” of what they see as the threat, while also settling Syrian refugees back into the area. Turkey already incurred into Afrin in 2018 with what the Kurds see as disastrous results causing massive Kurdish displacements and using as the Kurds claim, former ISIS cadres to fight for them.

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” a White House statement issued Sunday night announced, adding that President Trump had spoken to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan by telephone. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the [Turkish] operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area,” it continued. President Trump furthermore continued in the White House release his statements about Western countries refusal to repatriate ISIS detainees held by the SDF, now announcing in an abrupt reversal of earlier threats to simply release them back to Europe: “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States.”

What to do with the foreign terrorist fighters held in SDF territory is certainly a pressing issue, one that President Trump has continually complained about over the past months. Our interviews with former ISIS cadres continue to indicate however, that Turkey had, at least for a limited time period, engaged in a complicit history with ISIS, while President Trump is now saying Turkey will take control of the prisoners. Meanwhile the SDF has been struggling with ill equipped and overcrowded prisons and is now facing threats from an invasion from Turkey.

In the meantime, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other ISIS supporters have been calling for attacks on the prisons and camps and for help to release the ISIS cadres. While this is unlikely to occur, some ISIS wives have managed to escape the camps and dire conditions persist. With Turkish troops amassed on the northern border of Syria, some Rojava politicians and security officials we spoke to in September point out the difficulties of having to both defend themselves in the event of a Turkish invasion and guarding the ISIS prisoners. “It would be a difficult choice for us, whether to defend ourselves or continue to guard the prisoners, wouldn’t it?” Berivan Khalid highlights when discussing the issue. Similarly, a YPG intelligence chief today adds, “We are properly ready to respond to any attack This attack will confuse all the cards. It will expose the region to total destruction. Thousands of civilians will be displaced, The American attitude has disappointed our people and the lack of credibility of the American ally with its allies.” Indeed, while last visiting SDF controlled territory, ICSVE researchers witnessed massive preparations being made by the SDF including digging tunnels that criss-cross the region and pass through major cities and villages connecting them for underground troop movements.

U.S. military experts however tell ICSVE that the incursion will be limited to a small area. Likewise, it’s unlikely that Turkey will be taking over the prisons and camps where ISIS detainees and foreign terrorist fighters and their families are currently housed as that would mean Turkey effectively taking over the whole of Northern Syria given the camps and prisons are spread over all of Rojava. Doing so would constitute a complete and total abandonment of the SDF by its U.S. ally, a real betrayal were it to happen, given Kurdish valor and sacrifices in defeating ISIS territorially on the ground.

In regard to the ISIS prisoners held in the region, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) researchers have been studying those currently in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Iraqi Security Forces and advising on how best to proceed in prosecuting and possibly rehabilitating some of them. In that vein, ICSVE has since 2018 conducted 150+ interviews (out of a total of over 200 in-depth ISIS research interviews) with Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) and their family members

Data on Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs)

North East Syria (The Syrian Democratic Forces)

According to a March 2019 U.N. report, a total of 8,000 Islamic State fighters (non-FTFs) are currently under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) custody. In our May/August 2019 visits to North and East Syria, relying on our primary intelligence sources, we were told that approximately 2,000 of these Islamic State Fighters are FTFs who remain under the SDF custody. The same data was also collaborated in a recent August 2019 press release by the Office of the Spokesperson, Special Envoy of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James Jeffrey.[i] Just under a 1,000 of them are believed to be Europeans.[ii] ICSVE has interviewed approximately 5 percent of them and give a preliminary estimate about them.  Most appear to have become totally disillusioned of ISIS are exhausted from battle and prison and say they want to lay down arms.  While there is no specific deradicalization or rehabilitation program applied to them at present and we have been requested by the SDF and also agreed to build one, it’s safe to say the majority are spontaneously deradicalizing and simply want to return home to their former lives after facing a process of justice.

The SDF prisons are overcrowded and some consist of schools repurposed as prisons. Riots and attempted jail breaks have occurred in SDF prisons holding FTFs. Likewise, recent news reporting shows over-capacity conditions with prisoners having to sleep next to each other on their sides to be able to fit into small and overcrowded rooms.  SDF leadership has repeatedly expressed a need to ICSVE researchers for technical assistance in dealing with terrorist prisoners and for financial assistance to build at least five prisons.

Iraq (Iraqi security forces)

An estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters are currently under the custody of Iraqi security forces. The majority of ISIS fighters under the custody of Iraqi forces are of Iraqi nationality, with estimates that around 1,000 come from other countries (FTFs).[iii] In our discussions with Iraqi officials, we also estimate the number of FTFs to fall right under 1,000 (600-800). In addition, since the beginning of 2019, it is believed that thousands of ISIS fighters have been repatriated to Iraq from the neighboring Syria.[iv]

Iraqis openly admit to using harsh interrogation methods and confessions are considered as adequate evidence for a terrorist conviction, often leading to the death penalty. Much news was made of a small group of French FTFs who were handed from Syrian SDF territory to the Iraqis as they complained of being tried based on coerced confessions and receiving the death penalty in contrast to European rule of law. ICSVE researchers have also interviewed FTFs, as well as women of various nationalities, who had been handed into Iraqi custody from SDF territory.

Data on Women and Children

North East Syria (The Syrian Democratic Forces)

Camp Hol: According to a UN Report dated April 2019, an estimated 75, 000 women and children are currently being held at Camp Hol, Syria.[v] Our data suggests that at least 60, 000 are Syrians and Iraqis. Furthermore, at least a total 8,000 children and 4,000 wives of FTFs remain in the camp.

Camp Ain Issa: It is estimated that camp Ain Issa houses a total of 12,000 women and children. Based on our primary sources on the ground, a total of 1,000 children and 265 women are foreigners (FTF families).

Camp Roj:  It is estimated that camp Roj houses upwards of 1,500 women and children of FTFs. By the end of 2018, it was reported that Camp Roj held a total of 2,000 women and children,[vi] with at least 500 women and 1,200 children based on our personal accounts in late November 2018.[vii] That number has recently shrunk to 1,500, as some governments have facilitated repatriation of foreign women and children to their respective countries. While the exact numbers of foreigners (both women and children) in Camp Roj remain incomplete, based on our personal accounts as well as some reported in the media, it stands at that over 50% of the total population in Camp Roj are wives and children of FTFs.

Women and children live in tents in these camps which are hot in the summer and freezing cold during winter and leak cold rainwater as well.  Dust blows around the camps causing breathing difficulties for some. Both women and children have died of Typhus, tent fires and other dangers in the camps. Recently vaccinations have been offered, but many mothers don’t trust and refrain from having their children vaccinated. The women cook for themselves and complain that the food provided them lacks nutritious fruits and vegetables. Schools are llacking as well.

All of the camps housing women have suffered from ISIS enforcers still dedicated to the group who require the other women to continue to cover themselves and who punish those who speak out against them. These women have attacked other women, set their tents on fire, stolen their possessions, attacked, biten, beaten and stabbed guards and have murdered other women creating a sense of chaos, constant danger and oppression in the camps. Recently a gun fight broke out in Camp Hol and one woman was said to have gained possession of a pistol.

Iraq (Iraqi security forces)

The number of foreign women and children under Iraqi custody remains unknown as it has not been publicized openly, although, as stated earlier, we were able to interview a few of them. In May 2019, a media source reported that a total of 1,241 foreign women and children of ISIS fighters, of which 774 ranged from 9-15 years old, were being held in a prison facility run by Iraqi security forces.[viii] We interviewed one French woman facing a life sentence who released her children to her brother back home in France.

Nationality & Location

North East Syria (The Syrian Democratic Forces)

FTFs from about 60 countries remain under the custody of the SDF and the Iraqi security forces. In North and East Syria, we have interviewed FTFs who are nationals of the United States, Canada, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, the UK, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Dagestan, Turkey, Denmark, Russia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia, Indonesia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya, Switzerland, Egypt, and Germany. We are also aware of a Qatari FTF currently under the SDF custody. Note that all of the interviews were conducted at an SDF-run facility and none of our interviews took place in actual prison settings.

Camps Hol, Ain Issa, and Roj hold women and children from about 60 countries. In addition to a number of Westerners whom ICSVE researchers were able to interview during the last two years in all three camps, namely women from Belgium, Ireland, the United States, Germany, France, Russia,and the Netherlands, to just name a few, the foreigner pool also comprise women from Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Morocco, and Uzbeks, among others. It is estimated that camp Roj alone hosts women from 40 countries.[ix] All of the aforementioned ethnic backgrounds and nationalities are scattered across the three camps. 

Iraq (Iraqi security forces)

In cooperation with Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), in addition to interviews with local Iraqi ISIS cadres, we also have interviewed FTFs from Morocco and Benin. We have also interviewed wives of ISIS cadres (Chechen, French and German) and we are also aware of at least French and Belgium nationals who are currently under the custody of Iraqi security forces.

ICSVE Efforts Towards Repatriation

FBI, DOJ, and Foreign Government Cooperation on Repatriation

ICSVE researchers have to date interviewed over 200 ISIS cadres and their family members in Syria, Iraq, and worldwide. At ICSVE, we are currently engaged in the process of removing legal, public opinion related, and other challenges to facilitate the repatriation of ISIS cadres and their family members currently detained in North and East Syria. We are currently working with German Justice and other German officials to facilitate the repatriation of German citizens. We provide our interview notes of our research interviews (with the detainees’ full consent and permission) of many of these ISIS cadres to facilitate repatriation to Germany and allow the prosecutors to view the video (again with full consent of the detainees) of the interview and we give our opinion of the case regarding if rehabilitation is possible and what would likely be useful in that regard. The information provided by ICSVE could possibly help with prosecution and rehabilitation upon return. To demonstrate, through the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Germanys’ Federal Criminal Police (BKA), we have to date shared interview notes of 17 German nationals or residents, currently under the SDF custody, with Germany’s Department of Justice to facilitate the process of repatriation.  This “German model” of data sharing to help facilitate repatriation is being spread to Belgium and the Netherlands and possibly to Ireland and Trinidad and Tobago. Likewise, ICSVE have been helping in Albania to begin a process of repatriation. In addition, ICSVE researchers have and continue to serve as expert witnesses in such cases to ensure transparency, credibility, and accountability on how detainee and prisoner information is being handled and shared.   

Furthermore, ICSVE researchers have also instituted a number of ethical and legal safeguards to ensure that no detainee or prisoner interview notes are shared without permission and that there is a careful handling of sensitive information and responsible transfer of detainees to their home countries. The transfer of such sensitive information is facilitated through U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Among others, our current repatriation efforts are also known to Ambassador Jeff Jeffrey’s office, namely Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, United States Central Command (CENTCOM) officials, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, UN’s International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), the UN’s Investigative Team to Iraq (UNITAD) and Senators’ of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In recent weeks, the governments of Belgium and the Netherlands have also expressed their interest to follow the German model and possibly work towards the repatriation of their citizens currently under SDF custody. The SDF representatives are also aware of our efforts and have been supportive with both our counter-narrative project and efforts to facilitate repatriation process of FTFs.

Assessment towards Rehabilitation & Reintegration

As indicated above, we have conducted a total of 93 interviews with imprisoned ISIS cadres, including ISIS women currently held in camps, in North and East Syria. In this regard, we are currently engaged in preliminary detainee psychological assessments to determine tendency for continued extremist behavior both while in the camps and in the event of their release and repatriation. We continue to seek partners to support our efforts with the process. We continue to engage our government to assist with repatriation efforts given president Trump’s demands for ISIS cadres in Iraq and Syria to be repatriated and even more so with this possibility of a Turkish incursion into SDF territory causing more risk of ISIS escapes and chaos in the region. The need is immediately pressing for thoughtful and effective steps to be taken to address the ISIS detainees held in SDF territory and ICSVE stands ready to assist.

Reference for this Article

Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (October 7, 2019). Who Are the ISIS Fighters in Custody, and How Can They Be Repatriated? Homeland Security Today.

Author Biographies

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=196) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing counter narratives from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has conducted primary research on ISIS and al Shabaab, as well as trained key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, education, and other CT and CVE professionals on the use of counter-narrative materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Disengagement from terrorism, violent extremist and terrorist group media communication strategy and information security, messaging and counter-messaging, and the strengthening of resilience to violent extremism and terrorism through the application of the rule of law represent some areas of research interests. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College. 


[i] See “Special envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, Ambassador James J. Jeffrey,”  August, 2019.

[ii] See “ Trump threatens to ‘ release ‘ ISIS fighters into France, Germany,” August 2019.

[iii] See “ Netherlands wants Dutch jihadists to be tried in Iraq: Report,” September 2019.

[iv] See “ Iraq sentences three French citizens to death for joining ISIS, “ The guardian, May 2019.”

[v] See  “‘Foreign children’ in overwhelmed Syrian camp need urgent international help, says top UN official,” UN News, April 18, 2019.

[vi] See “Betrayed by extremists and abandoned by their governments, these women and children have nowhere to go,” August, 2018.

[vii] See “ ISIS women: Victims, criminals or both, “ November 2019.

[viii] See “ Fearful and fenced in: Foreign children of IS face indefinite stay in Iraq,” April 2019  

[ix] See “ After ISIS collapse, Serbian women trapped in Syria,” April 25, Balkan Insight, 2019.”

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