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With International Help, SDF Can Lead in Prepping ISIS Fighters for Prosecution, Rehabilitation

As published in Homeland Security Today:

by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci

ICSVE were invited experts speaking at the “International Forum on ISIS: Dimensions, Challenges, and Strategies for Confrontation” in Rojava, Syria, and gave the following presentation about their recommended next steps for the Syrian Democratic Forces in addressing the thousands of ISIS detainees currently held in their prisons and camps.

Twelve hundred foreign fighters and 12,000 foreign wives and children of ISIS, many of them Europeans, alongside approximately 50,000 to 70,000 displaced Iraqis and Syrians, who may or may not have been in ISIS, scattered across camps and prisons in northeastern Syria are currently being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).[i] The question of what to do with these detainees is a serious one, facing both the SDF and national governments of these travelers to Iraq and Syria. While various answers are being bandied about, the answer is not to transfer them to Iraq, where Western justice is not being carried out, nor to call for an international tribunal, which is not politically viable. Perhaps the solution is to offer serious and real support to the SDF with evidence collection and psychosocial and ideological rehabilitation processes that can make it more politically viable for national governments to take their citizens home for prosecution and rehabilitation.

The question of what to do with the ISIS prisoners and their families has a lot to do with the political ambitions about the future of the SDF and Rojava, namely the desire on the part of Rojava to transition to and be internationally and internally recognized as a semi-independent state within Syria’s federal system. When it comes to these detainees, there are four important alternatives for Rojava and the SDF to consider.

The first is to keep detaining and arresting them without legal charges and clear legal jurisdiction, as many Western governments currently refuse to take them back. This has proven to be a frustrating exercise so far, leading to the growth in detainee numbers as they are being held by the SDF with no formal process occurring. A similar scenario occurred in Iraq when the U.S. forces held up to 20,000 prisoners in Camp Bucca picked up on the battlefields throughout Iraq. Among them were also many prisoners who successfully plotted and planned terrorist acts, some of whom were released without prosecution, and some who ultimately became key figures in ISIS. We cannot let this happen again.

Currently, the U.S. policy on the issue is to urge foreign governments who have not already repatriated their citizens to do so. The governments of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kosovo have taken fairly large numbers home and are processing them, sorting through who can and should be prosecuted and who can be released and rehabilitated back into society. The U.S. military has urged on transfers and repatriation, though some countries that want to take back their citizens are frustrated by not knowing how to bring back their citizens without having to interact with, or recognize, the SDF as a political entity, which is their demand. There is an impasse in this regard, as many countries continue to refuse to recognize Rojava and the SDF or establish a political relationship to repatriate their ISIS detainees whom they fear. Groups and officials in the Netherlands and Albania, for instance, have worked to bring ISIS wives and children home but have not been able to find the policy mechanisms for transferring them home.[ii] The U.S. and others need to be more proactive in facilitating and supporting this process.

The second alternative follows the logic of the government of France. Eleven French citizens and one French resident, all ISIS members, following their transfer from the SDF custody into Iraq, were recently sentenced to death in Iraq.[iii] Reflecting on the matter, a number of French defense lawyers have criticized the French government on the grounds that it has “ violated the constitution by risking the execution of its citizens and more generally using the threat of terrorism to justify an overall erosion of protections for suspects and detainees.” [iv] Indeed, Iraq remains a country where forced confessions, and not evidence, frequently forms the basis of convictions, often leading to life imprisonment or death sentences, which has elicited criticism by both domestic and international actors against the Iraqi judicial system. Complaints center on that confessions often are taken under torture, that foreigners under custody often do not understand court proceedings taking place in Arabic, and that both locals and foreigners are often not legally represented in court. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has expressed its concern about the transfer of ISIS suspects from Syria to Iraq, including of foreigners, and the risk of torture under detention. [v] Thus, the claim is that the Iraqi justice system is flawed and that it also endorses death sentences, which has been abolished in all EU member states under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). While the Iraqi government favors the option of trying all ISIS prisoners in their courts and it would relieve the SDF of the burden, for those countries bound by ECHR, transfer of their citizens from the SDF custody into Iraq for prosecution should not be an ethical or legal option, despite the recent actions of the French government. Likewise, some reports suggest that the Iraqis are asking for millions to keep these ISIS convicts in prisons or to reverse the death sentences, which could also preclude this option.[vi]

The third alternative requires striking a good balance between political aspirations and credible policy options. The SDF is currently calling for an international tribunal to try ISIS prisoners on SDF-controlled soil. David Scharia and David Wells of the UN Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (C-TED) explained to ICSVE that the UN and the International Criminal Court in the Hague (ICC) are two entities that form the basis for setting up international courts. Their view is that the problem with international tribunals is that they are extremely costly and not productive. Referencing the examples of those established in the case of the Balkans, Rwanda, and Lebanon, they cited huge costs resulting in very few, if any, successful convictions. Furthermore, they also stated that international tribunals usually do have a clear end date, and are very hard to shut down, which makes them even more costly and less viable. Moreover, they argued that the ICC, facing budgetary challenges, cannot currently afford to set up an international tribunal, further adding that the UN will not establish one in Rojava as it would be vetoed by the UN Security Council members and not endorsed by UN member states. They also explain that it is against the current U.S. policy and that such a court requires internationally recognized jurisdiction, which the SDF, as a non-state armed actor, currently lacks. In reality, Rojava is inside of Syria and subject to Syrian jurisdiction. In this context, a court here would require cooperating with Assad’s government, which is clearly not politically viable.

In the event an international tribunal could be established in Rojava, Syria, one must consider the scope of the proposed courts, including questions of whether it would cover all crimes committed in the territory in Syria since the onset of conflict in 2011. In truth, Assad’s forces killed more and carried out far more atrocities than ISIS, and they are not about to put themselves into a position to answer for that in an international tribunal. Thus, in the event of an international court in the region, it is likely to be established in Iraq, and not Syria. Even under such a scenario, that would require Iraqi government to acquire constitutional approval to allow prosecutions by foreign entities on its soil, which could prove problematic, as the Iraqis do not project a need for international oversight. Endorsement and cooperation on the part of the Iraqi government is also required. Likewise, in deference to keeping costs down, it would likely require being a hybrid of local and international bodies, modeled after special court for Sierra Leone, for instance, versus an ad hoc international tribunal, such as the ones formed to prosecute crimes committed in Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia. This brings us back again to the transfer of prisoners held by the SDF into Iraq and all the legal and ethical dilemmas involved.

The UN International, Independent and Impartial Mechanism (IIM) is already operating in Syria and Iraq to gather evidence on the serious crimes that were committed since the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Despite many bureaucratic and political challenges, their ongoing efforts are crucial to securing evidence for potential prosecutions and trials back home.

Perhaps a fourth option is the most viable one. The SDF and the government of Rojava may enact steps that require neither international recognition nor international jurisdiction. They are free to begin a systematic process of assessment, evidence gathering and psychosocial treatment of the prisoners under its custody. This choice builds upon the existing potential and strengths of the SDF. Namely, the fact that it has managed to raise up an army that, through the U.S. military air and other support, has successfully and bravely defeated ISIS territorially, liberating large swaths of territories they once held and killing and imprisoning many of them. Likewise, the SDF continues to demonstrate its resolve to establish a functioning grassroots democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

The SDF needs to play to these two strengths of managing to deliver a safe and secure environment and good governance, while also avoiding the issues of serious security violations, corruption, and cronyism that are so pervasive in the region, which, in many ways, have contributed to the rise of ISIS in the first place. Of the 80-plus ISIS prisoners that ICSVE researchers have interviewed under SDF custody, many have told us that they are well treated in prison and that the SDF does not engage in torture. Despite ISIS having murdered many in Syria, our research experience goes to show that SDF does not revenge in kind. It also does not endorse the death penalty.

We also know that the foreign fighter prisoners and the ISIS wives came here following the ISIS narrative. In the face of serious security violations and political failings in both Syria and Iraq, as well as failings in Europe for second generation Muslims of immigrant descent, ISIS was selling a powerful dream of a utopian Islamic state that promised to deliver a Muslim state, justice, prosperity and ruling by Islamic ideals. In our experience of interviewing nearly 200 imprisoned ISIS cadres in both Iraq and Syria, we find that many ISIS men and women now realize mistakes in believing ISIS lies. As a result, arguably, many of them exhibit signs of spontaneous deradicalization. However, to rehabilitate and ever reintegrate into society, they also need psychosocial treatment, redirection, and a positive alternative to their status quo and a vision to believe in.

Perhaps the SDF can deliver just that. They continue to show their resolve in pursuing grassroots democracy that ensures gender equality and is inclusive of other religions and entities living in their territory. They are also dedicated to upholding human rights standards when it comes to ISIS detainees, which is a powerful message to these imprisoned ISIS cadres who just experienced the complete opposite living and serving under ISIS tyranny and injustices.

Our recommendation is that the SDF should begin with a formal assessment and sorting process that can make it possible to start confronting the ideological and psychosocial issues that drew ISIS prisoners and detainees into violent extremism in the first place. ICSVE researchers believe in the plausibility of such efforts, as they have already started such a process in their interviews, witnessing that many are already spontaneously deradicalizing. We believe that it is possible to identify where these prisoners are on the terrorist trajectory and who is likely to respond to treatment.

The intelligence services can also continue evidence collection to be used in future prosecutions as well as collect non-coerced testimonies and confessions to prepare and cooperate with the foreign fighters’ home governments on prosecution to help them be prosecuted, and for those capable of recovery, to ultimately enter into rehabilitation and reintegration programs in their home countries. Many ISIS cadres can and will testify against each other and many are ready to confess to at least some of their crimes, if it means they can serve prison time at home. Likewise, their victims can testify against them, and the Yazidis, for instance, have been very frustrated that no one has taken their testimonies and helped them to prosecute their rapists for mass systemized rape. These women lived inside ISIS homes, witnessed ISIS atrocities and can provide a wealth of testimonies to result in successful prosecutions, but they need psychosocial and legal support to do so.

It is also true that some ISIS cadres have committed heinous crimes, and therefore may be totally unredeemable. They were rapists, murderers and sadists harming the local populations and they need to be seriously punished. But many also are now ready to confess to their crimes of fighting for ISIS and are ready to cooperate in being returned and prosecuted at home for the mistakes they admittedly made.

The SDF is already known for their bravery and being a good international partner to the Western nations in defeating ISIS militarily. Now they can also be a powerful partner in fighting ISIS on a psychosocial and ideological level in the prisons and camps where they are being held. This needs to start with assessment, evidence gathering, psychosocial counseling, ideological challenge when it is needed, and ultimately cooperation and making it easier and more palatable for Western countries to take them home prepared for prosecution and further rehabilitation. ISIS men and women we have interviewed repeatedly mention that the SDF is fair and does not use punitive measures for ISIS-committed atrocities and destruction. Many are ready to begin in rehabilitation. Likewise Western countries tell us that the politicians will take them home, but only if they are confident that they will not go free upon return to the West and can be successfully prosecuted and/or rehabilitated and will not constitute a danger to society.

The SDF has an opportunity to immediately start programs in the prison that are positive and can lead to these outcomes, but they need the international community to support them in doing so.

This involves immediately providing funding and technical expertise and support for prison treatment programs, which should occur without delay. Having helped to build the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in 2006 and 2007 for the U.S. Department of Defense for treating the 20,000-plus detainees, including 800 juveniles, then held by our forces (the first author), we know from experiences that treatment programs addressing psychosocial and ideological issues can be built even for large numbers of detainees. We also firmly believe that the SDF and Rojava political leaders will be positive partners in this regard. By supporting such efforts, we will also avoid repeating grievances, which will only contribute to giving rise to the continuation of violent extremism both globally and in the region. Failure to act could also lead to the rising up of the “son of ISIS,” in whatever iteration that may take, to continue with revenge for continued security violations and injustices carried out toward Muslims, including those who at one time believed joining ISIS was a good idea.

About the authors:

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=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials 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 been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as 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. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. 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. 

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (July 9, 2019) With International Help, SDF Can Lead in Prepping ISIS Fighters for Prosecution, Rehabilitation, Homeland Security Today.


[i] Author interviews with Rojava, Syria, officials, May 2019.
[ii] Informal discussion with a Dutch attorney, Rojava, July 8, 2019.
[iii] Rubin, J. A. (2019). “ French ISIS supporters on death row in Iraq ask for mercy,” The New York Times, available at
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Kurdistan24.(2019).” Transfer of ISIS suspects to Iraq raises torture concerns: HRW,” available at
[vi] Kurdistan24. (2019). “ Iraq asks France for millions to reverse death sentences for French nationals, report,” available at
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