As Islamic State’s caliphate withers, the fate of its foreign-born members looms over European nations

Kurdish militia keep watch in Baghouz al Fawqani, Syria, on Sunday as fighting continues in an area where Islamic State militants are said to remain.
(Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate once spanned territory larger than South Carolina. The extremist group controlled the lives of more than 8 million Iraqi and Syrian residents and established its own currency, a taxation system and a sprawling bureaucracy that went so far as to dictate what its subjects were allowed to wear and to think. Its fighters vowed they would conquer Rome, Paris and Washington.

Four years and a bloody military campaign later, all that’s left of Islamic State’s real estate holdings is a fraction of a square mile in a remote Syrian hamlet near the border with Iraq.

There, hundreds of the remaining militants and more than 1,000 members of their families were holed up on Sunday in Baghouz al Fawqani, surrounded by Kurdish-led militiamen allied with the U.S.


In recent days, tens of thousands of people have streamed out of the group’s shrinking enclave, many of them die-hard followers of Islamic State who moved repeatedly as the militant group ceded territory across Syria and Iraq.

On Saturday, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said their offensive had stalled at the edge of one of Baghouz’s neighborhoods, where officials said Islamic State militants had prevented the last civilians from leaving and were using them as human shields.

The fate of thousands of foreign-born Islamic State adherents now held in makeshift prisons and camps run by the Kurds has become the subject of heated global debate: Their home countries have long refused to repatriate them, viewing them as an unacceptable security risk and a political millstone.

President Trump waded into the issue late Saturday, tweeting that the caliphate “was ready to fall” and that the United Kingdom and other longstanding European allies should take back more than 800 Islamic State fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial — or see them released when some 2,000 U.S. military personnel withdrew from Syria.

“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.”

Kurdish officials Sunday reiterated the need to arrange repatriation.

“This large number of mercenaries is a burden and a danger to us and all the international community. It’s not just fighters, but thousands of women and children,” said Abdul Karim Omar, co-chairman of the SDF Foreign Relations Committee, in an interview.

The cost of housing families in the Al Hawl refugee camp, home to some 14,000 Islamic State suspects and 1,650 of the group’s family members (thousands of other Islamic State family members are sprinkled across a number of camps), runs upward of $100,000 per month, said Mohammad Karo, deputy head of the Kurds’ refugee affairs commission.

The children, Omar said, are especially vulnerable.

“They’re all raised in the mindset of terror. If they’re not sent back to their societies, rehabilitated and reintegrated, they themselves will be potential terrorists in the future,” said Omar. “Just because these people are in this area, that doesn’t mean they don’t represent a danger to the international community. It’s an opportunity for these nations to round their citizens up and either make them face justice at home or rehabilitate them.”

Few countries have heeded the call. In January, the SDF announced that Kazakhstan had taken back five fighters, 11 women and 30 children. Last week, Saudi Arabia’s foreign affairs minister Adel Jubeir said his government would take back some 50 Saudi men held in Kurdish custody.

Yet there is also the issue of justice for those victimized by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The fight to dislodge the group has left wide swaths of both Iraq and Syria in ruins. Residents singled out foreign members of Islamic State as being particularly vicious in applying harsh forms of their interpretation of Islamic law.

“These people appear in the media and say they were tricked. Had that been true, they would have run back when they first came and saw the situation wasn’t as Daesh [the Arabic word for the group] depicted it,” said Ali Baroodi, a university professor in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which in 2014 became Islamic State’s Iraqi capital. Half of it was later leveled in the fight to remove the militants.

He added that nations should place Islamic State members on trial in Nuremberg-style courts like those used to try Nazis.

Shamima Begum, 19, has become a focus in assessing international governments’ reactions.

The British teen, along with two of her friends, traveled to Islamic State as a 15-year-old schoolgirl in 2015. Within three weeks, according to interviews she gave to British media outlets, she had married Yago Riedijk, 26, a Dutch Muslim convert and fighter with Islamic State.

By the time she fled to Al Hawl earlier this week, she had given birth to two children who died as babies and was pregnant with a third. She was desperate to return to Britain, she said, for the safety of her soon-to-come baby but had nevertheless shown no remorse for joining Islamic State.

The British government, including British Home Secretary Sajid Javid, sought to block her return, cancel her passport and revoke her citizenship.

On Sunday, her family announced that Begum had given birth to a boy in Syria. Both she and the baby “were in good health,” according to the family’s statement.

Tasnime Akunjee, the family’s lawyer, said the U.K. should take responsibility for its citizens.

“You can’t remove someone’s citizenship and render them stateless,” said Akunjee in a telephone interview Sunday, adding that the U.K.’s international obligations meant that Begum had to be allowed to return home.

“In usual circumstances, states try to track people who commit crimes and bring them to justice. It’s interesting how the British government is accusing her of participating in some crime and yet is not interested at all in bringing her back to British justice. I’m still wondering why that’s the case.”

Begum, meanwhile, insisted she represented no threat.

“When I went to Syria, I was just a housewife. The entire four years I stayed at home, took care of my husband, took care of my kids. I never did anything. I never made propaganda, I never encouraged people to come to Syria,” she said in an interview with British broadcaster Sky News on Sunday, with her newborn at her side.

She was hoping, Begum said, “maybe for the sake of me and my child, they let me come back.”

“Because I can’t live in this camp forever. It’s not really possible.”