Turkey to Europe: Take Back Your Islamic State Fighters

Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered armored vehicle on the main road of Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014. (AP Photo, File)

(CN) – European countries are coming under more pressure to take back and prosecute their citizens who left Europe to fight for the Islamic State and who are now held in captivity in Syria and Turkey.

Over the weekend, Turkey’s interior minister said Islamic State fighters in Turkish custody will be sent back to their home countries even if they have been stripped of their European citizenship after joining the terrorist organization.

“We are not a hotel for IS members from any country,” Suleyman Soylu, the interior minister, told reporters on Saturday.

His statements amounted to a threat and add to the heightened tensions that exist between the European Union and Ankara after Turkey invaded northern Syria last month in a push to drive out Kurdish forces along its southern border.

Resolving what to do with IS fighters is a legal and political conundrum for Europe. By not accepting to repatriate their citizens, European countries are accused of permitting their citizens to wind up in highly flawed and brutal justice systems in Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, IS fighters, including seven French nationals, have been condemned to death after hasty trials and in Syria experts say IS fighters also face the death penalty at grossly unfair trials. Experts also say IS prisoners face torture in both Syria and Iraq. The death penalty has been banned in every EU country.

IS fighters are blocked from being sent to face charges at the International Criminal Court because Syria does not recognize The Hague-based court. Also, Russia and China have vetoed efforts to allow that court to have jurisdiction in the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, efforts to set up an international tribunal dedicated to handling IS fighters have gone nowhere.

Turkey’s invasion has left it in control of IS fighters who were in Kurdish custody, according to Turkish officials. Prior to Turkey’s incursion, Kurdish forces held about 12,000 IS fighters in custody. Of those, about 8,000 were Iraqis and Syrians but between 2,000 and 4,000 were fighters from 50 other countries, including hundreds from Europe. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of family members of detainees – many of them from Europe – are also held in camps.

Even before the invasion into Syria, Turkey had about 1,300 jihadists in custody and many of those are from Europe, according to news reports.

European countries have been under pressure from the United States, Turkey and the Kurds to take back citizens who went to fight for the terrorist group. Until now, Europe largely has refused to repatriate fighters. Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Great Britain saw large numbers of people join the jihadists.

Europeans have used a range of arguments for their refusal to bring the IS fighters home. They’ve argued that the IS fighters should be prosecuted where the crimes took place and that bringing IS fighters back to Europe could lead to acquittals due to the difficulty of gathering evidence from the war zone in Syria. The worry is that captured IS fighters would wind up going free once they are returned to Europe and would commit terrorist acts.

But European leaders are also concerned about the political fallout of bringing IS fighters back to Europe. In many European countries anti-Islamic sentiment is running very high and fueling the rise of far-right political parties.

To stop the return of IS militants, a few European countries have stripped citizenship from captured fighters.

“The world has devised a new method. They say ‘Let’s strip them of their citizenship, let them be tried where they are,” Soylu, the Turkish interior minister, said.

Soylu said Turkey would not accept this view and will send IS “members to their countries whether they strip them of their citizenship or not.”

Under the New York Convention of 1961 it is illegal to leave someone stateless, but several countries, including Britain and France, have not ratified this convention.

Among more than 100 people stripped of citizenship in the U.K., British authorities also withdrew the citizenship of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, two of the so-called “Beatles,” a group of IS fighters from the U.K. who were allegedly involved in beheadings. After Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the U.S. took both men into custody because they were deemed so dangerous.

“We offered the U.K. ones, and they didn’t want them,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a radio interview last week. “As usual, the United States gets stuck with it.”

Trump complained that European countries are avoiding their responsibility.

“Many of these people came from France, Germany, the U.K.,” Trump said. “[The Europeans] were all so happy when we captured them. Good, now you can take them back and try them.”

On Monday, German media said Turkey was demanding that Germany take back 20 IS fighters. In all, about 80 German citizens are believed to be in custody in Syria and Turkey, according to Germany’s interior ministry.

Fahrettin Altun, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper on Monday that four German IS fighters were captured since Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-held Syria. Turkey said it already had 16 German nationals in its custody that it wanted to send back to Germany.

At least one IS fighter has been brought back to Europe to face prosecution. Other IS members who returned to Europe have also been prosecuted.

In June, Italy repatriated Samir Bougana, an Italian citizen who allegedly joined IS in 2014. He was captured in Syria by Kurdish forces in August 2018 and then brought back to Italy to face trial.

A German national identified only as Jennifer W. who joined IS was put on trial in April in Munich for allegedly enslaving a 5-year-old Yazidi girl and allowing her to die of thirst. She was deported back to Germany in 2016 and court proceedings are ongoing. Other women who returned to Germany are on trial or have been convicted for their involvement with IS.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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