Counter-Terrorism: Unacceptable Losses

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May 23, 2019: Egypt is under pressure to accept several hundred ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) captives held in Syria by the U.S. backed SDF (Kurdish led Syrian Defense Forces rebels). There are also over a thousand women and children related to the captive ISIL men or widows of dead Egyptian ISIL members under guard in SDF refugee camps. Egyptian counterterrorism experts and veterans of the 1990s Islamic terrorist campaign are convinced that most of these ISIL captives, especially the men and many of the women, cannot be rehabilitated.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s over a thousand Egyptian veterans of the Afghan war (or “Jihad against the heathen Russian communists) returned and formed the core of the Islamic terrorist force that caused several years of mayhem (and wrecked the tourism industry) along with over a decade of expensive counter-terrorism operations. Tourism is big business in Egypt and deliberately attacking foreign tourists, as Islamic terrorists tend to do, cost the Egyptian Islamic terrorists a lot of popular support and contributed to the defeat of the 1990s uprising.

ISIL has been active in Egypt for the last five years but the ISIL violence has been restricted to northern Sinai, where ISIL has some support from Hamas-run Gaza. Unlike the 1990s, this time around the Egyptians know how this plays out and what has to be done. There has been some Islamic terrorist activity in the more populated areas of Egypt, but the most extreme group (ISIL) has been isolated in Sinai and is being slowly exterminated in an area where there are relatively few Egyptian civilians and most of these have become hostile to ISIL. Then there is Israel, whose counterterrorism forces are just across the border, where there has been no detectable ISIL activity and the Israelis are willing to discreetly work with the Egyptians to track and attack any Egyptian ISIL forces that operate near the border or try to cross it.

In the northeast, Syria SDF is holding 9,000 ISIL fighters and 60,000 family members. The SDF is having a hard time getting the many nations these prisoners come from to take them back. Some 90 percent of these prisoners are Iraqi or Syrian while ten percent are from about 50 other countries. Iraq is willing to screen and prosecute about 31,000 returnees and Syria is preparing to do the same. But other foreign, especially Western, nations are refusing to take their citizens back. That’s because the legal systems in the West demand a higher degree of proof and Western authorities realize the ISIL family returnees, especially the mothers, are often still true believers and are teaching their children to think the same way. Most of these returnees would be turned loose by the courts for lack of sufficient evidence of past terrorist crimes or current attitudes. The Western nations do not want to raise another generation of Islamic terrorists within their borders. Meanwhile, the SDF is stuck with thousands of these women and children and has not got the resources to maintain them indefinitely.

Most Moslem majority nations with citizens among the adult ISIL members held captive are, like Egypt, reluctant to take back their citizens. These countries have even fewer resources to gather evidence of specific crimes their citizens committed while ISIL members. The wives and widows are an even more difficult problem. Many of these women are disillusioned with ISIL and want nothing to do with it anymore. But a significant percentage are still ISIL fanatics who openly harass and threaten women in the camps who no longer believe in ISIL. Most of these women have young children fathered by ISIL men (most of them deceased or missing) and previous experience with such situations indicates that many of the mothers, and children, will continue to support Islamic terrorism wherever they end up.

Egypt fears, based on past experience, that putting the ISIL captives from Syria in Egyptian jails will lead to the ISIL men radicalizing and recruiting other prisoners. Egypt could get around this by establishing a high-security prison just for ISIL and other hardcore Islamic terrorist prisoners. In this prison, the prisoners would be largely isolated from each other to prevent escape or uprising conspiracies. This approach is expensive and such a prison would be a permanent target for Islamic terrorist groups seeking to liberate their fellow terrorists. Then there are the wives, widows and children of Egyptian ISIL men. Many of these show up within a decade or two as a new generation of Islamic terrorists.

Some Egyptian counterterrorism professionals believe the returned ISIL men could be a source of information, especially if many were quickly convicted and executed for their crimes. This would encourage others to cooperate with the security forces. But to make that work you still have to imprison a lot of these ISIL captives for a long time and past experience has shown that many of them, even if cooperative at one time, often revert to advocates of extreme violence.

The SDF and the Americans have a major problem on their hands because interrogations so far have indicated that so many of these ISIL men surrendered rather than fight to the death because some were told by their leaders that in doing that they could eventually return home and establish ISIL new groups. Many of the ISIL men who surrendered want nothing to do with Islamic terrorism because of their experience with ISIL. Again, past experience has shown that while the disillusionment of these ISIL veterans is often real, in many cases it does not last and is even faked in a few cases.

Then there is the example of what is happening to the Syrian and Iraqi ISIL captives who have been handed over to their homeland governments. Many of the Syrian ISIL prisoners simply disappear. The Assads have a reputation for just murdering prison populations they find troublesome, inconvenient or whatever. The Iraqis are not as bad but tend to see the benefits of the Assad approach. Most other Moslem majority nations face similar grim choices and do not like to deal with it. Meanwhile, the SDF is negotiating a peace deal with the Assads and any agreement will probably not end well for the remaining ISIL prisoners that no nation is willing to accept.

 


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