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Trump Administration Pushes Europe to Try ISIS Suspects

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The irony is that some western European countries, whose representatives were appalled by America’s indefinite detention of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay after September 11, are now by default accepting a sprawling Guantánamo in the desert.

“Europeans seem to be fine with letting their own citizens sit there,” a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue, told me. This official said that the U.S. was working to identify its own citizens in the custody of America’s local Kurdish allies—the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF—and has repatriated four so far for trial. (One dual Saudi American citizen the U.S. had suspected of joining ISIS, but never brought to trial, was freed in Bahrain last year; in another case, the State Department controversially argued that an accused ISIS propagandist, Hoda Muthana, was not actually a citizen despite being born in Alabama.) But thousands of other foreign fighters—not even counting Iraqis and Syrians—are in makeshift prisons northeastern Syria.

Among democratic countries, which arguably have the best means to bring them to justice and hold them securely, there is very little interest in bringing them home to face prosecution—or even in bringing home the wives and children of ISIS fighters, who are being held separately in squalid detention centers.

A further irony is that authoritarian Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan, have been leading the way on repatriating their citizens from Iraq and Syria—especially women and children—and casting their efforts in humanitarian terms, Letta Tayler, a senior researcher in terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch, told me. “Western Europe is hiding its head in the sand when it should be taking care of its citizens,” said Tayler, who recently visited separate camps in northeastern Syria, where the families of suspected ISIS members are being held in conditions she described as squalid and horrifying. “If Kazakhstan can repatriate by the hundreds, surely western Europe, with far greater resources and far fewer suspects and family members … can do the same.” (Tayler has written that France, for example, has brought back 17 children—but has left at least 400 people, including children, behind.)

In a rare moment of praise for a post-Soviet dictatorship, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, said the country was showing “much needed leadership on the critical global issue.”

There are of course concerns that, public messaging aside, authorities in dictatorships like Kazakhstan may themselves abuse prisoners. Ní Aoláin highlighted the country’s use of domestic-counterterrorism laws against religious minorities and political dissenters. Tayler says Human Rights Watch has been pushing for transparency about what happens to prisoners in custody. But the broader significance of policies like Kazakhstan’s, she says, is that they expose the weakness of the western European argument that it’s too difficult or dangerous to take such suspects back.

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