Bottom Line Up Front
- On March 19, the coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State announced it was finally in control of Baghouz, IS’ last openly held territory in Syria.
- With tens of thousands of IS fighters and their families now captured, pressure is rapidly escalating as detention centers grow overcrowded and their conditions deteriorate.
- As seen in Camp Bucca during the Iraq War, sprawling detention centers can morph into breeding grounds for radicalization, creating the blueprint for the next iteration of terrorist organizations.
- Iraq’s judicial system is completely overwhelmed and unable to address this challenge, while Western countries, from where many foreign fighters hailed, are shirking their responsibilities to deal with their citizens.
During the surge of the U.S. war in Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqis were held in U.S. detention centers, including in Camp Bucca. It was within the confines of these overcrowded camps that the next iteration of terror germinated among detainees. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, these prisoners would become the future foot soldiers of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Aware of the potential of these prisoners, the group’s nascent leadership engineered a systematic and successful campaign called ‘Breaking the Walls’ that freed thousands of supporters from Iraqi-run centers. As with nearly every aspect of the cyclical ebb and flow of terrorism and counterterrorism in Iraq, the issue of overcrowded detention centers spawning another wave of terror is relevant once again. However, this time the situation could be far worse.
The territorial defeat of the Islamic State has been a hard fight for the Iraqi security services, and for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria. The imperative to topple the pseudo-terror state should now be matched by a similar sense of urgency to adequately address the issue of tens of thousands of captured Islamic State fighters and their families. There are currently more than 20,000 Iraqi prisoners being held under suspicion of belonging to or assisting IS; in addition, there are at least 1,000 foreign nationals held in Iraqi jails. These foreign fighters are now the subject of heated debates by governments reluctant to bring them home to face justice. There at least the same number, perhaps more, being held in Syria by the SDF in makeshift detentions centers that aren’t designed to be long-term prisons.
With the retaking of the small Euphrates River village of Baghouz in Syria, decisions on what to do with the rapidly growing number of Islamic State detainees and their families need to be finalized. Many countries in the West are eager to avoid the issue altogether. The SDF intends to send thousands more detainees to Iraq, which is unable to manage the prisoners it already has. Besides detainees, there are also tens of thousands of displaced persons who fled the fighting. Some of these individuals are most certainly Islamic State members, although determining who is who in such an environment is a nearly impossible task. Even with those difficulties, the U.S. and its European allies should not eschew responsibility for their citizens, especially considering the long-term security risks of doing so. There is also the difficult challenge of reconstruction and government reform in the ravaged territories of Iraq, which if left unresolved, will undoubtedly lay the groundwork for the Islamic State’s swift return to power in some of these areas.
To date, there is no clear strategy for the U.S. to translate tactical battlefield success into something sustainable. The Iraqi government is in desperate need of technical and legal assistance for its judiciary to help conduct transparent and fair trials for those being detained. The overcrowded detention centers are future ‘Buccas’ with the potential for the same toxic legacy. If IS detainees are perceived as being mistreated, it will only fuel the narrative propagated by the group and increase Sunni Muslims’ grievances and perception of an oppressive and illegitimate Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. The Iraqi people need and deserve justice.