Let ISIS Fighters Go Home, U.S. Says

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis answers questions during the daily White House briefing, February 7, in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty

The United States is lobbying its partners to let their fighters from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) return home from Syria to face justice there.

Top U.S. officials are calling on coalition allies to repatriate the foreign fighters who have been captured by the Syrian Kurds.

"We're working with the coalition on foreign fighter detainees, and generally expect these detainees to return to their country of origin for disposition," said Kathryn Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, the Associated Press reported.

"Defense ministers have the obligation and the opportunity to really explain to their other ministers or their other Cabinet officials just the importance to the mission, to the campaign, to make sure that there's an answer to this problem."

European security services have long feared the return of thousands of foreign ISIS fighters to their home countries. But those who are returned as captives also pose problems for governments about what they should do with them.

Last week, two British nationals believed to have been members of the infamous ISIS cell known as The Beatles because of their British accents were detained in Syria. The British government has appeared reluctant to accept the return of El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey to face justice.

Any trial of a returnee would require evidence, and when these militants are captured in the field, there is not always sufficient evidence to prosecute them at home, meaning they could be released into society. The fear is that they will seek to carry out extremist attacks on home soil.

President Donald Trump has ordered the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, but it remains unclear if foreign fighters will be held there. Dozens of accused militants have been held at the facility without trial, many for years.

Mattis told reporters on Sunday that a Turkish military operation in northern Syria against Washington's Kurdish allies was weakening the battle to fully defeat ISIS in the country by forcing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to siphon off troops to fight in that battle.

The operation, known as Olive Branch, has led to strained relations between the NATO allies. Turkey opposes the presence of the Syrian Kurds along its southern border, saying the group has close ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that it considers to be an extremist group.

Mattis lamented "the distraction of what's going on up in Afrin right now, which is drawing off some of the [SDF] forces, which have got about 50 percent."

The Syrian Kurds have acted as one of the U.S.-led coalition's most reliable partners in the ground battle to oust the jihadi group from its territory in northern and eastern Syria. In October, ISIS lost the biggest Syrian city it controlled, Raqqa, to the SDF forces.

In Iraq, the coalition supported the Iraqi military as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga to wrest the areas claimed by ISIS there since mid-2014.