The continued detention of former Islamic State fighters in Iraqi and Syrian camps is untenable, and more of them must be repatriated to their home countries, the US secretary of state said at a summit of the international coalition against Isis, held in Rome.
In remarks aimed primarily at the French and British, Antony Blinken said: “This situation is simply untenable. It just can’t persist indefinitely.
“The United States continues to urge countries – including coalition partners – to repatriate, rehabilitate and, where applicable, prosecute its citizens.”
France and Britain, two of the closest US allies, have resisted calls to bring back their citizens, fearing they have no way of reliably prosecuting them. They fear the courts will require the former Isis fighters to be given their freedom, and so impose a major burden on the intelligence services.
Blinken praised Italy, his hosts, as one of the few western European nations to repatriate its citizens and also hailed efforts by central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan, which he said had brought back 600 fighters and their family members and put them in rehabilitation programmes.
Before the summit, Mazloum Abdi, the leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish group that did more than any force to defeat Isis, also called on the coalition “to help return these people to their home countries, fund education and de-radicalisation programmes, and support stability and strong economic recovery in the liberated areas to address the root causes of extremism”.
Gen Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of the US Central Command, told the American Enterprise Institute in a webinar in late April that children at al-Hawl camp “are being radicalised, and unless we find a way to repatriate them, reintegrate them and de-radicalise them, we’re giving ourselves the gift of fighters five to seven years down the road, and that is a profound problem. It will be a military problem in a few years if we don’t fix the non-military aspects of it now”.
There are said to be 60,000 former Isis supporters held at al-Hawl camp in northern Syria.
The 83-nation coalition against Isis fractured under the presidency of Donald Trump partly due to his unilateral decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, so weakening the position of the Syrian Kurds, a decision that he later partially rescinded under pressure from allies and the US military.
Efforts have been stepped up to prosecute Isis supporters in Europe.
Recently, Belgium’s federal prosecution service announced that 14 Isis supporters would face trial this year for their alleged role in assisting the Paris attacks of November 2015 in which 130 people were killed. The man suspected of being the only surviving attacker, Salah Abdeslam, is to face trial in Paris in September.
The US had a relatively small number of citizens travel to Syria, but it says it has repatriated 28 Americans: 12 adults and 16 children. Ten of the adults have been prosecuted for terrorist offences.
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, warned Isis was repositioning itself in Africa in the wake of its military defeats in Iraq and Syria.
Overall, the coalition claims to have freed 8 million people from Isis’s control in Iraq and Syria, but foreign ministers were under pressure to recognise that the jihadist threat has moved geographically from the Middle East.
Raab announced £12.6m to help fight Isis in the Lake Chad basin. The funds will be used to support both the regionally-led military fight against Isis, and projects encouraging fighters to leave the terrorist group. Raab said in advance of the meeting: “Two years since Daesh’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, the threat of Daesh and its hateful ideology has not gone away. Worryingly it continues to grow in Africa which is why we must work with our coalition partners to fight its poisonous propaganda on all fronts.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with our African partners to tackle the growing threat from Daesh-linked groups across Africa, particularly in the Lake Chad basin. We must ensure there are no safe havens for Daesh.”
The Italian foreign minister also called on the coalition to set up a working party on Isis in Africa.
The shift will be welcomed by the French government, which has been battling terrorist groups in the Sahel for years.