The plot of the 1972 French surrealist film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie centers around a group of high falutin friends who keep trying to convene for a meal but are interrupted each time right before they begin to dine. One rendezvous is undone by a date mix-up between host and guests, another by a corpse in a restaurant, a third by a surprise visit from a military battalion, another when the cafe where the group chooses to meet runs out of tea and coffee and milk. The film ends without the group finishing a single meal.
The story could be a metaphor for a pattern playing out today in European capitals, although we may hope the current iteration has a different ending. The dilemma here comes not from an absurdist plotline but from a very real problem: the fate of European foreign fighters accused of fleeing to Syria to join the Islamic State.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) still detain around 800 European foreign fighters; the exact number is hard to pin down. European countries don’t want the men to return to European soil but have run into dead-ends with every attempt to get around repatriation.
Alternative plans to try the men, like that group meal in the Luis Buñuel film, always seem to come to naught. The European countries were going to assemble an international tribunal, but a coalition never materialized. They were going to pawn the alleged jihadists off on Iraqi courts, but Iraq devolved into civil disorder. SDF authorities, frustrated by the inaction of European governments, offered up another end-run in February: The administration would try the accused Europeans in their own local courts. But the proposal met its end in early April, felled by the novel coronavirus and punctuated by a particularly violent attempted jailbreak.
Voice of America reported on April 2 that the trials have now been “postponed indefinitely” in light of the global coronavirus outbreak. I have not seen anything in the way of official comment on the development from European countries, although European governments never had much to say publicly about the plan in the first place.
This news came just three days after riots by Islamic State detainees at an SDF prison that the AP described as “one of the most serious uprisings by the prisoners since the Islamic State group's defeat a year ago.”
The riots took place at a prison in the northeastern city of Hassakeh that houses a large cohort of foreign fighters. Wilson Fache, writing in Haaretz, described hearing “French, English, Arabic, Russian” in the detention center during a December visit. Trouble began Sunday night “when former IS [Islamic State] members held there began knocking down doors and digging holes in walls between cells.” Haaretz reports that some detainees made it out of the prison but police eventually tracked down the escapees. An SDF commander described the events slightly differently, focusing on the net result: “No prisoners escaped.” SDF authorities managed to quell the uprising within a day.
Permutations of the same problem have recently plagued the SDF camps holding, among others, roughly 13,000 Islamic State-affiliated foreign women and children.
While the outbreak has prompted an indefinite abandonment of the SDF proposal for male fighters, it has also impacted the repatriation process of European women and children. A report from the International Crisis Group quoted a “Western official” who commented that the coronavirus “definitely means a halt to repatriations.” In the official’s account, the freeze doesn’t appear to stem from any public health concerns but, instead, from simple resource scarcity: “[No one] can commit resources to repatriation now or for the foreseeable future,” the official conceded. And on April 21, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Philippe Goffin commented that the government has no immediate plans to repatriate Belgian children in the SDF camps.
But Belgian journalist Guy Van Vlierden told me that “in Belgium, discussions are still going on” about how to actually achieve repatriation of Belgian children (but not their mothers) stuck in Syria. According to Van Vlierden, this most centrally involves conversations about how to convince the children’s mothers and the SDF authorities, who remain opposed to family separation, to allow unaccompanied children to return to Belgium. And elsewhere on the continent, one country went forward with a one-off repatriation: France on April 22 repatriated a seven-year-old suffering from a serious medical problem, flying her back from Al-Hol camp in a medical plane but leaving her mother in Syria.
European governments have been more forward-leaning in repatriating women and children (particularly the latter group) than they have been with the European men confined in prisons like the one in Hassakeh. But the pace of repatriations for women and children has hardly been frenetic. European countries still decide repatriations largely on a bespoke basis, and individual cases routinely lead to protracted litigation. Nonetheless, any suspension would be an indefinite extension of an already slow ordeal. As the International Crisis Group puts it, “The painfully slow process of repatriation by home governments, already so fraught within states’ domestic politics, is now frozen, and it will take a monumental effort to make it a priority again anytime in the near future.”
And although full-scale riots have not broken out recently at the women and children’s camps, the camps have seen a rash of escape attempts from high-profile European detainees.
Van Vlierden tweeted on April 7 that two European women tried to escape from the Roj detention camp, but police ultimately tracked them down. Both women—Belgian Cassandra Bodart and French citizen Saïda El Ghaza—had recently gone through the wringer of repatriation battles. A Belgian court convicted Bodart in absentia for activity related to her ties to the Islamic State. She sought repatriation, but a court denied her appeal and was unmoved by an appeal from the U.N. Committee Against Torture. In June 2019, El Ghaza separated from her two children so that they could be flown back to France (Paris has a presumption against granting repatriation to French women who joined the Islamic State). Van Vlierdan noted that the two women’s attempted escape was doomed from the start: They had renounced the Islamic State in detention and stopped wearing veils, two decisions he describes as “dangerous” in the camps. Successful escapees, he noted, often rely on strong Islamic State ties “giving them access to networks and money needed to succeed.” This support is usually not available to those who turn their back on the group.
Then on April 17, reports emerged that one of the highest-profile European women in SDF custody had attempted to flee from Al-Hol camp with her 17-year-old son. The Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism detailed that the pair had mixed results: SDF authorities eventually caught up to Mylène Foucre, but her son has so far evaded authorities (though there has been little in the way of follow-up reporting).
The two belong to a family—“la Famille Clain”—synonymous in France with radicalization and Islamic State violence. Foucre’s husband and the boy’s father is Fabien Clain, the man dubbed by a French newspaper as “the voice of the Paris attacks” after he narrated the video in which the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the horrific November 2015 massacre. The New York Times described the elder Clain, who was killed in a February 2019 airstrike, as “one of the most prominent foreign members of the Islamic State.” Other branches of the family got involved with the Islamic State, and even within the family the Clains exhibit close to the range of possible outcomes for foreign fighters: Foucre and her son were detained in an SDF camp; Fabien died in an airstrike; Fabien’s brother, Jean-Michel, achieved prominence within the group before dying in a March 2019 mortar shelling; the brothers’ niece tried to flee Syria for Turkey in July 2019 before being detained by the Turks and ultimately arrested by the French (who have a treaty obligation to repatriate those deported by Turkey); and her husband, Kevin Gonot, was among the 11 Islamic State affiliates whom France infamously allowed to be executed in Iraq this past July.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that the riots cropped up at a prison with a large foreign fighter population and that there has been a spate of escape attempts from well-known European women. But the instability in the foreign fighter populations in prisons and camps likely reflects broader frustration among Europeans still detained in Syria. The time that European governments have spent ping-ponging and stalling on the fate of foreign fighters has come at the cost of frustrating European Islamic fighters and affiliates who want a clear answer on what will happen to them.
One Belgian Islamic State fighter told Voice of America that the long delay to get any sort of justice is, in the article’s paraphrase, “angering prisoners.” The man plainly laid out his frustrations to the reporter: “Give me a trial and sentence me to 100 years or shoot me in the head …. But no more of this waiting.” Haaretz reported that a local TV station broadcast security camera footage of the Hassakeh riot, in which “men in orange jumpsuits can be seen holding a banner to the camera demanding that their human rights be respected.”
Similar frustrations percolate in the women and children’s camps. European women like Bodart, the Belgian would-be escapee, often believe “it's [their] right to be repatriated[,]” but their governments seldom feel the same way. Lawyers advocate in European courts for their repatriation while the women wait in overcrowded camps in Syria. Both Western and SDF officials have long worried about the prospect of a riot at Al-Hol, “where tensions flared regularly between militant women and camp guards.” The camp is a dangerous mix of overcrowded and underresourced. It has more residents (just under 70,000 people) than Carson City, Nevada (55,414), and a British court recently ruled that conditions inside the camp constitute “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law.” Indeed, the camp has seen detainees stab guards, among other bursts of violence.
The looming threat of a pandemic will likely only exacerbate frustration among European detainees.
The coronavirus has not yet arrived in full force in Syria. But on April 17, SDF authorities reported the first death from the disease in their autonomous region—a 54-year-old man died in Hassakeh, the same city in which the prison with the riot is located. Both the men’s prison and the women’s camps are unprepared for any potential outbreak. In one part of Hassakeh prison, 100 men crowd into a small room; women at Al-Hol comment that the camp doesn't have enough water for even normal levels of handwashing. Any outbreak may prove particularly dangerous for foreign women, because the “foreigners’ annex” has not had direct access to medical services for months “due to difficult access negotiations between aid groups and camp authorities.” Reports have already emerged of anxieties among female detainees about a potential outbreak. On the men’s side, an SDF spokesperson denied that there was a link between the coronavirus and the riots. But the timing of the uprising raises questions about whether virus-related anxieties could have contributed to the unrest.
At the end of the day, European countries want to avoid attacks on the continent from foreign fighters. Returnees from Iraq and Syria have already killed a lot of people on European soil—many of the Paris attackers, for example, had recently come back from time in the then-caliphate. Preventing such attacks from cropping up again is an obviously worthwhile goal and hardly a straightforward one to achieve. But prolonging the uncertainty for their citizens who have been detained could prove antithetical to that aim.
I’ve written before about the security concerns entailed by not repatriating foreign fighters raised by French anti-terror judge David De Pas. He worries that failing to repatriate fighters “runs a security risk” in France. In De Pas’s view, how can France really keep track of the fighters without “having them on hand” in its own courts? The longer the European men and women of the Islamic State remain in Syria, the more difficult that tracking becomes. In extreme examples, detainees like the 17-year-old “fils Clain” fall off the radar entirely if they manage to escape.
There’s an additional problem compounding De Pas’s worry. Observers have long feared reradicalization in the camps for women and children. The Telegraph, for example, reported that some have referred to Al-Hol using the moniker “Camp Bucca II,” a reference to the U.S.-run detention center in Iraq that “was formative in the development of” the Islamic State. And keeping thousands of men and women in legal limbo seems unlikely to benefit deradicalization efforts. Quotes from detainees make clear that the flip-flopping positions of European governments breed frustration and antipathy.
To be clear, it’s not as if alternative choices pose no issues on this front. Should European countries manage to overcome the very real evidentiary concerns associated with trying foreign fighters in European courts, radicalization problems also loom large in European prisons (although a recent report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point suggests those concerns may be “overblown”). But prisoners in Europe do at least have some clarity about their legal status and, in De Pas’s words, are “on hand.”
Nor were the SDF trials all that promising an option. Getting them off the ground was never a sure thing, and it’s unclear if, when the pandemic stabilizes, the local authorities will again start trying to set up the infrastructure to hold them. But the two-month life cycle of the proposal feels representative of the overall bizarreness of the situation.
Thomas Renard—a senior fellow at Belgium’s Egmont Institute and keen watcher of all things foreign fighters—reflected on the demise of the SDF proposal, writing, “I have argued before that ISIS trials by Kurdish forces offered a mere illusion of justice and security. Now that illusion has just vanished in front of our eyes.” Renard’s take is (justifiably) harsh. But his word choice aptly captures the strange nature of the proposal and those that have predated it.
Repatriation does pose extremely legitimate logistical, legal and security challenges. But it’s a tangible solution. By contrast, the alternative proposals devised by European governments (and the desperate SDF authority) have so far been extravagant. Quickly assembling the necessary coalition and then standing up an ad hoc international tribunal? Effectively turning Iraq into Europe’s executioner? Those ideas have, to borrow Renard’s word, an “illusory” quality to them.
Strung together, the proposals and their inevitable downfalls look like a year spent reaching for far-fetched alternatives. The problem hasn’t resolved itself in the meantime.
Maybe the next alternative idea will materialize. But for now, the sequence of failed attempts feels, well, a bit surreal.