Following the rout of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in and around Raqqa, hundreds of ISIL fighters are now in the custody of US-backed opposition groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Free Syrian Army. These groups do not have the capacity to undertake long-term detention operations in compliance with international humanitarian law. Many of those detained are foreign fighters, who hail from outside the region and from U.S. allies. During a meeting in Rome this week, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is expected to urge members of the anti-ISIL coalition to take back their nationals to determine the best course of action. According to a Pentagon spokeswoman:
We are working with the coalition [against Isis] on foreign fighter detainees, and generally expect these detainees to return to their country of origin.
That may be an appropriate disposition for many of these foreign fighters. However, there are two such combatants in SDF control—El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey—who can, and should, be prosecuted here in the United States in federal courts.
Elsheikh and Kotey are members of a group of British jihadis dubbed “The Beatles.” The two men are linked to the British terrorist Mohammed Emwazi (a.k.a. “Jihadi John”), who was killed in a 2016 air strike, and have been stripped of their citizenship. The two are believed to have been involved in the 2014 beheadings of at least three U.S. citizens—Journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid worker and former Army Ranger Peter Kassig—as well as the deaths and mistreatment of multiple other ISIL hostages. All three beheadings were gruesomely captured on trophy videos in which the journalists appear in orange jumpsuits reminiscent of early Guantanamo photographs. US personnel have apparently already interrogated the two men and confirmed their identities. The mother of James Foley has urged the prosecution of her son’s killers.