The International Committee for the Red Cross is urging countries to handle captured ISIS fighters according to international legal standards, in the wake of the extremist group's loss of its so-called capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
The flow of foreign fighters to Syria, where thousands of would-be ISIS fighters flocked in recent years, has shown signs of reversing. The group once had tens of thousands of fighters at its command; last week, U.S. officials estimated that 3,000 to 7,000 were continuing to fight in Iraq and Syria.
NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports:
"In a call with journalists, Patrick Hamilton, the [ICRC] deputy regional director for the Near and Middle East, urged countries to deal with nationals who joined ISIS according to the rules of international humanitarian law.
"Many countries have not yet found a clear mechanism by which to determine the fate of returnees. Hamilton noted that there is 'extremely tense' and 'emotional' rhetoric around this question. But, he said, the 'law does offer a sober mechanism for dealing with this.' "
Hamilton's remarks came days after Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy for the coalition fighting the terrorist group, was quoted by multiple news outlets saying, "Our mission is to make sure that any foreign fighter who is here, who joined ISIS from a foreign country and came into Syria, they will die here in Syria."
McGurk has also spoken about the importance of controlling the flow of fighters back to other countries — and tracking their motions.
In a briefing with McGurk this week, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned anecdotal evidence of there being "as many as 40,000 foreign fighters from 120 different countries" in Iraq and Syria at one time.
In a newly released report on foreign fighters, security experts at the Soufan Group say that at least 5,600 people have now returned to 33 countries from ISIS-held territories. The report adds, "this represents a huge challenge for security and law enforcement entities."
As The New Yorker's Robin Wright writes, "On average, twenty to thirty per cent of the foreign fighters from Europe have already returned there—though it's fifty per cent in Britain, Denmark, and Sweden. Thousands more who fought for isis are stuck near the borders of Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq, and are believed to be trying to get back to their home countries.