Foreigners who joined IS face imminent death in Raqqa

Foreigners who joined IS face imminent death in Raqqa
4 min read
22 October, 2017
As the final battle in Raqqa draws to a close, hundreds of foreign fighters remain in Syria, with few countries willing to recover their citizens who fought for IS.
Few countries are making an effort to take back citizens who joined IS [AFP]
The forces fighting the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria have tacit instructions on dealing with the foreigners who joined the extremist group by the thousands: Kill them on the battlefield.

As they made their last stand in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, an estimated 300 fighters were surrounded in and around a sports stadium and a hospital, and argued among themselves about whether to surrender, according to Kurdish commanders leading the forces that closed in.

The final days were brutal - 75 coalition airstrikes in 48 hours and a flurry of desperate IS car bombs that were easily spotted in the sliver of devastated landscape still under militant control.

No government publicly expressed concern about the fate of its citizens who left and joined IS in Syria. If anything, French defence minister Florence Parly was among the few to say something.

If the jihadis perish in this fight, I would say that's for the best

"If the jihadis perish in this fight, I would say that's for the best," Parly told Europe 1 radio last week.

Those were the orders, according to the US.

"Our mission is to make sure that any foreign fighter who is here, who joined IS from a foreign country and came into Syria, they will die here in Syria," Brett McGurk, the top US envoy for the anti-IS coalition said in an interview with Dubai-based al-Aan television.

"So if they're in Raqqa, they're going to die in Raqqa," he said.

No country will admit to refusing to take back citizens who joined IS, including women and their children. But few are making much of an effort to recover them.

In Iraq, hundreds of IS fighters have surrendered or have been taken into custody, and their families have been rounded up into detention camps. The men are put on trial and face the death penalty if convicted of terrorism charges - even if they are foreigners. One Russian fighter has already been hanged.

France, which routinely intervenes when citizens abroad face capital punishment, has said nothing about its jihadis in Iraq. More French joined the group than any other European country.

The camps for displaced civilians from Raqqa contain only foreign women and children. As for the fate of any French citizens there, France's foreign ministry had a short response: "Our priority today is to achieve a complete victory over IS."

German diplomats say all of the country's citizens are entitled to consular assistance.

As the final battle in Raqqa drew to a close, Parly estimated a few hundred French fighters were still in the war zone. For Germany, about 600 men were unaccounted for.

Britain has not said how many of its former citizens are believed still fighting, but at least one holdout posted a furious 72-minute monologue earlier this month from Raqqa as airstrikes and artillery fire boomed behind him.

He said Muslims around the world should be outraged at the treatment of IS followers.

"This is not me being an extremist. I'm a very moderate, mild person, alhamdulillah (thanks to God), and I find IS to be very moderate and mild," said the man, who called himself as Abu Adam al-Britani and was identified by British media as Yasser Iqbal, a Porsche-driving lawyer who defended IS's brutal practices as ordained by God.

He did not mention the group's routine public beheadings, enslavement of women or brainwashing of children to become hardened killers.

What worries me is I think it's wishful thinking that they're all going to be killed off.

At its height, between 27,000 and 31,000 may have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State group, according to an analysis by the Soufan Group. Of those, about 6,000 were from Europe, with most from France, Germany and Britain.

A majority had immigrant backgrounds and was heavily targeted by the group’s propaganda, which highlighted the injustices they faced at home. One study found that fewer than 10 percent of the Western fighters were converts to Islam.

As many as a third of the Europeans may have returned home. Many are jailed immediately and awaiting trial in backlogged courts, but others are freed and under surveillance.

"The general sentiment in northern Europe is we don't want these people back, but I don't think anyone has thought about the alternatives," said Pieter Van Ostaeyen, an expert on the Belgian jihadis.

Among the complications are how to prosecute any returnees and how to track them if and when they leave custody.

"You can see why almost the preferred resolution is that they don't return," said Bruce Hoffman, head of Georgetown University's security studies program and author of Inside Terrorism.

"What worries me is I think it's wishful thinking that they're all going to be killed off," he added.