Published at The Arab Weekly
From May 26 to June 3, Iraq’s government sentenced to death 11 Islamic State operatives who had been captured in Syria. The novelty in the cases was that the Iraqis said the militants were French and ten of them were. The other was Tunisian.
The French government has made a pro forma protest against the death sentences but did nothing to impede the process. This is of a piece with the general approach European countries, including Britain, have taken to their citizens who joined jihadi groups in the Levant.
Agence France-Presse compiled the biographies of the condemned men. It is clear most of them are hardened extremists committed to jihadism for a long time and that most of them got their start in France.
Mourad Delhomme, for example, a 41-year-old of Algerian extraction, is a veteran of France’s jihadist scene. On the stand, Delhomme denied he was a member of the Islamic State (ISIS) and claimed to have been in Syria on a humanitarian rescue mission.
Kevin Gonot, 32, is married to a niece of Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain, infamous pillars of the French jihadist infrastructure who were killed in the final battle of the caliphate this year. Gonot was injured fighting for ISIS as it tried to overrun Kobane in late 2014 and early 2015, an effort only turned back by US air power.
Even Mohammed Berriri, the Tunisian citizen, was radicalised in France. Berriri, who is the youngest of the condemned at 24, travelled to the ISIS-held areas of Syria from Nice in south-eastern France.
This underlines France’s dereliction of responsibility. The attempt to prevent the return of extremists created in the West who have terrorised people in the Fertile Crescent — to hand this issue off to others — has been a consistent feature of policy from the outbreak of these foreign fighter flows.
One way Western states have tried to prevent ISIS returnees is to kill them in theatre. France was reported in May 2017 to have sent special forces to kill its citizens who had joined ISIS. The United States bluntly and publicly stated that “annihilation tactics” were being adopted for the final phase of the anti-ISIS campaign.
Another tactic is the removal of citizenship when the ISIS militant has a second citizenship. This, again, transfers responsibility for citizens onto others and creates a two-tier citizenship structure, by imposing a penalty on dual nationals that cannot be applied to others.
Britain took this a step further with Shamima Begum, who was 15 years old when she left Bethnal Green and joined ISIS in 2015, by stripping her citizenship on grounds she could apply for Bangladeshi citizenship.
As with the French use of special forces to eliminate citizens who joined ISIS, the British decision in the Begum case is not only morally questionable but quite possibly breaches local law (and perhaps international law) but the harsh measures to stop terrorist citizens returning are very politically popular.
Popularity is not the sole reason Western governments pursued this course: Western security services are overwhelmed by the scale of this problem and the return of experienced militants who cannot be jailed under the laws of Western liberal systems is the last thing any of them need. However, political popularity is a powerful part of the incentive structure when democratic governments formulate policy.
There is another sense in which France is failing in its duties. Putting aside Paris’s opposition on principle to the death penalty, even the worst citizens deserve a fair trial and there is simply no way of claiming that is what these men got from the Iraqi judicial system.
In December, the New Yorker’s Ben Taub documented how Iraq was dealing with suspected members of ISIS. After a spasm of lawless revenge killings, once Mosul was retaken in 2016, those taken into custody are being tried in proceedings that never last more than 10 minutes, where capital sentences are virtually universal, even when the defendants are physically incapable of the crimes they are accused of.
The final notable part of this story is the geopolitics. These prisoners were captured in Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the West’s partner force, and handed over to Baghdad. The United States has used the heavily infiltrated Iraqi state to deniably coordinate with Iran against ISIS, notably in Deir ez-Zor. That is one element here.
The other element is related to the SDF itself, which was chosen precisely because it has cordial relations with Iran and its Syrian proxy, Bashar Assad’s regime. Whatever view one takes of the wisdom for the West of replacing ISIS with Iran, the most important flaw was that the populations liberated from ISIS had no intention of accepting the influence of Iran or Assad.
The protests in the SDF areas of eastern Syria, triggered primarily by the SDF sending the region’s oil to fuel the Assad-Iran war machine, threaten to unravel the SDF’s governing structure and with it the West’s stabilisation policy.