It has seemed an intractable problem. What to do with hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters, accused of atrocities, but caught in such a legal quagmire that nobody even wanted to punish them?
Yet, in a sign of the seriousness of the crisis unfolding in northeastern Syria, the two British members of an ISIS cell known as the Beatles, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, were swiftly transferred to US military custody on Wednesday, ending months of legal and moral wrangling about what to do with them.
The two surviving members of the cell were accused of being behind the torture that preceded the execution of several Western ISIS hostages. In an interview with CNN earlier this year, they denied violence, but confessed to assisting in ransom negotiations, for which Elshafee said he was sorry.
The legal wrangling was partly of the UK’s own doing, and partly a product of the sheer chaos of Syria’s breakdown. The UK quietly stripped the pair of their citizenship, a move designed to prevent their return and also reduce the UK’s responsibility for them. Yet it created a legal hurdle, and it made it even more complex, UK officials said, to repatriate them to face charges.
Another hurdle was the fact they were being held by Syrian Kurds, in a part of Syria where there was no officially recognized government. An extradition back to the UK, in these circumstances, might be argued by a competent defense lawyer to amount to unlawful rendition. Coupled with that was the possibility that the UK’s case against the surviving Beatles would rely on witness statements, or confidential intelligence gathered by allies and covert means.
In short, most UK officials I spoke to seemed to think the best chance of the pair facing justice would come if they stood trial in the United States. US legislation and courts have wider scope to prosecute such cases — and the pair are accused of harming US citizens.
Yet the problem was proving intractable, as evidenced by the decline in the pair’s morale. In 2018 they were cocky interviewees; in 2019 they were broken, asking for any change in their circumstances at all — anything to break the uncertainty.
But it is telling that despite President Trump’s now twice-repeated assurance that Turkey would take custody of all the ISIS detainees (how they are to be transferred to Turkish custody from a war zone remains unclear), the US swiftly acted to take control of this pair.
Could others follow? Perhaps less high-profile detainees could be passed to other nations to ensure they are no longer a threat? Could Iraq, which has dispensed swift and lethal sentences to many ISIS members, often in a matter of minutes, be asked to take more?
These join the other multitude of questions that the Turkish intervention into Syria has sparked. Yet their urgency and the swift action of Washington — despite its assurances that Turkey would help out — betray the scope of the chaos ahead and the collapse in Ankara and Washington’s alliance.