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Trials against ISIS

Helmut Sorge | Posted : August 15, 2018


It was a cage. A size large enough to transport six sheep to the market. The cage was made out of wood, possibly the local carpenter was praised for his work by the President of the court.  Wood is difficult to find these days, wood to resist the fury of a human being, forced to stand in the cage and listen to the verdict for his or her crime -- death by hanging, or life in prison. The woman standing in the cage on one of these hot, muggy days in Baghdad seemed fragile, yet controlled. She did not wail or cry or shout to the three judges facing her. Possibly Djamila Boutoutao, 29-year-old and mother of a two year old daughter, was expecting the darkness of the sentence, since she was familiar with darkness of war.  Her husband was killed in 2016, two years after they had arrived from their hometown Lille in the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State. A year later she lost her son, Abdullah.

Yes, war has only dark sides, if we exclude heroism, the white flag of surrender and polished medals. The spirit suffers, the mind turns numb. 

“I am going mad here,” the accused admitted, “no one tells me anything, not the ambassador, not the people in prison.” She is a French citizen, but the French government did not send a consular officer to help her in the defense, being charged of having been a member of ISIS.  International   law would require a country to take care of their citizens once they made their way home. Governments are not obliged, though, to actively repatriate them. What else does the French prisoner and all her co-defendants remember, but broken promises, bombs, mines and dead bodies? Women, children, and the old , very grey and very wrinkled generation, their fear weighing more than the luggage with which they tried  to  escape, if you can call a cardboard box luggage.

Djamila Boutoutao’s husband has turned into a martyr. She is facing 20 years in jail. Her child condemned to live in an orphanage, if the French institutions and politicians have no pity for the girl whose mother will be tumbling into a depression once realizing her fate. 1,100 children are facing the unthinkable, life on the dark side of the street.  Abandoned. Innocent, but punished.

In court, most of the estimated 500 incarcerated, foreign women, maintain that they had no choice but to follow their husbands. Obey ISIS or you suffer. Some were forced by their fathers into the   senseless war. Others were talked into marrying a fighter in the caliphate by their brothers, who replaced feelings with Kalashnikovs. Many of the defendants husbands’ were killed in Iraq in battle against the US-backed forces fighting ISIS while some of the other men were killed in Syria. “I never wanted to come to Iraq,” Farida, 23, tells the judge. She claims her husband, Ursalan, who was killed in an airstrike in Iraq, had “deceived her.” “He told me we were going to Turkey,” Farida explained.  

Zarina, 34, declares she worked as a sales manager in Russia’s Dagestan region and went to Turkey to study. She says after her husband was killed in Syria, ISIS forced her to marry a wounded man in Iraq, who was mentally ill. “I do not believe in ISIS. I just want to go home,” Zarina stated. 


On April 28, a group of foreign women were led into court. All of them, except one of the accused sitting in a wheel chair and apparently too ill to stand trial, were sentenced to life in prison. The law seems clear: “Anyone helping to commit a terrorist act shall face the same penalty as the perpetrator.” Moreover, “Anyone who intentionally covers up a terrorist act or harbors a terrorist with the purpose of concealment shall be sentenced to life in prison.”  

Often court appointed lawyers are shown summaries of the investigative notes only minutes prior to the final day in court, when one of the three judges asks a few questions, which, most likely, will not change the verdict. The cases have been passed through an investigative court. At the final stage, each case is wrapped up in less than 10 minutes.  Despite pleas by Human Rights Watch, there has been no sign of lawyers playing a more active role, or the judiciary seeking   more   substantive evidence for prosecution.   
Belkis Wille, Senior Iraq and Qatar researcher for Human Rights Watch, considers a serious concern that “the vast majority of cases rely solely on confessions,” and that “torture is extensively practiced  to extract these confessions.”

Iraq, the Associated Press (AP) claimed, has detained at least 19,000 people accused of connections to ISIS or other terrorist related activities, and sentenced more than 3,130 to death since 2012. During the same period, 8,861 of 27,849 detainees were convicted of terrorism related charges. Another 11,000 people, the AP claims, are currently being detained by the intelligence branch of the Interior Ministry undergoing interrogation or awaiting trial. During the last five years about 250 executions of convicted ISIS members have been carried out. At the end of last June, the Prime Minister of Iraq ordered the immediate execution of all convicted jihadists on death row in retaliation for the ISIS killing of eight members of the paramilitary force. 13 of the condemned were executed, and, supposedly, other former ISIS fighters will be hanged in an act of revenge. 


In February of this year, the Baghdad Central Criminal Court delivered death sentences to 16 Turkish women, convicted for alleged involvement with ISIS; a few months later a woman from Azerbaijan and another from Kyrgyzstan were found guilty and will be executed if the appeal confirms the verdict. The sentencing is following a rather simple path -- “…any foreigner who lived in ISIS territory is considered to have joined ISIS and remained loyal to them,” explains Suhail Abdullah Saber, head of the Fortified Court, “They wanted to live in the Islamic State and they believed in it.” These foreigners knowingly entered Iraq illegally, and lived in houses of people displaced by the group.”If we allowed people who joined ISIS without any punishment, that would be an injustice to the people they harmed.”

"The law," says the head of the court, "punishes the criminal and gives justice to the victim."

The attempt to master history of an evil civil war through justice is honorable, but the system is in agony. Its judgments, at times, are perverting the course of justice. Trials for thousands of terrorists would suffocate most judiciary systems in western democracies as well, but in their eagerness to come to terms with the past and find closure, the Iraqis have abandoned basic principles of law. Hardly any witnesses are called and most of the state-appointed lawyers are left without any real contact to their clients. Translators are missing, as well as investigators and judges, and the jails are overcrowded. Baghdad’s prosecutors do not offer irrefutable proof of guilt in many cases. No debates or cross-examinations, but assumption – simply guilt through association. Married to a terrorist. Is that enough evidence to justify a hanging?  Should all the women of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, who were married to holocaust criminals, have been jailed for life by the victorious allied powers? Or executed? The truth is this: the government is attempting to project a semblance of a functional court system.


The trial rooms of the Baghdad Central Criminal Court – built by the Americans 15 years ago– are showing signs of wear and tear. They have held thousands of terrorist trails since Iraq passed its antiterrorism law in 2005. Nasiriyah Central Prison, the maximum-security prison, located 320 kilometers from the capital, houses 6,000 prisoners, many of them accused of terrorism related activities.

The Guardian reported on May 22, “The Baghdad courtroom was bustling with men who were shuffled into a dock in the centre of the room. A group of 12 men were sentenced to death by hanging, and then escorted back to their cells.” No time to be remorseful and no tears to waste. War is brutal and the conquerors seldom mellow. About 40,000 foreigners had joined this illusion of the caliphate, ready to kill, accepting the mutilation of children, beheading aid workers and reporters, destroying art and culture all the while, betraying the noble wisdom of the prophet with their excessive self-righteousness. A couple thousand ISIS fighters have been KIA, killed in action, but how many have blended into the migrant masses hitting European shores? An estimated 1,900 ISIS members were of French nationality, 800 British and between 250 and 300 American. Are they unrepentant, still driven by their demons, ready to return with destructive action?


European governments are reluctant to take imprisoned fighters back, because politicians are leery that battle hardened members of the Islamic State might radicalize domestic prisoners. Some countries face legal hurdles in prosecuting militants if they take custody of them from a non-state militia, as opposed to extracting them from another government. Despite their battlefield losses, the extremists apparently are expanding their deadly global networks. The threat of Islamic extremism is alive. “Terrorist threats,” the New York Times believes, “are as complex and diverse as ever.” 

“If you look across the globe, the cohesive nature of the enterprise for ISIS has been maintained,” claims Russel Travers, acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington. “…there’s not been any breaking up, at least not yet. The message continues to resonate with too many people.” 

Britain’s MI5 chief,  Andrew Parker, hardly ever comments publicly about strategy and preoccupation of threats in Britain or around the world, but a few months ago, during a visit in Berlin, obviously the national spy boss felt urgency to spread his message: “Europe faces an intense, unrelenting and multidimensional international terrorist threat.”


Possibly the fear of a revival of the enemy “Islamic State” in Iraq itself motivates the Baghdad government to push for convictions of the incarcerated fighters and there, the assumed   accomplices, such as their wives, sisters, and daughters. 

The proceedings in court, The Guardian reported, have a “…sense of urgency. Foreigners in particular are processed with an ‘uncompromising efficiency’ rarely seen in other parts of Iraq’s judicial system.” No illusions allowed -- borders do not hinder ISIS veterans from reaching Europe, hiding in Valencia or Dijon, turning into so called “sleepers” in Pinneberg , Germany. Maybe even, they could be driving cement trucks, or working in Italy’s vineyards of Chianti, picking grapes near Greve, waiting for instructions from their leaders hiding up in the Hamrin Mountains near Baghdad, or in the province of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border. Some of the jihadists certainly moved to other conflict zones where their expertise is in high demand -- Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan. Globalization in its destructive dimension. The united front of terrorism. Others are in hiding in some forgotten villages of the roughly 1,000 square miles of ISIS controlled territory, ready, possibly, to liberate  comrades held in captivity by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the U.S. and led by Kurds. An estimated 400 Syrian men and 593 ISIS suspects from 47 countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are held. About 80 men are from Europe, including 40 Russians and 10 to 15 ISIS suspects from France and Germany are held in several makeshift wartime prisons in Northern Syria.  

These prisoners “…pose a dilemma that has no easy solution,” the New York Times stated recently, “and it is growing urgent.” Neither Washington nor the United Nations have a solution how to deal with these combatants. Even Turkey’s Mr. Erdogan, who has never been shy about giving advice to others, is speechless for the moment. The Americans have no interest of being the jailers, their allies are, the rebel group fighting Assad and ISIS. They are in charge of guarding a detention center named Roj Camp as well as an additional 1,400, mostly foreign women, and about 900 children. Many are war widows, orphans, supporters of the caliphate, some ready, not long ago, to blow themselves up. Controlled and jailed by an authority not recognized internationally, US forces help them to keep the enemy behind barbed wire, at times Special forces units advise their allies how to handle unruly or disorderly prisoners. You know what I mean?

They are not the mourning types. This is no kindergarten. Yet, no one knows what to do with these people. There are no courts, no judges, nor are there lawyers, executioners or police officers. Just some donkeys, loyal Kurds and a battle tired rebel force. The home countries of these prisoners do not seem in urgent need to have them back. 

Reporter Ben Hubbard from the New York Times stated, “Most of the Europeans want to go home even if that means standing trial, but few of the Arabs do, fearing that they will be tortured or executed.” The SDF will possibly end soon in the trash can of history, forgotten by Washington. The absence of any plan to deal with the detainees could, eventually, lead to revolt, an attempted jailbreak by the men, assisted by remnants of ISIS. The Pentagon, which officially feels no responsibility for the jailed jihadists, never has set a formal, public policy about what to do with enemy fighters captured by the US or US aligned local forces in Syria. 

In February, General Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. forces in the Middle East, assured his allies that hundreds of captured IS fighters would be sent back to their home countries for prosecution. No further notice. In Iraq, after the end of Saddam Hussein, U.S. run prisons were recruiting heavens for jihadists, since, often, American guards abused prisoners. The leaders of ISIS, including the caliphate’s Amir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, first mobilized in American managed prisons like Camp Buca or Abu Ghraib. One day the late emir was handed by the U.S. to the Iraqis and they set him free. Mr. Trump blamed his predecessors for this mistake, but lately, the President gets more facts wrong than right. “In the past, we have foolishly released hundreds and hundreds of dangerous terrorists, only to meet them again on the battlefield, including the ISIS leader al-Baghdadi, who we captured, who we had, who we released.” The truth is that 122 combatants were released over the past 15 years and the Emir was freed by the Baghdadi government.


Washington may be disinterested in the obviously irritating ISIS prisoners in distant Syria, but remains interested in so-called high value targets, leaders of ISIS, and/or any of the few hundred American citizens who joined ISIS. Not any immigrants were part of the American ISIS. All are U.S. born citizens or green card holders.

“They had dreams,” Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens et al explain in a study published at George Washington University in the U.S., adding that: *

“(…) Life in jihadist held territory did not live up to their expectations, and the propaganda, while enthralling, presented an idealized version of reality, meaning that their real world experience upon arrival was often jarring. Living conditions were much harsher than they saw in the online magazines and videos, and the promises of companionship and camaderie were rarely fulfilled. Instead, cultural clashes, bitter infighting, and suspicion among recruits and leaders abounded.”

The study also showed that, among the Americans, only four of the estimated 250 American jihadists advanced to leadership positions, including Ahmad Abousamura (also known as Abu Sulayman ash-shami) who was born in France and was brought up in Massachusetts. Iraqi claims that the US citizen was involved in ISIS propaganda, including filming the beheading of captured Americans like James Foley, Stephen Sotloff, Peter Kassig and two British hostages. Five of the “most wanted” ISIS leaders were recently taken prisoners in a joint US-Iraqi operation as they attempted (apparently arriving from Turkey) to cross into Iraq from Syria. Among the captured were  two executioners of ISIS, usually posing after their barbaric action next to a row of severed heads: Alexanda Amon Kotey and el-Shafee Elsheikh. They are believed to be among four British jihadists who made up the brutal Islamic cell dubbed “the Beatles” because of their British accent.  Britain stripped their citizenship and refuses to take them into custody. Washington, no doubt, is debating now whether the U.S. should prosecute the British executioners themselves since in 2014 one of their comrades named “Jihad John” beheaded journalist James Foley, and that same year Steven Sotloff, writer for the Jerusalem Post and Time Magazine. The suspect of these beheadings supposedly was killed in 2015.  

Where does Washington bring these killers to court, if at all? One alternative to a civilian court case in the U.S. is Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Can Washington hold foreign terrorists and fighters indefinitely at this military prison? US-Senator Lindsay Graham, who inspected the ISIS detention camps in July, accompanied by his Senate colleague Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, warned that “I don’t want them to get away,” about the two alleged torturers and executioners, “we have to come up with a logical system that when we grab somebody with intelligence value, we can figure out what they know.” His solution: Guantanamo. 

Mrs. Shaheen, on the other hand, pleaded for a trial in court in order to “bring them to justice.”
“Convictions would send a better message,” she argues, than reinvigorating Guantanamo, which the Senator called “a recruiting tool” for terrorists.

Donald Trump signed an executive order early this year to keep the notorious military prison open (housing these days a few dozen inmates), in order to preserve the ability to hold enemy combatants separately from the civilian judiciary process. Some of the Guantanamo prisoners were never convicted, yet are held indefinitely, without trial, most of them prisoners for decades.  Attorney general Jeff Sessions, often ridiculed by Donald Trump in public, repeated the President’s plea to use the prison as a symbol of repression and confinement more often in the future for brutal enemies like the murderous “Beatles” for example. “We have plenty of space there,” he stated.  

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