US Holds Arch Terrorists in Syria: Now What?

'Jihadi John' beheads American journalist James Foley
‘Jihadi John’ beheads American journalist James Foley (Photo: Video screenshot)

The Trump administration is reportedly debating how to bring to justice two ISIS terrorists responsible for beheading at least 27 hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and hideously torturing many more.

Alexanda Koty
Alexanda Kotey

Alexanda Kotey, 34, and El Shafee Elsheikh, 29, were captured by Kurdish forces in Syria last month.

The two were part of a notorious four-person cell comprised of British jihadis, all from London, who were dubbed the “Beatles.”

Ringleader Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John” before his real identity was known, first appeared in the beheading video of Foley. He was killed by a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria in 2015. Another member of the cell, Aine Davis, is in jail in Turkey facing terror charges.

In the U.S., the question remains how to bring the pair to justice.

Some officials in the Trump administration, including top counterterrorism adviser Thomas P. Bossert favor transferring the two to GITMO (the U.S.’ detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba). Trump recently signed an executive order to keep the facility open.

But many others – officials from the State Department and the Pentagon, human rights groups and family members of their victims – want them brought to the U.S. to face a criminal trial.

“Sending them to Guantanamo to be prosecuted in the military commission or detained there would be a serious mistake,” said Rita Siemion, international legal counsel at Human Rights First, speaking to The Washington Post. “The federal courts have a proven track record for handling international terrorism prosecutions quickly and effectively, while military commissions are just the opposite.”

Trump has also acknowledged this fact. After accused terrorist Sayfullo Saipov mowed down eight people with a rented van on the Hudson River bike path in Manhattan on Halloween, Trump tweeted, “Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system.”

The Post notes while federal prosecutors have convicted hundreds of terrorists in civilian courts since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the  attackers who are being held in GITMO have still not been tried. Khalid Sheikh

El Shafee Elsheikh
El Shafee Elsheikh

Mohammed, considered the mastermind of the attacks, was arrested in 2003, indicted in 2009 and the earliest estimate of his trial is 2019.

There is also another legal aspect of detention of the men in GITMO. “Bringing these men to Guantanamo is risky … ” said Jennifer Daskal, a former senior official in the Justice Department’s national security division, since, “they are connected to ISIS, as opposed to al-Qaeda, and the Supreme Court has never authorized the detention of ISIS fighters [as it has al-Qaeda fighters]. Bringing these men to Guantanamo would put their detention and possible prosecution on shaky legal grounds and set up a good legal basis for them to challenge their detention.”

In addition, bringing them to GITMO opens the case up to skewed accusations of victimhood, noted Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who spent 10 months as a prisoner of the cell.

Speaking to Vice News, Henin said, “For them, they were doing it for revenge, against all the grievances they can argue against the Western world, which are largely fantasized. I will be extremely frustrated if they were not offered a fair trial, and I don’t think the local authorities in northern Syria or detention in Guantanamo Bay would be justice.”

As for the Brits, they appear to want to wash their hands of the two, as long as they are not put in GITMO, said a senior U.S. national security official. In fact, unconfirmed reports have stated both terrorists have been stripped of their British citizenship.

Imprisoning them in the UK means that they can radicalize other inmates, a threat the UK is ill-prepared to deal with, and which the U.S. would also have to confront if the two are tried in a U.S. criminal court.

Even if they are given the death sentence, they will most likely sit in prison a lengthy amount of time awaiting appeal. This means that, unless they are kept in solitary confinement, they pose a threat.

This is a chief reason the UK and other European nations are not interested in foreign fighters returning and instead have expressed their desire for their citizens to be tried and/or executed in the countries where they are captured.

In the meantime, interrogations by U.S. forces in Syria of the pair have yielded valuable intelligence information, and for this reason, holding them in Syria is exactly where the U.S. wants them for now.

Do you think that foreign terrorists that are accused of attacking against Americans should be sent to GITMO or tried in U.S. criminal courts? Answer our poll below:

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What should the U.S. do with foreign terrorists accused of attacking Americans?

 

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Meira Svirsky
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org