The Global Responsibility of Supporting Rojava’s ISIS Trials

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

On Saturday the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) announced that it will commence trials of the thousands of ISIS militants it has held in detention since 2019. The Kurdish-led administration of northeast Syria (Rojava) had back in 2020 announced a similar trial with International Monitors led by the Swedish government but such efforts have largely failed. This latest effort is announced in light of the Administration shouldering the burden of detaining, housing, feeding and controlling the world’s most dangerous organization within its war torn territories for the past five year. However, the AANES is a non-state actor and does not hold extradition treaties, air links, the financial capacity to hold the detainees long-term nor the ability to return fighters to home countries.

Thus, it remains to be seen how in light of the lack of international legal and physical support the AANES will conduct the trails. What is obvious though is that a solution of some form is urgently required as Rojava has already sacrificed more than any other society internationally in ensuring that the global community is saved from facing ISIS in their own backyards. When considering the AANES’ non-state status, the ongoing humanitarian impact of the war against ISIS and Turkey’s relentless bombardment and ethnic cleansing of the region, their efforts to continue to take the dominant role and lead the anti-ISIS fight is admirable. Yet, it is questionable how successful the process to bring to justice ISIS militants will be without concrete international support and aid, especially in repatriation processes. Nevertheless, the AANES citing the urgency of providing justice for the victims of the terror group have taken on the colossal task of holding trials in the near future. While international legal debates rage around how best legally and humanely address the treatment of the detained militants, the victims of ISIS continue to suffer and remain traumatized years after the terror group has officially ended.

Thousands of dangerous ISIS militants detained

By 2019 when the international coalition fighting ISIS declared the official demise of the self-proclaimed caliphate, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had captured well over 10,000 ISIS militants plus their families. The majority of the fighters and their families were apprehended in the final battle in Baghouz in March 2019, which was the last bastion of the terror group. The fighters are currently housed between two camps, with the families in the al-Hole camp and the ISIS fighters in the al-Roj camp respectively.

The collective amount of individuals is close to an astounding 70, 000 people who have been detained, housed and supported by the AANES since their capture. The camps remain a dangerous security environment and have been called “a literal breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS.”

The financial, security and resources required to continue to hold such a large number of individuals continues to place extensive stresses on the AANES. Additionally, the region contains well over a million displaced people from the other regions of Syria who were forced to flee the ongoing conflicts within the Syrian civil war.

Ian Moss, the Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, responsible for Terrorist Detentions and Countering Violent Extremism in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State in a special meeting in Hungary argued that the situation in the detention facilities and camps are “both a security and humanitarian crisis that will continue to worsen if nothing is done to address the situation.” Moss noted further that well over 10,000 ISIS fighters are detained by the AANES in al-Roj alone, and that these numbers included roughly 5,000 Syrians, 3,000 Iraqis, and 2,000 ISIS fighters from outside Syria and Iraq.

As Moss points out above, the situation is critical not only because of the ongoing security concerns that the thousands of detained terrorist continue to pose to the war-traumatized people of Rojava and its multi-ethnic and religious society but also because many of those detained are minors. The majority of the fighters are detained in specially built detention centers, while the rest are distributed around two-dozen improvised facilities. These facilities include schools and community centers to ensure that the militants are treated humanely and according to international human rights laws and standards. Yet, many of male militants detained in these facilities are under 18.

On the civilian side, the combined number of the families and children of the fighters amount to an astonishing 56,000 persons. These families, including the multiple wives of fighters and their children are held at the al-Hol camp- the largest camp in the AANES held territories. Of these numbers, 28,000 are Iraqi nationals, over 18,000 Syrian nationals, with over 10,000 individuals consisting of militants from over 60 countries around the world. A large number of those especially in the al-Hol camp are also under 18 years of age.

Security concerns continue

Security concerns continue to mount as there have been multiple attempts by ISIS sleeper cells and Turkish drone attacks to help liberate detained fighters in the detention facilities. Back in January this year the latest attack involved over 200 ISIS fighters mounting a week long assault on the Geweran neighborhood which contained the al-Sina’a prison in Hasake. According to official statements by the SDF, captured militants confessed that the assault had been planned for well over six months, with many colluding and coming together from the Turkish occupied regions of Seri Kanya (Ras al-Ain) and Gri Spi (Tel Abyad) in the north of Syria. The militants attacked the detention facility staff members including security guards, medical staff, cooks and cleaners. The efforts of the ISIS fighters outside the prison were aided by detained fighters who murdered prison guards and took their weapons. Many were injured, with 27 members of the SDF killed. The US-led international coalition carried out air strikes on buildings surrounding the facilities in an effort to support the SDF’s attempts to quash the assault.

The situation in the al-Hol camp and the families of the jihadists is no safer. A number of violent outbreaks, 24 documented murders including of guards and aid workers, knife attacks (including against dissidents inside the camp) and fires have occurred and led by the female jihadists inside the camps. These events, including the lack of the substantial security and financial means required to house the families in more ‘humane’ conditions have forced the AANES to continue to call for international support which has so far been ignored.

Furthermore, Turkey’s ongoing role in supporting ISIS militants through arms, medical, safe routes, strategic and security means must be addressed and treated with serious concern by the international community. Despite hundreds of documented cases of direct evidence of Turkish support for ISIS since 2014 the international community and the anti-ISIS coalition has remained largely mute in this regard. Turkey’s ongoing undermining of the efforts to end the caliphate, to liberate and the detainment of ISIS militants continues to feed the resurgence efforts of the terrorist organization including many sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, Turkey’s ongoing collection and rebranding of former ISIS militants in the occupied Afrin (Efrîn) region under various Islamic factions should also be treated with serious concern. Turkey has also used chemical weapons, airstrikes and troop invasions to further occupy AANES territories, resulting in close to a million civilians displaced and ethnically cleansed from their ancestral homes.

Humanitarian concerns of minors

In relation to the humanitarian issue, human rights organizations have cited a number of concerns regarding the minors detained in the facilities and consider their conditions in breach of international laws. According to The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) the number of children inside the al-Sina’a prison is close to 850. A UN report in 2021 called for the urgent repatriation of the many foreign women and children held in detention. UNICEF has argued that the children detained do not have access to “basic services including warm clothes, hygiene, health, education and food.” According the Save the Children, al-hole contains more than 7300 children. The organization presented a dire prediction that unless the international community does not speed up repatriation processes, many of these children could be stuck in such camps for over 30 years.

Undoubtedly it is important to treat the families and children of ISIS humanely and that they should have access to appropriate and speedy restorative justice and repatriation where applicable. Yet, the international community has shirked its responsibilities towards this process. There has been little to no financial, legal or humanitarian support for the AANES to ensure that the detained families and militants are summarily tried, repatriated and commence restorative justice practices.

Another concern issue is that the camps continue to conceal many Yezidi women and girls captured into slavery by ISIS’ 2014 attack on the Yezidi stronghold of Shingal. A number of Yezidi girls have been rescued from the clutches of the Jihadist militants, but human rights organizations fear that many more are still being terrorized or brainwashed from coming forward and being rescued within the camp. Rescued women have repeatedly cited their fear of female jihadists who terrorized them into silence and threatened them with murder and decapitations if they chose to come forward as Yezidis.

While humanitarian conditions require attention in these camps, it is clear that many of the female jihadists are hardly innocent victims of the terror organization and actively continue to educate and raise their children with the ISIS ideology and extremism. Thus, while under ideal conditions these women and children would be repatriated and rehabilitated back into society, the reality is far more complex than viewing these women as simple victims. International scholarship that views the traditional role and status of women and minors as the disproportionate victims of war and terrorism needs to evolve to address the role of ISIS female jihadists who actively supported the caliphate physically, morally, financially, and who held positions as security officers and even torturers.

The ongoing burden on AANES

The AANES itself is reeling from over a decade of its fight with ISIS and the economic and humanitarian impact of the Syrian civil war. Regular closure of Iraqi and Turkish borders with the Administration has ensured a massive humanitarian crises with many struggling with extreme poverty and dire economic conditions. The hundreds of thousands displaced across Syria and the Turkish occupied Afrin means that dozens of camps housing internally displaced peoples (IDPs) are scattered across the region too, which rightfully should attract the majority of the aid the AANES can afford to spare. Interestingly, all official international aid and support drive through and directly bypass the Rojava region and are handed over to the Syrian regime of Assad who distributes aid according to its own interests and agendas. The Rojava region receives barely a trickle of the international aid despite its disproportionate efforts in ending ISIS and providing humanitarian support to its citizens and the IDPs.

So far only five European countries including Kosovo, Bosnia, Russia as well as Australia have made repatriation efforts of ISIS militants, their wives and children. Iraq has also repatriated thousands of its militants but the trials and executions held by the government have been cited as lacking in due legal process. This is an effort that is woefully inadequate in reducing the massive burden AANES continues to shoulder in the fight against ISIS. Calls for an international tribunal has generated some dialogue but little to no concrete effort to establish one. The international community is deeply reluctant to provide the necessary legal, institutional and financial aid required for the AANES to hold trials, since that would appear to give tacit consent for the administration to constitute a state.

All efforts should be made by the international community to support the AANES in this struggle and the upcoming trials. The AANES should not be burdened with taking food out of the mouths of orphaned, widowed and displaced civilians so that the ISIS terrorists who destabilized and terrorized, murdered and raped innocents can live in luxurious and air conditioned facilities. Indeed, considering the limited capacity of the AANES and the ongoing resurgence of ISIS sleeper cells and threats, the administration has a moral obligation to support the displaced and terrorized citizens first and foremost. The AANES has managed an admirable effort in detaining these dangerous individuals in as humane a condition as possible so far. It is ethically and morally reprehensible to expect them to continue to shoulder this extremely expensive and large undertaking indefinitely. It is now well over due time for the international community to take on its responsibility too.

*Due to the importance of the announcement by the AANES the Kurdish Center for Studies will hold a special online session by the AANES and the SDF to discuss how the trials will be held. For further information and to attend the special session please contact the Center at [email protected]


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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