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Status Of ISIS Detainees In Syria


Let's focus in on the effect of the U.S. pulling out of northeast Syria for one particular group - ISIS. The Kurds were crucial allies in wiping out the territorial hold ISIS had in the region, but now with Kurdish forces having to defend themselves against a Turkish offensive, ISIS may have an opportunity for a resurgence. President Trump says that a small group of U.S. troops will remain in southern Syria in order to disrupt ISIS.

To help us understand how this all plays into the chaos in Syria, we spoke to Jennifer Cafarella. She's a research director at the Institute for the Study of War, and she explained the role that the Kurds have played in detaining ISIS fighters and their families.

JENNIFER CAFARELLA: The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which is the American-partnered force in Syria, has captured more than 10,000 ISIS fighters on the battlefield over the past campaign to defeat the territorial caliphate. The SDF is holding those prisoners in 20 makeshift detention facilities on the most part, so we're talking about schools and other repurposed buildings that were not set up to hold detainees and which are only lightly guarded. Thus far, ISIS has not managed to conduct a large-scale escape, despite...

CORNISH: But hold on a second. We've been hearing for the past couple of days that there was a mass escape - right? - of 800 people. Who were those people?

CAFARELLA: Sure. So there is a second problem with respect to detained ISIS members, which is the de facto detention of women and children that remain ideologically committed or, in the case of the children, indoctrinated and supportive of the Islamic State but are not fighters. Our Kurdish partner has been holding this population of, essentially, ISIS family members in separate annexes within internally displaced persons camps - so IDP camps - under guard but not officially in detention. So there has been one event where 800 or so of those family members escaped, but we haven't yet seen a mass escape of actual ISIS fighting forces.

CORNISH: We've also been hearing about the idea of sleeper cells. Can you give us some clue as to how ISIS has been dormant over these last couple of months and years and what that means in this scenario?

CAFARELLA: Sure. ISIS has waged a deliberate campaign over the past few years to position small groups of fighters within communities, and I do expect that this latent presence, so to speak, in Kurdish-held areas will activate in coming days and weeks for more prison break operations to follow.

CORNISH: To that point, I want to play some tape from the former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He was speaking on "Meet The Press" this past weekend.


JIM MATTIS: If we don't keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge. It's absolutely a given that they will come back.

CORNISH: Now, does that match your assessment - an absolute given?

CAFARELLA: I agree. ISIS is already resurging, and I think this reality has been absent from some of the discussion of the consequence in Syria. We're not talking about a future re-emergence of the Islamic State. We are talking about a here and now expansion. ISIS has already prepared for this, and in fact, well before President Trump made this decision to withdraw from Syria, the ISIS leader already announced that he's going to break his forces out of prison. So this is our...

CORNISH: But what about Syria, Turkey, Russia? I mean, these are also actors who don't have an interest in ISIS growing again.

CAFARELLA: Well, actually, it depends because the unfortunate reality in this part of the world is that the United States and the anti-ISIS coalition are the only actors who prioritize the ISIS threat. So it is true that, in theory, the Syrian regime, for instance, has some interest in fighting ISIS, but they would rather face ISIS than face opposition groups. So unfortunately, the U.S. can't outsource the requirement to fight the Islamic State to regional actors.

CORNISH: Jennifer Cafarella is a research director at the Institute for the Study of War and a fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. Thank you for explaining it to us.

CAFARELLA: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.