U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie issued a warning Wednesday that 65,000 ISIS sympathizers being held at the Al Hawl prison camp in northern Syria could lead the terror group’s resurgence if not properly dealt with.
“We could either deal with this problem now or deal with it exponentially worse a few years down the road,” McKenzie said of the 65,000 ISIS sympathizers. McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) offered his assessment when asked about how ISIS will end during a U.S. Institute of Peace panel discussion Wednesday.
The Washington Post reported in September that the cohort of ISIS sympathizers consists of around 20,000 women and 50,000 children who lived under the terror group’s caliphate. The Post reported that within about a six-month span after moving to the camp, the former members of the ISIS caliphate had reestablished many of the strict morality standards practiced by the terror group.
Asked what the U.S. can do about the 65,000 captive ISIS sympathizers, McKenzie said, “Unless we find a way to repatriate, to deradicalize, to bring these people that are at grave risk in these camps back, preferably to their nations that they came from or to stay in Syria where appropriate, but with some form of deradicalization, we’re buying ourselves a strategic problem 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road, and we’re going to do this all over again.”
McKenzie warned that the Al Hawl prison camp could be a particularly dangerous site for radicalizing captured ISIS members. He also said health concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic could worsen the conditions those ISIS detainees live under and increase the potential for radicalization.
After calling for widespread repatriation, McKenzie was asked about how repatriation efforts have gone up to that point.
“I would tell you that it’s going very slow, from my perspective,” he said. “I think it needs to go faster.”
In November, a U.S. federal court judge ruled that an Alabama-born ISIS bride did not have valid U.S. citizenship, undercutting a key argument in her bid to return to the U.S. from Syria.
A U.K. immigration panel had also blocked a U.K. woman, who left London for Syria as a teenager and became an ISIS bride, from returning home. A U.K. appeals court recently ruled the ISIS bride, Shemima Begum, should be allowed to return to the U.K. to appeal her immigration case directly before the immigration panel.
McKenzie appeared to acknowledge opposition to repatriating ISIS detainees in his comments Wednesday.
“I wish I had a better solution,” McKenzie said. “I will tell you this, if we stay where we are, we’re going to have huge problems. Huge problems in the near term, I think with lots of people potentially dying, and then huge problems in the long term because I have yet to see a scheme that can talk about deradicalization at scale.”
McKenzie said the U.S. State Department has been working to increase the repatriation efforts.
“We absolutely support the Department of State’s lead on repatriation. We think that’s absolutely critical. They are working very hard,” he said, but added other nations also “have got to agree to take them.”