Earlier this week, an unnamed US citizen who was fighting as part of ISIS surrendered to Kurdish forces in Syria, and was turned over to the US troops in the area. He has been officially designed an “enemy combatant” by the Defense Department.
The detained man is one of an estimated 260 Americans who have joined ISIS, and his capture as an enemy combatant is a major first test for America’s handling of prisoners of war in the ISIS conflict. Pentagon officials suggested he would be referred to the Justice Department for federal trial.
ISIS is a large movement which has attracted a lot of Western recruits, which has long fueled fear about what happens when they return home, particularly in the cases of those not caught, but who fled the battlefield. US officials have previously dismissed this idea, insisting there would be no survivors to return home to begin with.
But that clearly was never realistic, and with a first “enemy combatant” officially in detention, more seem virtually certain to follow. In past wars, America made substantial efforts in the wars’ earlier days to prepare for such detainees, but the conceit of no survivors appears to have precluded such preparation, and now officials are stuck making plans on the fly.
That the detention happened in Syria adds to legal complications surrounding it, as Syria never gave US forces permission to be there in the first place. In Iraq, ISIS detainees have mostly been killed, with family members herded into a camp in the country’s south pending a decision by the Iraqi government on what to do with them.
In Syria, whatever the US decides to do will be totally independent of the Syrian government’s position. As the Syrian war drags on, what happens with this detainee could inform the fates of a lot of future captives.
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