Written evidence submitted by Richard Barrett CMG OBE and Prof Harmonie Toros (CTE0010)



  1. Title: UK Citizens in NE Syria: An urgent challenge for counter-terrorism



  1. This submission is authored by Richard Barrett CMG OBE, who from 2004 to 2012 headed the United Nations al Qaeda/Taliban Monitoring Team and remained engaged in UN CT strategy and structures until 2016; and Prof Harmonie Toros, Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading specialised in terrorism and counter-terrorism, who has recently returned from field research in Lebanon and Turkey interviewing international officials and civil society actors working in Northeast (NE) Syria. We wish to submit our argument for a general review of the UK’s approach to the terrorist threat from abroad with specific reference to the situation in NE Syria.



  1. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or DAESH) territorial defeat in Baghouz in 2019, UK citizens of all ages are being held in prisons, detention centres, and locked camps in NE Syria in conditions of extreme physical danger, with little to no access to medical, legal or administrative support. Their links to ISIS vary from being active members carrying out acts of extreme violence against civilians to children born to an adult suspected of links to ISIS. UN officials and human rights monitors have warned that the living conditions of children are “inhuman” and “may amount to torture.”


  1. Children have no access to meaningful health care or education and, based on interviews carried out in February 2023, boys as young as 10 are being forcibly taken away from their families, in some cases unbeknownst to them, to be brought to detention centres or prisons without any legal basis, review, control or oversight. United Nations agencies and other international humanitarian organizations have no access to these centres. Leading UN experts are concerned that this allows boys to “be forcibly disappeared and subject to sale, exploitation and abuse, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.” (https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/02/syria-un-experts-alarmed-reports-boys-taken-camp-roj-de-facto-authorities)


  1. Aside from the grave violation of the human rights of these British children and their parents, the ongoing crisis of UK citizens held in NE Syria represents one of the most pressing current and future terrorist threats to the United Kingdom. Without access to education, separated from their families, and mixed in with men who fought for ISIS, the boys in particular are extremely vulnerable to radicalization and direct training on how to carry out acts of violence. These boys cannot be held indefinitely and the longer they remain in these conditions, the more difficult it will be to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into the United Kingdom.


  1. HMG has based its approach on the premise that these children and their parents pose less of a threat by being kept in detention in NE Syria than if repatriated to the United Kingdom. Based on a series of interviews on the ground and broader experience of the causes of radicalisation to violence, we believe this to be a short-term approach that fails to take into account the volatility of the region, the limited capacity and willingness of the local authorities (primarily the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)) to manage detention centres over the medium and long term, and the negative impact on communities within and outside the UK that provide the first line of defence against further terrorist attacks.




  1. UK foreign and domestic policy has a direct impact on the threat of terrorism emanating from the detention centres in NE Syria. UN officials, human rights monitors and news reports have pointed to the UK as one of the main backers of the expansion and upgrading of prisons in NE Syria, including the notorious Hasaka Al-Sina’a prison. The UK’s choice to keep nationals in Syria rather than find legal and safe means to repatriate them and prosecute those suspected of criminal behaviour runs counter to the approach of almost all close allies and is unsustainable in the longer term. Furthermore, it is an abdication of responsibility both towards these UK nationals themselves and the communities they may threaten if they are radicalised and remain at large.


  1. The current focus on enlarging and strengthening the capacity of detention facilities in NE Syria rather than on developing safe and effective repatriation mechanisms, not only runs counter to the rule of law and British values as espoused in IR 2021 and IR 2023 Refresh, but also undermines the opportunity for the UK to leverage its CT experience over the last 20 years to provide leadership in an area of continued international concern. It ignores the fact that British adults held in NE Syria have chosen to leave their communities to join a violent cult-like organization abroad. It also denies authorities and local communities the opportunity to learn more about the root causes of alienation and exclusion felt by these citizens and consider ways to ensure that further generations enjoy a greater sense of belonging. It further assumes that any threat posed by these abandoned UK nationals will somehow disappear over time or should be dealt with by someone else.


  1. Many of the UK’s allies have had or continue to have nationals held in the SDF detention facilities. However, while recognising the difficulties of repatriation, they have not shirked their responsibility to address them. Since 2019 Australia has repatriated eight unaccompanied children as well as families and has vowed to repatriate the remaining Australian citizens when it is safe to do so. France, meanwhile, has repatriated 15 women and 32 children so far this year after repatriating 31 women and 75 children in 2022. The United States along with Denmark, Finland, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan have now repatriated many or all of their nationals who are women or children, according to Human Rights Watch. None of these States has faced a major terrorist incident as a result. The UK remains an outlier in its refusal to repatriate, and in its use of deprivation of citizenship as a final recourse.


  1. The exact number of UK citizens being held in locked camps, detention centres, and prisons is not clear. With regard to British children, HMG in a response to the UN rapporteurs of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in April 2023 stated that: “We are aware that there may be British minors in IDP camps in Syria, who because of their age, are innocent victims of the conflict. The UK Government has been clear that it will seek to facilitate the return of British orphans and unaccompanied minors where feasible, and subject to national security concerns. In line with this policy, the Government has facilitated the return of a number of orphaned and unaccompanied British minors to the UK. In the same response, HMG said that any decision on the detention, release, or transfer of UK citizens in the area is the responsibility of local authorities, in this case the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).


  1. HMG, in its communications with the OHCHR special rapporteurs, has repeatedly pointed to the lack of UK consular presence in NE Syria as a reason for its inability to repatriate UK citizens. As noted above however, numerous other countries – including UK allies – have succeeded in repatriating their citizens despite the same challenge of lacking consular representation. The Kurdish-led SDF has also repeatedly facilitated the repatriation of foreign nationals and has frequently appealed to all concerned nations to take their citizens back.


  1. HMG’s focus on orphans and unaccompanied minors does little to help British children held in locked camps, detention centres, and prisons who have at least one parent also held in these types of facilities or have been placed there purely on the basis of their age. It also fails to take into account that a British boy may have a parent held in another facility but have no access to them. In interviews carried out in February 2023 by one of the authors, UN and NGO officials working in Syria reported that once boys were taken away from their families and brought to detention centres, they often had no access to their families and no means of contacting them. This leaves the boys in conditions of extreme vulnerability, making them effectively “unaccompanied minors.”


  1. It is important to note that boys aged 10 in 2023 were six years old at the time of the fall of Baghouz in 2019 and therefore cannot reasonably be believed to have perpetrated acts of violence on behalf of ISIS. Although all minors in NE Syria should be understood as victims of terrorism, those closest to adulthood at the time of the defeat of ISIS may have imbibed its culture of violence. But as the years pass, it becomes highly unlikely that boys reaching the age of ten, and as such likely to be transferred to detention centres by the SDF, had such opportunity, except from the other occupants of the camps or prisons to which they were sent. As noted by the OHCHR special rapporteurs in February 2023, detention based solely on family ties, “is a form of collective punishment, which is a war crime.”


  1. HMG has repeatedly stated in its responses to the UN OHCHR special rapporteurs reports on the situation of UK citizens in NE Syria, that it does not have jurisdiction in the region and that any “decision in relation to the continued detention, transfer or prosecution of detainees is ultimately a matter for authorities under whose jurisdiction the individuals are detained.However, the local authorities have no legal system that is recognised internationally and have only recently said that they will put camp inmates on trial, seemingly as a way to force the issue with their states of nationality. Like other governments, HMG can repatriate its nationals if it chooses to do so. As noted above, many UK allies and third countries have done so since 2019. It is a choice not to repatriate and this choice has serious political and security implications. Most importantly:


  1. Perception of the UK: The UK’s position is widely seen as one of the most hard-line regarding its citizens detained in NE Syria, especially in the use of deprivation of citizenship. This in itself has repercussions, such as increasing negative attitudes towards the UK both at home and internationally. As can be seen in past practices of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, violent extremist groups use such perceptions to reinforce their narrative and to target new recruits. These groups also factor in these perceptions when choosing which country to target in their attacks. Domestically, minority community leaders have repeatedly argued that HMG’s approach to repatriation and its closely connected policy of denationalisation, increases the perception amongst minorities of being “second-class citizens.” This damages the long-term work to strengthen feelings of belonging among vulnerable youth of minority communities, leaving them further at risk of radicalisation.


  1. Short-term solution; long-term quagmire: Leaving UK citizens that may represent a security threat to the UK in a detention system run by a non-state armed group in a conflict region can only be a short-term solution. Considering the great challenges and volatility of the region, the complex and ad hoc system of detention in NE Syria is unlikely to ever achieve international human rights standards. The conditions of detention of these families in locked camps, with young boys in detention centres, and boys and men in prisons are likely to remain unacceptable, even with the best intentions of local and international actors working on the ground. Furthermore, considering the regional volatility, one cannot assume that the SDF will remain in control of the Hasaka area over the longer term or that it will remain in the interests of the SDF to maintain the camps, detention centres, and prisons. The SDF announced on June 10, 2023 that they would put on trial the ISIS prisoners they hold. Even if these trials are to be carried out, the question of the long-term detention of convicted prisoners once sentenced remains pertinent.


  1. As such, the UK is banking an important aspect of its national security on a fragile regional political and military balance and on a coalition led by Kurdish forces that have in the past fragmented.


  1. Radicalisation in loco: All international officials, NGOs and civil society actors who have visited the camps have repeatedly warned of the danger of radicalisation of those held in detention or in “rehabilitation centres” or prisons. Women and children have been attacked by hardliners in the camps of Roj and al-Hol and have been coerced, under the threat of violence, to follow ISIS-inspired social norms. In the prisons, boys are not always separated from men, leaving them at the mercy and under the influence of those who did take part in ISIS violence. Little to no rehabilitation is believed to take place in the detention centres according to UN and other monitors. Based on this, the UN Under-Secretary-General for counterterrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, has warned that delays in repatriation threaten to “bring about the very outcomes we intend to prevent,” such as “the radicalization and recruitment of a new generation of terrorists, and the strengthening of terrorist groups in the region and around the world.”


  1. Rehabilitation of returnee children: By contrast, there is increasing evidence of high rates of success in reintegration following the repatriation of women and children from NE Syria. Human Rights Watch conducted interviews and surveys in seven countries with approximately 80 family members, social workers, teachers, lawyers and psychologists. Most of the children have integrated into schools and 89% of respondents said they were doing “very well” or “quite well.” Rapid access to family members upon repatriation and a streamlined administrative process providing children with identification papers to allow returnees to access education and health services are seen as factors that have facilitated reintegration, most likely by offering a sense of belonging and avoiding stigmatisation.


  1. Based on the above premise, one can only conclude that HMG’s position regarding UK nationals being held in NE Syria increases the current and future terrorist threat. The UK cannot afford a policy of hoping for the best, while kicking the can down the road, or expect other States or non-state actors to take action on its behalf. We should take immediate action with respect to our nationals to avoid an increased short, medium, and long-term national security threat.


  1. The authors of this submission can be contacted for further evidence.








June 2023