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Middle East Press ( 26 Sept 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Middle East Press on Afghanistan Talks, Saudi Society and European Nations: New Age Islam's Selection, 26 September 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Bureau

26 September 2020


• Peace May Remain Elusive Despite Afghanistan Talks

By Zaid M. Belbagi

• Iraq’s Kurdish Region Is Not a Model for Free Speech

By Hakeem Dawd Qaradaghi

• Why Saudi Society Needs To Cherish Its Freedoms

By Tariq A. Al Maeena

• US Shakes Up Iraqi Factions with Reported Warning on Militias

By Ali Mamouri

• Middle East’s Troubles Spill over to the Balkans

By Sinem Cengiz

• European Nations Should Do the Right Thing and Bring Home the Extremists They Exported

By Peter Welby



Peace May Remain Elusive Despite Afghanistan Talks

By Zaid M. Belbagi

September 25, 2020

As Afghan leaders this month descended on the plush confines of one of Doha’s leading hotels, many were surprised as long-term foes embraced one another. The Taliban and the Afghan government are engaged in talks to decide no less daunting a prospect than the future of Afghanistan.

How a country that has been ravaged by war for more than four decades will be able to chart a course toward peace and prosperity is the central issue for the conference. With the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar claiming that he wants “a free, independent, united and developed country,” many have been left wondering what sort of future the Taliban will agree to — if indeed it does at all.

Since 1979, Afghanistan has been host to almost perpetual conflict. The displacement of many millions and the deaths of some 2 million have been the human cost of the country’s turbulence. In more recent times, the American engagement in Afghanistan has cost it just short of $1 trillion, as US forces struggled to grapple with the infamously turbulent central Asian state.

Having struck an agreement with the Taliban in February, the US has followed the lead of its president and chosen to turn its back on one of the “forever wars” in which the US was engaged. However, the “peace” that has followed has been tenuous at best. As Afghan leaders gather to negotiate in Qatar, the country essentially remains in a state of civil war.

As bloodshed continues without any sort of peace deal on the horizon, many are concerned as to whether this round of negotiations will be different from any of the countless others that preceded it. American diplomats have been hesitant to give the talks their full backing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was keen to link future US aid to peaceful negotiations, saying: “Your choices and conduct will affect the size and scope of future US assistance.” This may be the encouragement that either side needs, though the Taliban is incredibly more long-term in its approach and has long awaited a US withdrawal, knowing full well that it can rule Afghanistan with few challenges and much like it did in the 1990s.

After two decades of the most advanced military equipment and billions of dollars of aid being ploughed into Afghanistan to try and change the country’s political dynamics, the Taliban is now, in fact, larger than it was in 2001. With a monopoly over violence, it has been able to belittle the efforts of the government while simultaneously making itself a potential partner for negotiation and a central pillar to peace. The very fact that the US sat down with the Taliban to negotiate is testament to the group’s strength and influence on the ground.

Where the internationally supported Afghan government has shown itself to be victim to the venal and corrupt practices of its unlikely leadership, the Taliban has shown itself to be resolute in its almost sacred defense of Afghanistan in the eyes of many Afghan people. However, despite the conflict with which Afghanistan is synonymous, fatigue has set in, encouraging both sides to look toward taking a real step to the future.

Both sides came to the negotiations with a great amount of skepticism; not knowing what the other side’s agenda was in calling for the talks. The government side was skeptical that the Taliban was pursuing the negotiations to distract American interests, while the Taliban was concerned that the government would deliberately delay while waiting for a change in US administration and thereby a change in attitudes.

Come November, the deal that the Americans reached with the Taliban will very much come into effect, as troop numbers are expected to be down to 4,500. The strategic reality of this has been that the Taliban thought to take part in these negotiations only to play for time ahead of the American withdrawal. The group is perhaps using this time to regroup as part of a broader attempt at taking central control and conducting an all-important march on Kabul. With American forces reduced to a token number, the country’s capital and delicate democracy will be open to manipulation. Given the billions that have been spent by the international community on aid and reconstruction, the idea that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan could come back into existence is incredibly concerning.

Synonymous with public executions, acts of terror and indeed as a harbor for splinter terrorist organizations, ending Taliban rule in Afghanistan was the focus of international military and political efforts in the country. However, the Taliban has remained and both earlier this year and now, during negotiations in Doha, its leaders seem incredibly coy about their plans for Afghanistan.

Many are concerned about what the Taliban policy will be toward Afghan women. Having only just been given the opportunity to educate themselves and participate in Afghan society, many fear that a Taliban government would cause a return to rigid fundamentalist rules and values, akin to the former “emirate.”

With the government and its President Ashraf Ghani viewed by many as foreign puppets, there is a real possibility that the Taliban will be able to exploit this standpoint with a view to re-establishing its writ across the war-torn country. There is, however, an issue with this: The Taliban represents the views of the conservative and martial Pashtun people and their heartland in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether or not the views of this particular demographic will be forced upon the rest of the country remains to be seen.

Afghanistan has for decades been a source of great instability, with the long-suffering Afghan people its victims. Blessed with an important location, significant natural resources and upright and hardworking people, only through peace can the country be expected to fulfil its potential.


Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council.


Iraq’s Kurdish Region Is Not A Model For Free Speech

By Hakeem Dawd Qaradaghi

25 Sep 2020

The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has long enjoyed a reputation as a safe haven for the persecuted from all over Iraq and a place of free expression and tolerance. In recent months, however, it has once again become clear that this reputation is unfounded.

In August, protests erupted across the KRI against unpaid salaries and pay cuts in the public sector. Government employees, who make up around 50 percent of the region’s workforce, have not been paid regularly for months, as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is facing a severe economic crisis, compounded by corruption, a budget dispute with Baghdad and the pandemic-related downturn.

Journalists who tried to cover the protests were attacked and arrested, while a leading TV channel was shut down. Meanwhile, broadcasters and newspapers associated with the two ruling parties in the KRI – Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union Party (PUK) – hardly mentioned the upheaval.

To the ruling elite, this crackdown on the media in the KRI may seem like a quick and efficient way to contain public anger, but in the long run, the continuing suppression of press freedom and freedom of speech will threaten the very foundations of Kurdish self-governance.

A Violent Crackdown

Protests took place across the region, but while in PUK-controlled Sulaymaniyah province large crowds were able to gather, in KDP-controlled Erbil and Duhok provinces, a significant number of security forces were deployed to quickly suppress demonstrations. Protesters were injured during the ensuing clashes, particularly in the city of Zakho, where the crackdown was quite severe.

According to local activists, in August, some 100 people – including journalists – were arrested in night raids in the Duhok region of the KRI, which is dominated by the KDP.

Late on August 19, agents of the Asayish intelligence services – affiliated with the ruling KDP – raided the Duhok offices of the NRT TV channel, which was founded by the leader of the opposition New Generation party, Shaswar Abdulwahid. A day later, the police entered its office in the KRI’s capital, Erbil, and closed it down.

NRT reporters Nihad Oramar, Shkeran Zebari and Ahmed Zakhoy were arrested. Zakhoy remained in custody for at least 10 days without charges and security forces prevented him from contacting his family and lawyer.

These actions are in violation of the 2008 Press Law which clearly states that journalists should not be arrested for doing their job.

Despite that, in a letter to NRT in late August, the KRG’s International Advocacy Coordinator Dindar Zebari confirmed the government has taken legal action to shut down the channel. According to the statement, NRT had aimed to “disfigure the image of governance in the Kurdistan Region and spoil the sacred values of its society” with its reporting.

The new KRG cabinet led by Masrour Barzani, the oldest son of former president Masoud Barzani has restricted freedom of speech. Metro Centre for Journalist Rights, which is based in the PUK-dominated Sulaymaniyah region, recorded 98 violations against media organisations and journalists in the KRI over the first six months of 2020. A new digital media regulation bill in the regional parliament has also sparked criticism from independent journalists and media watchdogs.

The only media organisations that have not faced severe problems operating in the KRI have been the dozen or so outlets sponsored by the KDP and PUK.

Intolerance for Dissent

This is not the first time the KDP and PUK have cracked down on independent or opposition media. While portraying themselves as reliable American partners and close western allies, the two parties have shown little tolerance for dissent and criticism.

In 2010, Erbil-based university student and part-time journalist Sardasht Osman was tortured and murdered after writing a satirical poem about the Barzani family, which dominated the KDP. The assassination sparked anger and forced the authorities to start an investigation. The official conclusion was that Osman was in contact with the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam group and was killed for refusing to cooperate with them. These allegations were immediately rejected by Osman’s family.

In recent years, several other journalists have been killed, including Kawa Germyani in 2013 and Wedat Hussain in 2016. They were all killed because they had published critical articles about corruption and the families dominating the two ruling parties. Security officials in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq found neither the perpetrators nor the motive behind their murders.

As a representative of the CPJ in the Middle East, Ignacio Delgado told me, journalists are killed and tortured by partisan forces loyal to the ruling parties, while assailants have full immunity.

My own friend and colleague at NRT TV, Amanj Babani, died in mysterious circumstances in October 2019. He was found dead in his car along with his wife, fellow journalist Lana Mohammad, and their three-year-old son. Only a few hours after their death, Sulaymaniyah Police, which has links to the PUK, released a statement, declaring the incident a double murder-suicide.

They said that Babani shot his wife and child dead, and then turned the gun on himself. This version of events was publicly disputed by journalists and politicians, and I, myself, find it hard to believe that my friend would do such a thing. He was a calm and kind person and he would have never harmed those who were dearest to him.

Several months later, security forces loyal to the KDP in Erbil claimed to have evidence that “the family were actually murdered”. That allegation came after the exchange of several tit-for-tat statements by KDP and PUK officials, accusing each other of many wrongdoings, including killing journalists and being involved in corruption schemes. To this day, no proper investigation has been conducted into Babani’s death.

Kurdish Democracy under Threat

Now, after nearly three decades of self-ruling and practising some democratic norms, the KRG’s so-called “liberal reputation” has been shattered. The semi-autonomous Kurdish region is neither a model for other parts of Iraq, nor an inspiration for the Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Syria.

The latest Human Rights Watch report describes areas under the KRG control as being “the same as other parts of Iraq for outspoken people”. It further said: “Kurdish authorities are continuing to use vaguely worded laws to intimidate and silence journalists, activists, and other dissenting voices.”

What is going on in the KRI has also caught the attention of the international community. The UN representative to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert told the Security Council in a recent briefing that, “Forceful responses to public criticism, protests, harassment or the shutting down of media outlets [in the Kurdish region] are surely not the way forward.”

The Kurds have fought for freedom and self-rule for more than a century. Today, the Kurdish region of Iraq is the only semi-sovereign Kurdish entity. The Iraqi Kurdish authorities must respect freedom of expression and preserve democratic norms to show the world that Kurds can rule themselves and live in peace.

If they do not, public anger about their misconduct, failing provision of basic services, a deteriorating human rights situation and a growing economic crisis will bring the region to the brink of economic and political collapse. The very existence of Kurdish self-rule will be under threat.


Hakeem Dawd Qaradaghi is an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and researcher. He has an MA in   international journalism from the University of Salford, UK. He has worked for several major media outlets in the last 12 years in the Iraqi Kurdish Region such as NRT, Rudaw and KNN. He has written extensively for Iraqi media in English and Kurdish.


Why Saudi Society Needs To Cherish Its Freedoms

By Tariq A. Al Maeena

September 25, 2020

The Americans have their July 4 Independence Day, the French have their Bastille Day which falls on July 14. Pakistan and India celebrate their Independence Day in August, and Saudi Arabia has designated September 23 as their National Day.

This year was the 90th event of the National Day, a day the unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became complete and was celebrated with pomp and gaiety across the land this past weekend. The government had allowed the closure of most of its offices for the period and many private companies followed suit.

The Kingdom’s largest National Day air show started with a bang as more than 60 commercial and military aircraft took to the skies over the country, drawing appreciation from the crowd on the ground. More was to follow with fireworks bursting onto a September sky and concerts heralded by international and local singers crooning into the night. This year’s celebration was hardly mooted by the threat of the Coronavirus as thousands thronged the entertainment spots, most sporting face masks and observing the social protocols brought upon by the pandemic. Families and singles, Saudis and expats, all were out in throngs to celebrate. Even the warm and humid September air could not deter the fun-seekers who were out to celebrate.

While there was order and decorum at most of the venues, a few reported civil disturbances by crowds getting involved in brawls and exhibiting unsocial behaviour. Those scenes were quickly captured on smartphones and sent out to various groups. Surprisingly in one such clip, a group of women all dressed in their Abayas and Niqabs were at it with each other, some even brandishing sticks to deliver a telling blow. For a society that had for decades veiled its women behind curtains, it was somewhat painful to watch.

In the days that followed, there was a bit of discussion on what transpired to these crowds who transformed what could have been a pleasant event into an ugly one with their unruly behaviour. Social media was not forgiving with many castigating what they saw in the video clips making the rounds, and were obviously disturbed.

Some called for their roundup and suggested that authorities jail these troublemakers for a short period of time to enforce a no-tolerance rule to such unsocial acts. Others were harder on the women involved in the brawl, suggesting that they had no place being outside of their homes on crowded nights. The debates will most likely continue for some time, but what was most obvious that such behaviour did take most of us by surprise. We are generally a mellow society and for this to happen, one must try to understand recent history that perhaps could explain such radical behaviour.

For decades, Saudi society was shackled by the dictates of the feared Saudi religious police who exercised their whims and interpretations of religion en masse over our society. Long-held cultural and social traditions were at odds with the demands of this group that solidified into a powerful unit beginning in the ‘80s of the last century.

For more than three decades, their sermons, edicts and fatwas patterned Saudi society into a very rigid and unyielding one. Women unfortunately fell mostly in their crosshairs as fatwa upon fatwa was being released, each more restrictive than the previous one. They couldn’t drive, they couldn’t work among men, they couldn’t attend entertainment fixtures, no cinemas or venues of entertainment and the list goes on. This suffocating suppression was bound to explode once the chains were off.

When King Salman took over and the Crown Prince took the decision to abolish the powers of the feared religious police, suddenly it seemed that all bets were off. The society was no longer shackled.

For most people the transition was smooth as people settled in their lives free from the distractions of sermons exhorting them to steer away from evil. But yet there remain some among us who are yet to understand their place in a civil society and are prone to disturbance.

For them the fever remains, but with time and the examples around them, it will undoubtedly abate.


Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.


US Shakes Up Iraqi Factions with Reported Warning On Militias

By Ali Mamouri

Sep 25, 2020

As the attacks against US and other foreign missions and bases in Iraq continue, the United States is warning the Iraqi government that it will take action against the militias involved in the attacks if it fails to do so itself.

A source attending a meeting called by Iraqi President Barham Salih, attended by many Iraqi political and faction leaders, told Al-Monitor that Salih told the participants that he had received a letter from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning Iraq that if the attacks against the United States do not stop, it will close its embassy in Baghdad and target all involved militias without distinction.

Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari confirmed what the source had told Al-Monitor, when he wrote on Twitter Sep. 24, “Recent stern warning by @SecPompeo to #Iraq-presidency is the most serious threat to Iraq stability. #Iraqi leaders have to rise to the challenges posed by armed militia to target #US diplomatic & military installations. Iraq has to stop this carnage & act responsibly.”

Following the meeting, a fierce debate took place between a group of militias supporting the attacks against the United States and other foreign missions, on the one hand, and head of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Falih al-Fayadh and head of PMU’s Fatah bloc Hadi al-Amiri, on the other.

Fayadh and Amiri took strong action against the militias, asking them to stop all attacks, since the United States has already started withdrawing its troops from Iraq. They warned them that US actions might include bombing the militias' bases.

Moreover, it seems that Fayadh and Amiri are both afraid of getting on the US blacklist, especially as Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is gaining traction at home and internationally for cracking down on militias not under state control.

In a positive response to the US message, the Fatah bloc issued a statement condemning the attacks against US and British convoys, demanding providing full protection to the foreign missions in Iraq.

Fayadh also issued a statement condemning any attacks in the name of the PMU, assuring that the PMU is a legal security force under full supervision of the commander in chief of the armed forces.

In addition, he fired two prominent PMU leaders Sep. 24, replacing them with new faces.

According to Fayadh's statement, the leader of the 18th Brigade known as Saraya al-Khorasani, Sayyed Hamed al-Jazaeri, has been fired; Ahmed al-Yaseri has replaced him. In addition, leader of the 30th Brigade, for the Shabak in the Ninevah Plains, Waad Qaddo, has been replaced with Zain al-Abedin Kheder.

The two factions have been accused of attacking the protectors and minorities in the Ninevah Plains, respectively.

Kadhimi has been making a series of changes in the government’s security bodies, including the appointment of former Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi as head of the operations center in the intelligence service and former Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji as the new national security adviser.

Kadhimi also started cracking down on corrupt figures funding the militias.

Bahaa Abdul-Hussein, director of Qi Card Company, was arrested attempting to leave the country with the help of Shebl al-Zaidi, secretary-general of Kataib al-Imam Ali.

Following the arrest, two top officials at Baghdad airport including the head of the passport section were fired and arrested by security forces. More arrests in this case are expected in the near future.

However, these actions do not seem to be enough to stop the militias from attacking foreign convoys and bases, which is happening on a daily basis currently.

For the first time, the Iranian Foreign Ministry condemned Sep. 17 the attack on its rival’s diplomatic missions after the attack on the British convoy. It seems that some of the elements within the militias are no longer under the control of Iran, as was the case during the rule of Iran's top commander Qasem Soleimani.

In fact, the absence of Soleimani was not only the removal of a commander, but it was the collapse of an entire system that relied on him personally.

However, Iran needs to regain control over its elements in Iraq in order to use them as a card in future negotiations with the United States.

On the other hand, closing down the US Embassy in Baghdad would definitely create a vacuum that can be used by Iranians in Iraq, similar to what happened in 2018 when the United States decided to close its consulate in Basra.

In fact, there are many political and diplomatic tools for the United States in the current circumstances that can be used to put an end to the militias' attacks. Among them, opening a dialogue with some of the leaders close to the militias like Amiri and Fayadh is an important step that should not be disregarded. Figures like them with one foot in politics and the other in the PMU know very well the consequences of the closing of the US Embassy, especially in this very difficult economic situation.


Middle East’s Troubles Spill over to the Balkans

By Sinem Cengiz

September 25, 2020

The Balkan region has become an area of interest for a wide array of foreign players, from China to the US and from Europe to Russia. Since the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, it is also a region of priority for Turkey, which has emerged as a significant player in the last two decades with its increasing economic and political influence.

From Ankara’s perspective, the Balkan countries are not only significant due to the political, economic and geographical aspects, but also due to historical, cultural and humanitarian ties. However, despite its importance, the political developments in the Balkan Peninsula do not occupy the first few pages of Turkish newspapers, which are dominated by issues related to the EU, the Middle East and the US. However, the latest developments have proven that the Balkan region is not immune to the spillover effects of the Middle East’s conflicts.

American President Donald Trump this month announced that Serbia and Kosovo had agreed to normalize economic ties with Israel as part of US-brokered talks. After two days of meetings with Trump administration officials, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed separate agreements with the US, in which Serbia agreed to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and Kosovo agreed to normalize relations and establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Hailing the move and expecting further movement from Pristina, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter: “I welcome the agreement with Kosovo to be the first Muslim state to open an embassy in Jerusalem. Serbia will be the first country to open an embassy in Jerusalem — following the historic breakthrough with the United Arab Emirates.”

Following these announcements, Ankara immediately reacted. The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a written statement expressing its deep concern over both Serbia and Kosovo’s decisions. Ankara called on Kosovo to respect the law and to avoid steps that could prevent it from being recognized by other countries in the future. The ministry also pointed out that Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and had supported the country in its attempts to be recognized by the international community.

Kosovar President Hashim Thaci on Sunday paid a visit to Istanbul, where he met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. No details of the meeting have been provided so far. Thaci posted on Twitter: “Thankful to President (Erdogan) for the warm hospitality and productive conversation on all issues of mutual interest, including bilateral cooperation, regional and global issues. Our two nations enjoy friendly relations and will further strengthen the strategic partnership.”

The EU shared the same concerns as Turkey and is not happy with the US-mediated talks between Serbia and Kosovo. EU-facilitated negotiations between the two countries began in 2011 but stalled in November 2018 and only resumed this summer after a parallel US negotiating effort began. European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said: “There is no EU member state with an embassy in Jerusalem,” adding that the decisions of Serbia and Kosovo to apparently open embassies in Jerusalem constitute “a matter of great concern and regret.” Brussels urged both countries to align their foreign policy stances with the common EU position concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In the meantime, according to media reports, Serbia will not relocate its embassy to Jerusalem if Israel recognizes Kosovo.

Turkey’s relationship with Serbia has had its ups and downs over the years, including in 2013, when Erdogan said in a speech: “Do not forget that Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo.” However, in the past few years, Turkey and Serbia have enjoyed full diplomatic relations, as the latter considers a stable Turkey to be vital for the Balkan region. Likewise, Erdogan, who visited Belgrade in October last year, has described Serbia as “a key country for peace and stability in the Balkans,” saying that cooperation with Serbia had reached an “ideal” level.

In February, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Montenegro as part of efforts to increase Turkey’s involvement in the Balkans. During his visit, Ankara and Podgorica announced plans to boost diplomatic, defines and economic relations. Meanwhile, the Albanian parliament in July passed a deal signed with Ankara to improve defines and economic cooperation. In fact, most Balkan countries have appeared determined to deepen their defines links with Turkey in recent years.

Turkey has also played a significant role in promoting Balkan countries’ involvement in NATO, including supporting Macedonia’s successful bid for membership of the alliance. Since 1995, Ankara has taken part in all NATO operations in the Balkans and has dispatched its servicemen to serve with international security forces in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In addition to the bilateral dimension, it is significant to add an international aspect. Russia takes a particularly strong and active interest in this region. Despite Turkey’s increasing cooperation with Moscow in the Middle East, there isn’t yet any coordination between the two in the Balkans. However, given the friction in Turkish-US ties and Washington’s intentions to boost its military presence in the Balkans, particularly in Greece, Russia may appear to be an actor Ankara might like to cooperate with. The US already has four military bases in Bulgaria and elements of the US missile defines shield are deployed in Romania. Unlike Washington, Russia has not deployed any troops to the region.

Even though the conflicts of the Middle East spill over its borders, the Balkan region seems to have so far remained outside of the scope given the Russian and American involvement in the region.


Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East.


European Nations Should Do The Right Thing And Bring Home The Extremists They Exported

By Peter Welby

September 25, 2020

The case of El-Shafee El-Sheikh was back in the news this week. He is one of the most notorious terrorists produced by the West in recent decades, although many will not be familiar with his name.

Together with Mohammed Emwazi, Alexanda Kotey and Aine Davis, he was allegedly one of four British extremists fighting for Daesh, collectively known as “The Beatles,” who were assigned to guard foreign hostages. Their notoriety comes from the fact that they are believed to have murdered, on camera, at least 29 people, including two Americans, two Britons, two Japanese and 22 Syrians.

El-Sheikh does not deny being a member of Daesh, although he denies the allegations of murder and torture. He and Kotey were captured by Kurdish forces in Syria in 2018 and handed over to the US. They remain in military custody in Iraq.

This week, El-Sheikh’s mother lost a final legal battle in her efforts to prevent British intelligence services from handing over evidence they gathered against El-Sheikh and Kotey to US authorities ahead of a trial.

In the absence of that evidence, the US was threatening to transfer the pair into Iraqi custody, where they would likely face a rapid trial and possible execution.

El-Sheikh’s mother also lost a case before the English High Court last year during which it was argued that the transfer of evidence to authorities in the US breached data protection rights. She appealed to the Supreme Court, and won on the grounds that her son might face the death penalty. Since then, however, the US government has given assurances that it will not seek the death penalty in the case, which is why the latest court ruling cleared the way for the evidence to be handed over.

There is another aspect to this case. Just as in the cases of Shamima Begum and a number of other Britons who traveled to join Daesh, El-Sheikh and Kotey were stripped of their British citizenship. “Not our problem,” was the attitude of the British government. It was, in effect, throwing its own dirty laundry into a neighbor’s garden.

The UK is not alone in doing this; other European states have done the same. Flushed with relief that these men and women left their own country to wreak carnage in someone else’s, European governments acted to make sure they could not come back.

These kinds of policies are popular but that does not make them right. There are two principles at stake: Justice and fairness. Neither of these principles apply directly to the extremists themselves. Although many who have been interviewed since capture express regret and remorse for their actions, they have no grounds to complain about the consequences that they face, however hard they may be. But the principles of justice and fairness apply more widely.

Justice is the demand of civilized society as a whole that there should be clearly defined consequences for wrongdoing, applied as consistently as possible and in which there is accountability for one’s actions. It is justice that demands a fair trial during which the defendant can present their best defense, and in which their guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. It is justice that reassures victims and their families that however random a crime, there is still a sovereign authority that is capable of imposing order.

The principle of fairness demands that countries should take responsibility for their own citizens. When a country grants citizenship, whether through birth or long-term residence, it is not only giving an individual a passport and a collection of rights and duties. It is also making a statement to the world: “This person is now one of ours. We are responsible for them.”

When countries do not take the process of granting citizenship seriously, they are left with obligations they regret. But it should not be possible simply to disown those obligations.

The US is not innocent of this sort of behavior, either. But it does take the principle of citizenship more seriously than most European states. In February 2019, President Donald Trump tweeted about his disappointment that European countries were refusing to take back their extremists.

In the case of El-Sheikh and Kotey, the US has an interest in prosecuting them because their alleged crimes involved US citizens. However, the Americans cannot prosecute every Daesh fighter they capture, and nor should they.

Trump’s way of making his points on Twitter, without couching them in diplomatic language, is not popular in Europe. But, as with his grumbles about contributions to NATO, his complaint that European countries are not pulling their weight in the pursuit of global security is not without merit.

There are two alternatives to the US prosecuting European extremists in its custody: Hand them over to local law enforcement in the countries where they were captured, or release them.

If Iraqi or Syrian law enforcement had the capacity or the will to provide fair, open and thorough trials for the hundreds of European extremists in custody, this might be the most appropriate option. It is right that criminals should face justice in the country where they commit their crimes. But the Iraqi judicial system has clearly been overwhelmed by the number of cases it is processing.

Releasing the prisoners, on the other hand, would exacerbate the security situation in the region and pose threats to their countries of origin as well. There is a simple solution to this dilemma: European states should make arrangements, introducing new laws if necessary, to bring the extremists home to face their nation’s justice.


Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world.




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