Samir Bougana, a 24-year-old Italian, was one of thousands of western European recruits who traveled to fight alongside the Islamic State after 2014. But he differs from all of them in one key respect: His own government is taking him home to stand trial.
Bougana was captured and held for almost a year by Kurdish forces in Syria before Italy took custody of him, in a decision the State Department praised and urged other western European countries to emulate. But so far, none of them has taken one of its citizens back to face a terrorism trial for joining ISIS.
Some 2,000 suspected fighters from dozens of countries, including hundreds from Europe, languish in Kurdish detention in northeastern Syria, and the Trump administration has been pushing its democratic allies to bring them home to face justice. Although Donald Trump himself vowed during his campaign to use the prison at Guantánamo Bay—which remains open but hasn’t taken in any new prisoners since 2008—and “load it up with some bad dudes,” his administration’s actual policy has been far more humane and measured.
Prisoner repatriation is a rare issue wherein the administration’s efforts largely align with the recommendations of legal scholars and human-rights groups. Many have argued that, in democracies at least, there is no more legitimate, efficient, and secure way to handle terrorism suspects than to use the domestic criminal-justice system. They have condemned such practices as stripping citizenship, which the U.K. did in the case of the 19-year-old ISIS bride Shamima Begum, or allowing their nationals to stand trial in Iraq, which has a documented history of prisoner abuse and unfair trials, as France has done with several of its citizens.