'Risk of a mass breakout' at ISIS prison camps in Syria: report

ISIS prisoners pose "one of the most significant risks" to the mission.

Published on Wednesday, the quarterly Inspector General report -- covering January through March of this year -- provided Congress an update on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria using information from the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

More than a year after the U.S.-led coalition and its partners liberated the final territory of the so-called ISIS caliphate in Syria, the coalition said that the ISIS prisoners pose "one of the most significant risks to the success of the (defeat-ISIS) mission."

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America's majority-Kurdish partner who did most of the ground fighting in Syria, still hold approximately 2,000 foreign fighters and 8,000 Iraqi and Syrian fighters in about 20 detention centers in northeast Syria, the report said.

Concerns about an ISIS prison break escalated in October as some SDF guards were pulled from prisons to join fighting against Turkish forces who had invaded northern Syria. While only a small number of detainees reportedly escaped, riots at the Hasakah detention center in late March again highlighted the tenuous security situation with a top Kurdish general calling for a "quick radical solution to this international problem."

While the SDF "continues to be committed to physically securing the prisons," the coalition said they didn't seen a change in the group's ability to maintain the prison camps or observe evidence of any improvement in the perimeter security of camps.

The coalition does train and equip the SDF prison guards, as well as help construct more prison structures. However, the report noted that the novel coronavirus pandemic prevented site survey teams from visiting potential detention-related construction sites, according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

Additionally, the SDF prefer to build additions to existing structures rather than construct new prisons, which the report said could limit the expansion and improvement of the current facilities.

In March, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, CENTCOM commander, called the coalition's efforts to train and equip prison guards and construct prison structures "a tactical-level Band-Aid, not a long-term solution."

"Military solutions do not exist for the issues of de-radicalization and repatriation of (foreign terrorist fighters)," McKenzie told Congress. "They are international problems requiring international solutions."

The U.S. government has long-urged countries to repatriate their citizens held in SDF prison camps, but many have been unwilling to do so, and some -- including the United Kingdom -- have even stripped ISIS fighters of their citizenship. The report said that while the SDF have signaled they would try ISIS fighters in a local judicial system, it's unclear how the group could do so given they are not an internationally recognized government.

While the coalition ended its dedicated prison support mission in Syria in November 2019, the coalition formed the Northeast Syria Coordination Group (NESCG) "to work with partner countries, agencies, and multi-national entities to address problems associated with the detention centers and displacement camps."

Though not located in Syria, the report stated that NESCG has been "able to respond quickly to requests to support the repatriation of foreign fighters or to organize resources to assist the SDF in maintaining the facilities."