For the last remaining ISIS fighters still holed up in Mosul and for those based in Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, there is increasingly no way out. They are surrounded. Foreign fighters have even less chance of escape, since they’re unable to blend in with locals who are fleeing the battle.
Now, foreign fighters they’re being targeted for extermination—in some cases, by their own countries.
Recently, reports began to surface that France has positioned their special forces inside Iraq with the purpose of targeting and killing French members of ISIS. The French government has since denied that their target was so narrow, without disputing that French nationals have been targeted.
Speaking about foreign fighters in Raqqa, US special envoy Brett McGurk, an attorney by training, made the Coalition position perfectly clear: “Our mission is to make sure that… that any foreign fighter who is here, who joined ISIS from a foreign country and came into Syria, that they will die here in Syria… if they are in Raqqa, they’re gonna die in Raqqa.”
Western governments are treating ISIS strongholds such as Raqqa like a roach motel. It’s a crass analogy, but it fits.
We all know that ISIS members have carried out heinous crimes. But these men and women aren’t cockroaches. They are human beings. They are our human beings. And continuing to dehumanize them will only make the problem worse.
Why should we care how ISIS members are treated?
The war ISIS is waging today isn’t primarily about land. They’ve known for some time that their grip on places like Mosul was weakening—they’ve planned for this moment.
ISIS is waging a war to win the hearts and minds of those who have been isolated, denied opportunity, and left behind by the wider culture. How we handle the war against ISIS, therefore, has a direct impact on how attractive ISIS’ ideals seem to those who are already disenfranchised.
Foreign ISIS members were not radicalized in Iraq and Syria. They were radicalized in our communities: in the United States and Canada, France and Belgium, the United Kingdom, and a long list of other countries too. We don’t want to admit it, but we had a role in their radicalization. Or, at the very least, we had a part to play in preventing it, and we didn’t. We bear some responsibility for their failure to feel connected to our communities and for the lack of economic opportunity that robbed them of hope.
They are our citizens, and no matter how heinous their actions, we must take responsibility for them.
“But they’re monsters! They deserve to die!”
How we treat ISIS fighters isn’t about them or what they deserve. It’s about us.
If these fighters—our former neighbours—don’t deserve the chance to come home and face justice and maybe be reformed… then none of us do. There aren’t two levels of citizenship, there aren’t two classes of human beings. If due process isn’t extended to everyone, it can be denied to anyone.
A dead ISIS fighter lies in the street in Mosul, unburied because people believe he doesn’t deserve it.
When we continue to treat ISIS members as less than human—as vermin who need to be exterminated—we reinforce ISIS’ accusations against us. We prove their point to every disenfranchised person who might consider joining their ranks—“This isn’t your home, you don’t belong, you never belonged, and your neighbours will never fight for you.”
“Bullets and airstrikes will take care of ISIS.”
ISIS can’t be killed with bullets. ISIS can’t be killed with armies. ISIS is an ideology much more than an organization, and ideologies can’t be killed by soldiers.
Last May, before he was killed in an airstrike, ISIS senior spokesman Abu Muhammad Al Adnani said, “Do you think, O America, that defeat is the loss of a city or a land? Were we defeated when we lost cities in Iraq and were left in the desert? Will we be defeated and you will be victorious if you took Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or all the cities, and we returned to where we were in the first stage? No, defeat is the loss of willpower and the desire to fight.”
ISIS is playing the long game. And in the long game, no army can defeat ISIS—but we can.
How ISIS the organization is defeated is central to the defeat of ISIS ideology.
ISIS gives people a reason to kill. We can give people a reason to live.
We can be the kind of people who prove ISIS wrong. We can be the kind of people who live our love so boldly, that ISIS is silenced.
We can be the kind of people who embrace and make space for others, who celebrate the differences that enrich us all, and who weave community so well that few find the idea of ISIS appealing. We can be the kind of curious people who look at those not like us, and seek out the beauty they bring to our communities so we don’t miss out.
And we can be the kind of people who look at those of us who make the very worst choices, who have perpetuated unthinkable crimes, who have extended no mercy to others—and still reach across that enemy line.
We can be the kind of people whose love can unmake violence.