European Interest

The fate of French jihadists held in Syria

Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
Fighters of the International Freedom Battalion in Rojava, Syria.

The French foreign ministry announced on January 29 that French jihadists detained in Syria by Kurdish-led forces could be allowed to return home. This change of policy is sparked by the planned US troop withdrawal.

As reported by FRANCE 24, Kurdish-led forces are closing in on the last pockets of terrain held by the Islamic State (IS) group. And now France is concerned that French prisoners held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could be released or escape after US President Donald Trump announced plans last month to pull US forces out of Syria.

“Given the development of the military situation in northeast Syria, the American decisions, and to ensure the security of the French, we are examining all options to avoid the escape and scattering of these potentially dangerous individuals,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

“If the forces who are guarding the French fighters took the decision to expel them to France they would be immediately placed in the hands of the law,” it added.

The announcement came as a FRANCE 24 team in Syria interviewed a French “jihadi bride” – who identified herself only as “Mathilde” – and stated that she wanted to “return to France”.

The choice, according to Mathilde, was either returning to France to face prison or remaining in the last IS group-held territory and getting killed. “I chose to go to prison, others chose to die,” she said.

Speaking to French TV station BFM earlier on January 29, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner linked the decision to the US withdrawal. He said: “The Americans are pulling out of Syria. There are currently people in prison (in a Kurdish-controlled part of Syria) and who are being held because the Americans are there and who will be freed”.

According to FRANCE 24, there are no official estimates of how many French nationals could be repatriated.

A French security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) that 130 people could be repatriated, confirming a figure reported by the BFM news channel which said the group included men and women.

But the French foreign ministry said in its statement that it could “in no way confirm” the figure of 130.

Up to 1,700 French nationals are thought to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with the IS group between 2014-2018, according to French government figures.

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