Turkey’s recent military offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) across its border in Syria is primarily aimed at obliterating the Kurd-dominated militia and preempting the establishment of a de facto Kurdish state in its backyard that might one day attempt to devour Turkish territory. Ominously, the marginalisation of the SDF, an alliance of an estimated 60,000 fighters, could lead to the resurrection of the apocalyptic and millenarian Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose phony caliphate was liquidated by the same US-backed alliance in March 2019.
Ankara deems the SDF to be a terrorist outfit because of its ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist militant group locked in a gruesome armed struggle with the Turkish state. Although a Turkey-Russia agreement has momentarily halted the Turkish attack, the inherent inflammability of the complex ground situation could trigger a conflagration anytime.
The disintegration of ISIS had led to the incarceration of thousands of militants who were being guarded by the SDF through an elaborate security paradigm. Given the fact that the Turkish assault has disrupted that paradigm, it is feared that the ISIS belligerents could escape, regroup and once again unleash their sadistic creed upon the world.
This doomsday scenario is also fraught with dire perils for Pakistan. Whilst the majority of the ISIS prisoners are Syrians and Iraqis, an estimated 2,500 ideologically-motivated militants from 54 different countries are also among the inmates. Although no official statistics are available regarding the number of Pakistani nationals who joined ISIS, it would be imprudent to assume that no Pakistani is being held in any Syrian prison.
If militant Pakistanis somehow escape from prisons, they will have three clear options. One, they could stay back in Syria and help resuscitate ISIS or something akin to that monstrosity. Two, they can travel to Afghanistan via Iraq and Iran and try and find a sham cause to fight for and join some ragtag militia of bandits and assassins. Three, they can reach home by traversing Iraq, Iran and crossing into Balochistan at Taftan. Another route could take them to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and then into Pakistan through the inadequately secured Pak-Afghan border. Due to much tighter security controls, air travel cannot be a viable mode of travel for these criminals. Pakistan ought to respond to the potential mischief that the last option represents.
As a first step, Islamabad should ascertain the number of ISIS-affiliated Pakistani nationals incarcerated in Syria. The Turkish military authorities could be approached for the provision of updated and accurate information in this regard. US military officials, who are invariably thorough in such matters, could be another source. Humanitarian organisations operating in northeastern Syria like the Syria International Regional Forum (SIRF) and different subsidiary organisations of the UN could also help. The information so collected should be conveyed to the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) where a database regarding this should be created. If such a database already exists, it should be duly updated. NACTA should share this information with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Pakistan Rangers, Balochistan Levies and the Pakistan Army personnel deployed on the Pak-Afghan border. The Pakistani authorities should apprehend the erstwhile ISIS militants at the border entry points whenever they try to cross into Pakistan. Those who somehow slip through must be arrested from inside the country.
The detained militants should be kept in secure prisons and it should be determined whether they were involved in any illegal activity inside Pakistan before embarking on their sojourn in Iraq and Syria. If any evidence in this regard comes to the fore, they should be proceeded against as per law. If tangible evidence of their criminal deeds in any foreign country is available, they could also be tried in Pakistan in the same manner as if those deeds had been committed in Pakistan. All four provincial police and prosecution outfits should have full institutional preparedness to prosecute these criminals.
However, if it transpires that they had not been involved in any offence, the state should make efforts for their psychiatric and social rehabilitation. High-level boards of psychiatrists should be constituted for an in-depth psychological evaluation of the returnees. The boards should submit detailed recommendations to the government regarding the militants’ rehabilitation and consequent readmission into the society. The Federal Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination should coordinate with the provincial health departments so that the boards could be constituted as per requirement.
Pakistan must be fully cognizant of the security bedlam in northeastern Syria as it can adversely affect its own security. The country’s institutions should not allow these criminals to destabilise Pakistani society which is still reeling from almost two decades of horrific bloodletting. The good people of this country deserve better.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 31st, 2019.
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