What if… We answered Isis with restorative justice?

The progressive, Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) used to boast a lower incarceration rate than any state bar San Marino, due to its stated principles of restorative, community-led justice. But following the unrecognized region’s successful military campaign to defeat the Islamic State (Isis), the region now has among the world’s highest rates, holding around 2,000 foreign Isis fighters and 8,000 Syrians and Iraqis in jail – plus tens of thousands of Isis-linked women and children in ad hoc detention camps.

As indicated by regular breakout attempts and a January 2022 uprising costing hundreds of lives, these facilities are hotbeds of radicalization, fuelling fears the group will resurge. The West has failed to find a solution, with foreign Isis detainees yet to face justice. Less than four per cent of foreign fighters have been repatriated, while the diplomatically-unrecognized status of the AANES means their nominal allies in the US-led Coalition to Defeat Isis have found it easy to ignore their junior partner’s repeated proposals for an internationally-mediated or Kurdish-led tribunal in northern Syria.

The impoverished, embattled AANES wants to put former members of the terror group on trial in its own courts. Though imperfect, the administration’s trials for local Isis members achieve the region’s highest standards of justice and rule of law. But elsewhere, the administration takes a bolder approach.

Even in former Isis strongholds, ‘reconciliation committees’ and ‘Women’s Houses’ regularly achieve negotiated settlements about serious crimes, led by local elders and women, with a parallel system of criminal courts serving as last resort. Small-scale rehabilitation programmes for Isis exist as well – providing a potential model for a broader approach focused on rebuilding and restoring relationships, rather than punishment.

Rehabilitation requires intense, granular outreach marked by patience and tolerance. For example, the administration’s Huri Centre houses over 100 teenage boys raised, groomed and radicalized by Isis. Rather than a direct, ideological re-education programme, the centre says it focuses on offering a kind, supportive environment. Residents are encouraged to determine their own curriculum, and gradually overcome previous taboos, like looking women in the eye or playing musical instruments.

These youths could one day take a leading role in work with young, groomed recruits. With vastly increased funding, training and support, the Huri Centre ‘pilot project’ could provide an alternative model for thousands of highly-radicalized adult Isis fighters, providing small, focused communities with one-on-one support, rather than dumping them in over-crowded detention facilities while awaiting trial.

Face-to-face meetings with victims of Isis, like those the AANES has successfully used to bring together warring tribes to discuss and bury decades-old blood feuds, could supplement the current, carceral system. Criminal trials for Isis should be accompanied by Truth and Reconciliation-style public meetings, giving all victims a chance to witness and testify – and perpetrators a chance to listen.

At present, in smaller camps and detention facilities, ad hoc seminars and retraining programmes aim to reach less-radicalized Isis-linked women. In former Isis heartlands, AANES-trained imams strive to promote ‘democratic Islam’ over reactionary Salafism. But these programmes are few, underfunded and beset by a deadly ongoing Isis insurgency, including regular assassinations of humanitarian workers.

If the system of village-level communes the AANES proposes was implemented on a nationwide scale, and the security situation vastly improved, it would be possible for ex-Isis recruits to be dispersed under the watchful eye of the same communities they sought to destroy, providing opportunities for both former members and their victims to discuss and heal. Already, some programmes are administered by those who lost family members to the terror group.

In a brighter future, former Isis members could work alongside their victims in the administration’s network of co-operatives and on publicly-funded reconstruction projects, finding common cause and a chance to make reparations through mutual efforts to rebuild their home communities.

The military wing of AANES was trusted to spearhead the campaign against Isis, losing some 11,000 young men and women in the process. Given its successful military collaboration with the West, and commendable efforts to implement transformative, community-led justice elsewhere, why not trust the AANES to lead the more fundamental struggle for the hearts of a generation of potential Isis recruits?