Government of Iraq Options for Islamic State Detainees

Loren Schofield is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Non-Commissioned Officer with 16+ years’ experience in Special Operations and Unconventional Warfare.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  With the renewed offensive against the Islamic State (IS) by the Government of Iraq (GoI), what should be done with captured IS fighters and how can the GoI prevent future incursions?

Date Originally Written:  February 20, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  February 27, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the GoI as they consider what to do with captured IS fighters.

Background:  Mosul is the last major stronghold in Iraq for IS.  This past week the GoI launched an offensive to take back the western side of Mosul which will prove to be much tougher than retaking the eastern half of the city.  Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) warn that there could be up to 650,000 civilians trapped in territory still controlled by IS[1].  The offensive started just as graphic videos appeared on social media showing men in Iraqi Security Force (ISF) uniforms beating and killing unarmed people on the streets of Mosul[2].

Significance:  The manner in which the ISF treats captured IS fighters, as well as civilian non-combatants, will have long-term effects for the GoI.  How IS fighters and civilian non-combatants are handled post-capture will affect the rebuilding of Iraq, the GoI’s reputation within the international community, and will be watched by the GoI’s enemies.

Option #1:  The GoI and ISF treat all captured IS fighters and civilian non-combatants in accordance with the Geneva Convention and other applicable laws related to human rights and armed conflict.

Risk:  Option #1 will force the GoI and ISF leadership to take a firm hand with their personnel who are caught violating the Geneva Convention and other applicable laws related to human rights and armed conflict.  Option #1 forces the GoI to take a very unpopular position (unpopular with Iraq’s own people as well as the ISF) which could risk GoI political positions during the next elections.  Punishment of ISF who mistreat captured IS fighters and civilian non-combatants could even cause some of the ISF to mutiny thus splitting the force when cohesion is needed.

Gain:  By adhering to the Geneva Convention and other applicable laws related to human rights and armed conflict it puts the GoI and ISF on the moral high ground and shows the world that even in this difficult situation, the GoI and ISF place a priority on human rights and international law.  This will encourage NGO’s and other organizations that provide aid to come in and help the Iraqis rebuild their country.  Option #1 prevents members of the coalition from potentially removing their forces at the time the ISF is most in need should ISF mistreatment of captured IS fighters become publicly known and politically sensitive.  Option #1 will set a precedent and show the Iraqi people who were stuck in territory controlled by IS that they will be treated humanely once freed.

Option #2:  The Supreme Court of Iraq classifies IS as an invading force, tries every IS member on Iraqi soil in absentia, finds them guilty of crimes against humanity or a similar charge, and sentences them to death.  The GoI announces this verdict through all manner of media, to include leaflet drops over IS territory.  The GoI makes it clear that IS fighters will not be captured.  In essence, the GoI uses IS propaganda videos and the understanding of how IS trains and brainwashes their own fighters against them.

Risk:  With IS fighters knowing that surrender is not an option they will dig in and fight harder.  Even though there are many IS fighters who already plan to do this, there will always be a percentage that might potentially surrender.  With Option #2’s declaration those IS fighters who would surrender has been turned to zero.  The fighting will now be more dangerous and more brutal and cause more ISF fatalities.  The fighting will take longer, cause more civilian casualties, and cause worse damage to existing infrastructure.

Gain:  Option #2’s psychological element is as important as the actual military operation to destroy IS.  This psychological element will weaken IS by using the same type of fear that they are known for against them.  If a route to Syria is left open, some IS fighters may attempt to flee instead of face certain death (probably the same percentage of fighters will consider this as would consider surrendering).  Option #2 will also prevent long-term and expensive trials where detainee status (combatant, prisoner of war, criminal, insurgent etc.) may be used by lawyers to delay or extend trials.  The strategy of not capturing IS fighters as they are considered an invading force by the Supreme Court of Iraq will send a message to unfriendly State or non-state actors and may act as a deterrent.  If Option #2’s death sentence is only used on actual IS fighters, and not against the civilian non-combatants who were forced to support IS, the military and political leadership will likely see mass approval from Iraqi citizens.

Other Comments:  While the legalities of the Supreme Court of Iraq trying every IS fighter in absentia may be questionable, it allows coalition forces who want to support the GoI to continue in their support.  It may be a gray area, but sometimes gray is good enough.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Graham-Harrison, Emma, Fazel Hawramy, and Matthew Taylor. “Iraq Launches West Mosul Offensive as Torture Videos Emerge.” The Guardian, February 19, 2017.

[2]  Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Iraqi PM Announces West Mosul Attack as Images of Security Forces’ Brutality Emerge.” The Guardian, February 19, 2017.

Detention Iraq Islamic State Variants Loren Schofield Option Papers Psychological Factors