It was 2014 when the public executions of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig awakened the American public and the world to the threat of the Islamic State. In January 2018, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria captured Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, two members of the British jihadist group known as “the Beatles” allegedly responsible for these Americans’ kidnappings, torture and murder.
Soon after their capture, the families of the U.S. victims and their advocates in Congress worked together to make the case to Trump administration officials that these hateful killers must be brought to justice in the U.S., where they can be tried in a fair and open legal system. We continue to believe strongly that these men must not become martyrs to their heinous cause. The Islamic State is masterful at propaganda and will undoubtedly exploit any extrajudicial punishment.
Throughout this process, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish militia, have detained these terrorists, as well as thousands of other Islamic State jihadists in secure detention facilities, aided by the presence of coalition forces and the U.S.
Despite several obstacles along the path to building a successful legal case against Kotey and Elsheikh, we were hopeful that U.S. officials realized the importance of bringing James’ killers to justice and were similarly devoted to our cause. The successful partnership between the U.S. military and the SDF also granted these officials the necessary time to overcome challenges associated with collecting evidence across multiple countries.
The president’s unexpected decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, however, has betrayed the trust the SDF put in the United States. Without U.S. support, the SDF will be in a battle for survival, degrading the group’s ability to oversee the detention of these Islamic State fighters or complete the mission to eradicate the terrorist group in the region. This not only puts the lives of Syrian Kurds in jeopardy but also risks a resurgence of Islamic State violence around the globe. Among the many ramifications, the prospect of justice for James and other Americans murdered by the group could disappear.
The victims’ families and a dedicated cadre of legal and national security officials within the Trump administration who have been diligently working on the Kotey and Elseikh case suddenly must race against the clock. The sudden and undefined nature of this withdrawal also undermines the United States’ role in holding accountable other war criminals in the region.
We cannot forget that Syrian President Bashar Assad is responsible for the carnage and lawlessness that resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 people, including U.S. citizens Marie Colvin, who was allegedly assassinated by Syrian forces in February 2012, and Layla Shweikani, who U.S. sources believe was tortured and executed in an Assad regime jail in 2016. The U.S.cannot abandon remaining hostages who are unjustly held in the country, such as Austin Tice, who was kidnapped in Syria in August 2012 and is believed to be in the custody of either the Syrian government or one of its allies.
Though we are faced with the painful reality that James can never be brought back, we can honor his memory and the memories of all Americans who have lost their lives in Syria by making sure their killers are held accountable. Impunity for these monsters would be a tragedy, especially after so much progress has been made on the cases against James’ killers.
Bringing his killers to the U.S. to face our justice system would not only provide much-needed closure for the affected families but would also serve as a necessary first step in ensuring that terrorists of all stripes, and others who choose to follow in their footsteps, are permanently denied the perverse glory they had sought by killing innocent people.
Therefore, we urge the president to continue prioritizing justice for the Americans lost in Syria and not lose sight of the momentous opportunity that lies ahead of him. We must complete the progress his administration has made and by bringing the men responsible for the deaths of James, Steven, Peter and Kayla to justice — once and for all.
Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, represents New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate and is a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. Diane Foley is the mother of James Foley, an American journalist murdered by the Islamic State in 2014, and founder and president of the James W. Foley Foundation. They wrote this article for the Washington Post.