The American military is moving to take as many as several dozen Islamic State detainees out of Kurdish-run wartime prisons in northern Syria, including two British men already in custody who are notorious for their roles in the torture and killing of Western hostages, according to United States officials.
The decision comes as the Turkish military moved into northern Syria after getting a green light from President Trump. Turkey is targeting the American-backed Kurds — known as the Syrian Democratic Forces — who were the primary allies of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. The Turkish invasion called into question the militia’s ability to continue securely holding some 11,000 captured ISIS fighters.
Mr. Trump has said that Islamic State detainees will become Turkey’s responsibility, and it is not clear what his administration’s long-term plan will be for those who would instead come into the American military’s custody.
For now, the military was taking at least some of the men to Iraq, where the United States has a base where it has held a handful of Islamic State detainees with American citizenship before transferring them to domestic soil — or, in one case, releasing a detainee in Bahrain.
But their home countries have resisted repatriating them, Iraq has been reluctant to take many ISIS members captured in Syria, and there are legal challenges to taking them to the American wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
However, the government does have an eventual plan for the two British men, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey: The Justice Department wants to bring them to trial in Virginia. They were part of a four-member British cell that the Islamic State put in charge of Western hostages, who nicknamed them the “Beatles” because of their accents.
Among their victims was James Foley, the American journalist who was beheaded in August 2014 for an ISIS propaganda video. Another member of the cell, Mohammed Emwazi, or “Jihadi John,” is believed to have killed Mr. Foley. Mr. Emwazi was later killed in a drone strike.
But a court fight in Britain has delayed their transfer. The lawsuit is over whether the British government may share evidence with the United States without an assurance that American prosecutors will not seek the death penalty.
The British government has shown witness statements about the two men to the Justice Department, but testimony from British government officials would also probably be necessary at any trial. Mr. Elsheikh’s mother has filed a lawsuit seeking to block such cooperation because the United States government has not promised it will not seek to execute her son. Britain has abolished the death penalty.
The American military had been making contingency plans to get a list of about five dozen of the highest-priority detainees from that group out of northern Syria since December, when Mr. Trump first announced that he would withdraw troops from the country before his administration slowed down that plan, one official said.
Mr. Trump’s decision to let Turkey proceed prompted the military to start getting those prisoners out, lest they escape amid the chaos and as the Kurds pull guards out of the prisons to help fight. But the detainees were scattered among numerous makeshift prisons, and it was not clear how many on the list would ultimately be taken, the official said.
The Washington Post earlier reported on the move to transfer custody of detainees, including the two British men.
Mr. Trump’s decision to clear the way for Turkey to launch its operation into northern Syria is bringing to an abrupt crisis a long-simmering problem: About 50 countries have citizens in the Kurds’ prisons for ISIS fighters — and in the displaced persons camps where tens of thousands of ISIS women and children are held — and have been reluctant to repatriate them, instead leaving them in the Kurds’ hands indefinitely.
The male fighters the Kurds are holding include about 9,000 local Syrians and Iraqis, as well as 2,000 foreign fighters — including scores from Western Europe. Many European law enforcement officials fear that if they repatriate their extremist citizens, they would be unable to convict them or keep them locked up for a long time.
After Britain declined to bring Mr. Elsheikh and Mr. Kotey home for prosecution, instead stripping them of their citizenship, the United States government weighed various options for handling them itself before deciding to prosecute them in civilian court once it obtained all of the evidence it needed.
A person familiar with the exchange said that Attorney General William P. Barr has asked Mr. Trump to make keeping the two British men detained a priority so they could eventually face prosecution in the United States. The president agreed to do so, the person said.
The Trump administration had also toyed with sending the two British men to the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for a period of indefinite wartime detention without trial. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who is a close ally of Mr. Trump’s but has criticized his Syria policy, has advocated that step.
But the military opposes becoming more deeply involved in long-term detention operations, and there are steep legal obstacles to taking the men to Cuba.
Among those challenges, transfer restrictions Congress imposed to block President Barack Obama from carrying out his plan to close the Guantánamo prison would make it illegal to transfer the men, once at the base, to domestic American soil for an eventual trial before a civilian court, and the military commissions system at Guantánamo is widely seen as dysfunctional.
It is also not clear whether legal authority exists to hold Islamic State members — as opposed to members of Al Qaeda — in indefinite wartime detention. Once in Guantánamo, the detainees would have the right to file habeas corpus lawsuits challenging the legality of their detention, raising the risk of a ruling that the larger war effort against ISIS has been illegal.
Eric Schmitt and Katie Benner contributed reporting.
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