Fate of ISIS children poses special problem for Europe

Observers said allowing young children to die in the wilderness or waste away in jails would help the jihadist narrative.
Sunday 17/02/2019
A boy looks on as civilians fleeing the battered Islamic State-held holdout of Baghouz in eastern Syria sit in the back of a truck, February 11.                                                                                    (AFP)
New dilemma. A boy looks on as civilians fleeing the battered Islamic State-held holdout of Baghouz in eastern Syria sit in the back of a truck, February 11. (AFP)

LONDON - Dealing with the children of foreign fighters of Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Syria and Iraq is posing a dilemma for governments in their home countries, especially in Europe.

Many of the foreign fighters and their families are in prison or special camps in Iraq and Syria. At al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria, more than 3,000 foreign women and children are being held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“Thousands are sleeping rough in its reception area, exposed to rain and freezing temperatures. Without enough toilets to accommodate the mushrooming population, children defecate out in the open,” the Telegraph newspaper in London reported.

“Conditions are so bad that in the last two months 35 children have died in or on their way to the camp, from cold or malnutrition, earning it the nickname the ‘Camp of Death’.”

Human rights groups called for the return of the children of ISIS members to their home countries.

“Countries… should ensure that all child nationals detained abroad solely because they are the sons and daughters of alleged or confirmed ISIS members are swiftly and safely brought home unless they fear ill-treatment upon return,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

'Children should be treated as victims'

“Children should be treated, first and foremost, as victims and should not be prosecuted for links to groups such as ISIS, absent evidence of violent acts.”

The European Union has little faith in Syria’s judicial system but it has allowed Europeans suspected of links to ISIS to be tried in Iraq, despite concerns from rights groups.

“Iraq has prosecuted foreign adults and children as young as 9 for links to ISIS — often in procedures that fail fair trial standards — but has also asked countries to take back the children,” said HRW.

Scores of women and children were returned to Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Egypt and Sudan. However, Western countries have been less welcoming amid strong public pressure against such moves.

There are European fears over security, especially because it is difficult to gather evidence to prosecute those who are suspected to have been engaged in terrorism abroad.

The fears are not only concerning the wives of ISIS members but also of their children. Last year, France’s then top counterterrorism prosecutor, Francois Molins, described the children of ISIS members as “time bombs.”

There reportedly had been cases in which children of ISIS members were reunited with relatives in Germany but today there is “no return programme for the children of ISIS members,” the German Foreign Ministry told CNN.

Security threats 

Humanitarian concerns aside, there are risks that leaving ISIS family members in the region could pose a security threat to the Middle East and to the West.

“Currently, the number of global attacks successfully conducted by returning ISIS minors is still comparatively low,” said a report by the London think-tank International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation titled “From Daesh to Diaspora: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State.”

“However, without effective de-radicalisation and reintegration initiatives tailored to children and teenagers, indoctrinated and trained minors will continue to pose a significant threat in the future, wherever they end up,” the report stated.

Observers said allowing young children to die in the wilderness or waste away in jails would help the jihadist narrative.

“Leaving them there only feeds the ISIS narrative that the West hates Muslims, that the West hates Islam,” Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism, told Canada’s CBC News.

“Bringing these kids home and healing them and allowing them to lead productive lives encourages them in the future to stand up against violent extremism — to be a voice against joining things like ISIS and that’s really what we’re hoping for.”

The issue of repatriation in not confined to women and children. Following its announcement of withdrawing its troops from Syria, the United States called for the repatriation of ISIS foreign fighters, a request that Europeans and Canadians are likely to find more objectionable than the return of the families of the jihadists.

ISIS-SDF deals 

SDF militiamen said they could not shoulder the burden of housing ISIS prisoners or their families. The militiamen previously struck deals with ISIS fighters, allowing the jihadists to leave with their heavy weapons.

Even as SDF fighters prepared to take the ISIS-held village of Baghouz in Syria, negotiations between the Kurdish militiamen and ISIS continued for the safe exit of the jihadists without a fight.

Despite US pressure, Washington’s Western allies are not keen to receive ISIS members or their families.

“We’ve heard the request or the suggestion from the United States but, at this point, the fact of the matter remains that is a dangerous and dysfunctional part of the world in which we have no diplomatic presence,” Canada’s Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told CBC News.