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At its peak, the so-called Islamic State controlled a landmass roughly the size of the United Kingdom and ruled over 11 million people in Syria and Iraq. Today its followers are homeless, many living in camps in northeast Syria, after ISIS’s territory was retaken. And hundreds of foreign women and children who used to call the aspiring state home are now weighing returns to their countries of origin in the West.
Many of those countries are resistant, including Britain, France, and the United States. But some experts argue that it is the best route forward. “Countries should take responsibility for their own citizens,” says Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “This is especially true for countries with strong legal systems like the United States.”
Failure to repatriate and put ISIS remnants through the legal system will simply encourage other nations to shirk their responsibility vis-a-vis their citizens stuck in Syria, argues Mr. Byman. It will also make the long-term situation more dangerous, as jihadists will try to hide out and turn to militant groups for support and protection.
While the so-called Islamic State has been ousted from the territory once called its caliphate in northeast Syria, how firmly it remains dug into the minds of its former followers, especially those followers who crossed the world to join, remains a concern for many.
Concentrated in camps of northeast Syria not far from the Turkish and Iraqi borders, the former citizens of the ISIS state include men, women, and children. Fenced off from the rest by their Kurdish keepers are hundreds of foreign women and children who were once inhabitants of the aspirant state and are now left adrift. Many are weighing a return to their countries of origin in the West.
But in doing so, they raise a host of issues for their native lands. Those include whether and how to reintegrate adults, who at least for a time were steeped in ISIS’s anti-Western dogma, and what to do with their children, most of whom are too young to even understand the political obstacles keeping them in a camp where resources are scarce and infant mortality high.
Handling these people “requires special security measures. This requires international agreement on judicial proceedings,” says Farhad Youssef, a member of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as he sits on a plastic chair outside a military base near Ain Issa, a camp holding ISIS foreigners displaced in earlier offensives. “The children, the second generation of ISIS, need cultural centers and rehabilitation opportunities. This is an international problem, and their home countries have to step up to the plate.”
‘Everyone despises them equally’
But for the most part, those home countries are in no rush to do so.
At its peak, ISIS controlled a landmass roughly the size of the United Kingdom and ruled over 11 million people in Syria and Iraq. Tens of thousands of foreigners crossed the porous borders of Turkey to join: men bent on jihad, women seduced online, and even families drawn by the moral order presented in glossy online magazines and other forms of Islamic State propaganda.
The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London estimates that 41,480 people – including 4,761 women and 4,640 children – from 80 countries were affiliated with ISIS. Some have died convinced of their ideas. Others changed their minds and made it home to face justice. The foreigners who have survived and stayed until the end, falling back with the group amid battlefield losses, are widely seen as the most ardent of ISIS supporters. Foreign minors, according to the researchers, “possess the ideological commitment and practical skills to pose a potential threat upon return to their home countries.”
The Kurdish-led SDF have signaled for months that they do not have the capacity or the appetite to bring to justice or care for all the foreigners who have come under their custody. But there has been huge reticence from Western countries and other nations to take responsibility for their citizens and former residents.
Earlier this year the British home secretary, Sajid Javid, revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum, who joined the group at age 15 and lost three of her children in Syria. France, meanwhile, is hoping to route its citizens who joined ISIS to Iraq for prosecution, despite concerns from both counterterrorism experts and human rights groups. Fourteen French suspected ISIS members, some of them of Arabic origin, are now on trial in Baghdad after having been extradited from Syria.
In the United States, Washington has refused to readmit Hoda Muthana, an American-born daughter of a Yemeni diplomat who traveled from Alabama to Syria to join ISIS. The government claims that neither she nor her son are Americans because her father was a diplomat for Yemen at the time of her birth and children of diplomats are not entitled to birthright citizenship. Her lawyers dispute that, arguing her father had lost his diplomatic status before she was born, and note that she had been granted a U.S. passport.
Ms. Muthana made the decision to go to Syria in 2014, a time when ISIS was at the height of its propaganda offensive, releasing grisly videos of beheadings. Hassan Shibly, a lawyer for Ms. Muthana’s family, says ISIS recruiters found her on a benign Muslim-only forum and then radicalized her through direct communications. The social media account under her name praised the killings of Westerners.
Mr. Shibly says that whatever her legal situation, Ms. Muthana and her son are caught between a rock and a hard place. Her father wants her back; her mother wants the same but is no longer on speaking terms with her daughter.
“It is important to understand that the average American Muslim and the average world citizen is on the same page when it comes to hating ISIS,” Mr. Shibly says. “Everyone despises them equally. So it is quite horrific when a parent learns that a child joined ISIS. There is concern she was brainwashed and groomed. At the same time they feel she should have known better. They are very, very hurt by these decisions that she took and the approach that she took.”
The argument for bringing them home
Experts such as Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, say that Western nations are making a mistake by not taking their ex-ISIS women and children back. “Countries should take responsibility for their own citizens,” he says. “This is especially true for countries with strong legal systems like the United States.”
Failure to repatriate and put ISIS remnants through the legal system will simply encourage other nations to shirk their responsibility vis-a-vis their citizens stuck in Syria, he argues. It will also make the long-term situation more dangerous, as jihadists will try to hide out and turn to militant groups for support and protection.
It is possible, Mr. Byman says, for women and children to find a peaceful coexistence in Western societies even after the indoctrination and traumas they endured under ISIS. “Western societies regularly work with people who are family members of violent organizations, treating them as citizens and at times giving them extra support,” he says.
“For women, however, it is important to recognize that many women who went to Syria wanted to join ISIS or otherwise support the group. The assumption that ‘woman = victim’ is true sometimes but is often false,” he adds.
The children of ISIS are particularly vulnerable, observers say. Save The Children warns that there are more than 2,500 children from 30 countries living in dire conditions in camps in northeastern Syria after fleeing the last patch of territory held by ISIS on the Iraqi border.
“All children who have lived under Isis control have experienced horrific events – violence, acute deprivation, and bombardment,” the charity said in an open letter to political leaders in Australia, which has up to 70 children born to foreign fighters in Syria. “Many have lost loved ones. And now they languish in dangerous camps in north-east Syria, where children are sick and malnourished, and there isn’t enough food to go around.”
Nadim Houry, the director of terrorism and counterterrorism programs at Human Rights Watch, says that the response of Western states and all countries of origin should be governed by the recognition that these children are victims: Whether they were taken to territory held by the Islamic State group, or born there, they are victims first of circumstances and decisions made by their parents. “It doesn’t matter if they are under ten or over ten,” he says. “There is a legal and moral duty on states to bring back these children to allow them a chance to live normal lives, to reintegrate and support them in that process.”
The precedent in international law, he adds, is very clear. Child soldiers are considered the victims of recruitment of adults. If these children joined ISIS but did not commit violent crimes themselves, there is little point in prosecution.
“If you look at how the West looked at child soldiers of Liberia and the conflicts, there should be no difference just because there is an ISIS label,” he says. “The majority of the children that I have seen in these camps are not ones who fought with ISIS; they are not even people who went to school under ISIS. It does not mean that they are not traumatized. ... The priority really should be to reintegrate them.”
The limits of disengagement
Out of European nations, France had the highest number of nationals joining ISIS, although on a per capita basis Belgium comes out on top. To date 67 adults, two-thirds of whom are women, and 82 minors have returned to France. There have been no plots carried out by returnees.
Children have generally been placed with relatives when possible and provided with extra support. There is not yet enough data on ISIS returnee children to determine whether efforts to help them transition back to a semblance of normality in Western societies are working.
As for the adults who stood by ISIS in its final hours, terrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard doubts that they can be rehabilitated.
“Those individuals are the most determined of all, whether we are speaking of men or women,” he says. In France, there have been efforts to get such people either to “disengage” – that is, renounce violence even if they keep their radical notions – or to “deradicalize” – to renounce Salafist or jihadist ideology. But “the logic of deradicalization or disengagement won’t provide any help towards these individuals,” Mr. Brisard says.
The risks of recidivism for terrorists are comparable to those of other criminal offenders, according to research conducted by Mary Beth Altier, a clinical assistant professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. The analysis of 87 autobiographical accounts spanning more than 40 terrorist groups indicates 70 percent of individuals whose disengagement from the organization was involuntary returned to violence.
Dr. Altier says it will take intensive interviewing to establish just how radicalized the individuals who lived in the caliphate have become but that it is important to differentiate between ideological conviction and other motivations, such as a need for belonging and purpose, which can be easier to address.
“At the end of the day, they are just people,” she says. “The best possible case scenario is if they can find a way to reintegrate. Once you limit their alternatives for a conventional life, then they are more likely to go back to terrorism.”