As the notorious Islamic State has been degraded to a mere scrap of territory in Syria, a ragged tent encampment in the eastern village of Baghouz, international community’s attention has been focused on the fate of children born to foreign ISIS fighters, and whether they should be allowed to return to their home countries.
Mathew Levitt, Director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute, told The Globe Post that a new system must be put in place with the purpose of providing a structural framework in determining how to deal with these children on a case by case basis.
“Ultimately, we’re going to have to come up with a system that is either entirely new or has all kinds of new layers to it,” says Levitt.
The issue of allowing foreign ISIS children to return to their country of origin is a complex matter that must take into account the mental and emotional strain these children have endured in their young lives growing up in the Islamic State. Most ISIS children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the traumatic events and atrocious acts of violence they have witnessed.
“This is infinitely more complicated, first of all because the Islamic State has created a Jihadi society in which it has its own curriculum, where children were participants in assassinations and putting bullets in people’s heads,” Levitt said.
He proposed an assessment conducted by professional psychiatrists and clinical social workers, who would be able to put together a program that appropriately deals with such cases. A program, Levitt explained, should be built on existing wealth and data from judicial courts.
“We incarcerate people for crimes, big and small, and we, in the United States and other countries, have systems in place for what to do with child convicted criminals. The problem here is when these children are themselves radicalized or suffering from PTSD,” Levitt said.
~20,000 #Iraqi #ISIS men, women & children are set to be transferred to #Iraq from #Syria in the coming weeks.
That means 1,000s more are set for prison. Taking recent history into account, #ISIS's future looks worryingly secure.https://t.co/yzYLvddO6C pic.twitter.com/CU6HtsOZXb
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) March 12, 2019
Charity organization Save the Children said in a recent press release that 2,500 children from more than 30 different countries have fled ISIS-held areas and are now living in displacement camps in north-east Syria. With many of them being the children of foreign ISIS-affiliated families, the charity organization called upon countries of origin to allow these children to return as citizens.
“Save the Children is calling on countries of origin to take back children who are their citizens and to provide the specialized protection, health, and other rehabilitative support that these children will need upon their return,” Save the Children Representative Caroline Anning told The Globe Post.
Some of these countries include the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, and France.
“Their parents may have joined ISIS voluntarily or by force, or they may have been groomed and recruited as children themselves,” Anning said.
Save the Children’s request came at a time when policymakers and government officials disagree over whether or not European countries should allow the return of ISIS fighters back to their countries of origin.
In the White House, political sentiment rests in prosecuting ISIS fighters in their respective countries. In a tweet, U.S. President Donald Trump called on European allies to take back 800 ISIS fighters with the intent of putting them on trial and prosecuting them.
Determining the policies on how to deal with these ISIS children is important not only from the point of international security and human rights law, it also poses many unanswered questions on what should be done with those minors who were either born into this life or forcibly indoctrinated.
Anning pointed out that there must be a clear distinction in the way these children are seen.
“All children with perceived and actual association with ISIS must be treated primarily as victims,” she said.
Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities have charged 100's of children with terrorism for alleged #ISIS affiliation.
The prosecutions are often based on forced confessions obtained through torture. https://t.co/WwtHnWVTk4 pic.twitter.com/O44TO724wS
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) March 6, 2019
The recent death of a three-week-old boy, whose mother Shamima Begum voluntarily left the U.K. to join ISIS in 2015, is a reminder of the fatal end many newborns face in camps without proper care and attention. Begum, who was stripped of British citizenship, is now pleading for a reversal of the decision.
But with a lack of consular presence in Syria, any effort by British or other foreign governments to aid these children is limited. Even if Begum did not have her citizenship revoked, it is unclear to what extent the U.K. could have helped her and her son.
However, the newborn’s death has brought additional pressure on policymakers in the U.K. In an interview with the BBC, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he, along with International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, is studying ways in which ISIS children can be brought to the U.K.
“This is a war zone. The mother chose to join a terrorist organization. To leave a free country and join a terrorist organization. And we have to think about the safety of the British officials that I would send into that war zone as representative of the government,” Hunt said.