The children of ISIS, in limbo in Syria and in the sights of terrorist groups

International NGOs call for the urgent repatriation of the minor children of jihadists from the EU and who have been crowded in Syrian camps since the end of the caliphate

The physical caliphate ceased to exist with the fall of Baghuz in March 2019, but the threat posed by the jihadist group ISIS remains, and even seems to have worsened in recent months, and there is still another important problem unresolved, that of the children. From the militiamen and those who supported them, trapped in camps like Al Hol, in northeast Syria, for whom there is still no way out or response. 

This week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called attention to these guys. According to his office, almost 58,000 minors of 60 nationalities are confined and overcrowded in camps in the area controlled by the Kurdish Syrian militias. More than 8,000 are “third-country nationals,” a figure that does not include Syrians or Iraqis.

“The tremendous conditions in these camps provide fertile ground for extremist or terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, which take advantage of the suffering of the people as a recruitment tool,” Bachelet warned, repeating a message that has become a mantra that both the UN as humanitarian and Human Rights organizations.

In particular, many of these children, or at least their parents, have been criticized for refusing to receive them back. Furthermore, as the UN Chief of Human Rights recalled, in some cases, they are being deprived “of their nationality, potentially making them stateless.”

However, as Bachelet maintained, “once these people have returned to their homes, states can move forward with rehabilitation and reintegration measures, as well as investigations and, if necessary, prosecution” if “there is evidence enough of criminal conduct.”

Repatriated without their mothers

Some countries, including France this week and others such as Belgium or the Netherlands, have proceeded to repatriate some of these minors, sometimes without being accompanied by their parents, particularly their mothers, who are the ones who in the vast majority of the cases they are confined with them in Al Hol, as well as in Ain Issa and Roj.

“Repatriating children without their parents and specifically without parental consent, in cases where the parents are alive, could contravene international law and raise moral questions about the well-being of minors,” stress Myriam Francois and Azeem Ibrahim in the report. ‘The children of Islamic State detainees. The dilemma of Europe ‘, published by the’ think-tank ‘Center for Global Policy (CGP).

The head of the UN Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned about the risk that terrorist groups may recruit the children of ISIS. / REUTERS

“But leaving families in the fields runs the risk of exposing children to further radicalization and growing resentment, which will pose serious security challenges if not addressed,” warn the authors, who also warn of the possibility of that the camps “disintegrate” as a result of a return of the conflict to this part of Syria. This could lead to minors being recruited by armed groups or victims of hostilities.

Keep these children- and their mothers and the rest of the detained in these camps, in appalling conditions, with just basic services and the new threat now of the coronavirus, also assumed, as Francois prevent and Ibrahim, an excellent source of advertising For terrorist groups such as ISIS, the images of the torture of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by the US military were, as they once were.

But it would not be an option for them which, by changes in the composition of forces on the ground, the fields will be controlled by the government of Bashar Assad. In the past, remember, Syrian President proceeded to ” manipulation and the strategic release of prisoners, “referring to jihadists released in the early stages of the conflict, so that detainees, particularly those of Western origin, could become” a bargaining chip.”

“A scenario in which Al Assad threatens to free European prisoners, perhaps transferring them to another conflict, country or offensive, such as Idlib, unless their demands are met is certainly possible and would coincide with their previous conduct,” experts say.

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“There is little certainty that leaving children and their families in these fields guarantees European security; there is certainly growing evidence to the contrary,” they argue, betting first on the repatriation of minors who have been orphaned and also the rest. , with permission from their families, although they are betting that the mothers are repatriated along with the minors “unless there is a clear and immediate danger to the well-being of the child due to the presence of the mother.”

The risk that they serve as propaganda

On the other hand, they warn that choosing to withdraw citizenship, as has been done in some cases to people who enjoyed dual nationality, “does not resolve the issue and sends the problematic message, which resonates like ISIS propaganda, that the Muslims will never really ‘belong’ to Europe. ” Therefore, they are committed to using all available resources to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute them and “rehabilitate, when possible, those indoctrinated by the Islamic State.”

While this is happening, Francois and Ibrahim defend, it is necessary to create “infrastructures both for secular education and to unlearn the violent ideology ” learned under the yoke of ISIS in the detention camps, given that many of the minors have only known that reality and many of them were born during the ‘caliphate.’ Also, helping them face their transfer to their countries will facilitate “understanding their particular needs and behaviors,” they emphasize.

As Liesbeth van der Heide and Audrey Alexander recall in turn in an extensive report on this issue published by the Counter-Terrorism Center of the American Military Academy at West Point, ISIS has always placed a great “emphasis” on children. As a key element to guarantee their future and, “particularly at its peak, the group dedicated efforts to involve and train their new generations.”

Different stories

Some boys enrolled in the terrorist group by their own decision. In contrast, many others were “associated through family connections or were born under the rule of the Islamic State,” the author’s highlight, and note that therefore the experiences of these minors, particularly those of foreign origin, “are not monolithic” but vary depending on their age, origin, gender or family status.

This also affects the “level of education they achieved, the training they received, and the role they played” and can affect “their exposure to violence,” emphasizing Van der Heide and Alexander. But keeping them in detention centers is also having an impact on them, especially if they don’t get the help and support they need in their situation.

Realistically, the two experts point out, some of these ISIS-related minors “could spend more time-displaced or in detention centers than they lived” under the ‘caliphate’ or in the case of those brought by their parents to the territories under Islamic State control, they could spend “more time in Syria than in their country of birth, distancing them from the culture, community or family to which they could eventually return.”

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