Dawoud Suleiman plays with a doll as his sisters Dawlat, (l) and Omaima, sit with him in their tent at Dakuk Camp, near Kirkuk, Iraq, on April 15, 2018. Their father and other family members belonged to the Islamic State group. Photo Credit: AP
By: Alexander Yacoubian, Columnist
As ISIS continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, foreign fighters are now attempting to return to their nations of origin. Their children, born in the caliphate, are trapped in political and legal limbo — stateless and without a home, neither citizens of their birth countries nor the Western countries of their parents. But this status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable. Instead of paying the price for the actions of their parents, these children should be recognized as victims and placed in rehabilitation programs in their parents’ countries of origin.
Over 700 children were born in ISIS-held territory to parents of Western nationalities[i], and an additional 4,640 traveled to Syria and Iraq with their parents.[ii] It is difficult to prove the citizenship of many of these children because their parents have been killed and their identification papers have been lost.[iii] Children born in the caliphate received birth papers only from the Islamic State, which the Syrian and Iraqi governments do not recognize.[iv] As such, they do not enjoy the rights of other native children, such as the ability to enroll in schools.[v] Moreover, a number of Western countries have refused to repatriate the children born in ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, citing security concerns.[vi] Therefore, numerous innocent children remain stuck with their parents in camps and detention centers facing an uncertain future.[vii]
Children born in the caliphate witnessed horrific violence while living under Islamic State rule. ISIS designated them as “future soldiers of the caliphate” and indoctrinated these children with the group’s warped interpretation of Islam.[viii] Many received intense military training and were sent into combat, often forced to carry out executions, suicide attacks, and other atrocities.[ix] ISIS often filmed these brutalities and increasingly used children in propaganda to produce sensationalized media. Between 2015-2016 alone, ISIS propaganda included 89 eulogies of child “martyrs.”[x]
Many of these children remain traumatized from the barbarity they witnessed under ISIS. Yet Western nations generally do not view them as victims. Rather, these governments consider returning ISIS-born children to be a potential threat; policymakers worry that these children’s’ exposure to extreme violence and indoctrination may trigger future radicalization.[xi] This creates a conundrum for Western states, pitting national security priorities against genuine moral and human rights concerns.
These priorities, however, are not mutually exclusive. The international community should take a number of steps to ensure that both of ethical and security concerns are addressed. Western governments must work with local and regional authorities to identify the location and status of their citizens and their children.[xii] By doing so, states can conduct more accurate risk assessments and take an individualized approach that is vital to successful rehabilitation. While adult returnees may be subject to prosecution, governments should offer their children citizenship and focus on reintegrating them into society. As such, Western governments must develop holistic de-radicalization initiatives, like many Arab states have already done. For example, the Iraqi government, with the support of UNICEF, has created a number of rehabilitation centers that provide extensive psychotherapy services to children who lived under ISIS.[xiii]
So far, European countries have made limited progress establishing similar programs, especially those focused on the unique case of juvenile returnees.[xiv] Rehabilitation programs targeting children must be tailored to their unique needs and experiences. The process of identity formation in adolescents makes them particularly susceptible to indoctrination from extremist groups like ISIS.[xv] An integrated approach, which includes both law enforcement as well as social services agencies, is necessary to develop a successful rehabilitation program.[xvi] Western states should use unobtrusive surveillance measures, such as interviews with friends and family members, to evaluate the success of these initiatives and monitor the children’s reintegration into society. This will help alleviate national security concerns and provide the political justification for repatriating ISIS-born children.
The children of ISIS foreign fighters should be viewed as the victims that they are, rather than being ostracized and exiled. The temptation to impulsively default to the easy answer — refusing to repatriate ISIS-born children due to security concerns — is a shortsighted approach to a far more complicated issue. Ultimately, taking no action at all is the riskiest option over the long term. Branding and stigmatizing children as “ISIS-affiliated” only risks radicalizing the next generation of jihadists.[xvii] Instead, governments should focus now on providing these children with a sense of identity and belonging in Western society.[xviii] Such reintegration efforts will provide a powerful counter-message to the anti-West narratives that attracted their parents to join ISIS in the first place.
[i] “Children of the Caliphate: Uncertain Futures and Living in Limbo,” The Soufan Center, November 9, 2018, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column_article/children-of-the-caliphate-uncertain-futures-and-living-in-limbo.
[ii] Nadia Khomami, “Number of women and children who joined ISIS significantly underestimated,” The Guardian, July 23, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/23/number-of-women-and-children-joining-isis-significantly-underestimated.
[iii] Robin Simcox, “Children of the Caliphate: Victims or Threat?” Lawfare, December 10, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/children-caliphate-victims-or-threat.
[v] Nadim Houry, “Children of the Caliphate: What to Do About Kids Born Under ISIS,” Human Rights Watch, November 23, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/23/children-caliphate.
[vi] Simcox, “Children of the Caliphate: Victims or Threat?” Lawfare, December 10, 2017.
[vii] Ben Hubbard, “Wives and Children of ISIS: Warehoused in Syria, Unwanted Back Home,” New York Times, July 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/04/world/middleeast/islamic-state-families-syria.html.
[viii] Liesbeth van der Heide and Jip Geenen, Children of the Caliphate: Young IS Returnees and the Reintegration Challenge (The Netherlands: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, August 2017).
[x] Mia Bloom, John Horgan, and Charlie Winter, “Depictions of Children and Youth in the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Propaganda,” Combating Terrorism Center, February 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/depictions-of-children-and-youth-in-the-islamic-states-martyrdom-propaganda-2015-2016/.
[xi] Simcox, “Children of the Caliphate: Victims or Threat?”
[xii] Khomami, “Number of women and children who joined ISIS significantly underestimated.”
[xiii] Raya Jalabi, “Cubs of the Caliphate: rehabilitating Islamic State’s child fighters,” Reuters, March 8, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-yazidis/cubs-of-the-caliphate-rehabilitating-islamic-states-child-fighters-idUSKCN1GK0VU; Josie Ensor, “’They left a baby as bait for soldiers – a dog dragged him away’: Inside the orphanage rehabilitating Isil’s children,” The Telegraph, May 4, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/05/04/guns-violence-scared-got-used-inside-orphanage-rehabilitating/.
[xiv] Simcox, “Children of the Caliphate: Victims or Threat?”
[xv] Liesbeth van der Heide and Jip Geenen, Children of the Caliphate.
[xvii] Khomami, “Number of women and children who joined ISIS significantly underestimated.”
[xviii] Martin Chulov, “Scorned and stateless: children of Isis fighters face an uncertain future,” The Guardian, October 7, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/07/children-isis-fighters-syria-raqqa-orphans-uncertain-future.