Thousands of wives and children of Islamic State jihadists are being detained in camps scattered across Syria and Iraq. They hold foreign passports, but their home governments have scorned them
As analysts warn that Islamic State (ISIS) – one of the most brutal terrorist organizations of modern times – has not yet seen defeat in the Middle East, another related issue has surfaced surrounding the fate of thousands of women and children in Syria and Iraq.
The wives and children of ISIS fighters are being held in detention centers scattered across the two war-torn countries; their fathers either dead or imprisoned. Tough they hold foreign passports – many from Western countries – their home governments have stalled on the question of repatriating them.
During ISIS’ rise to power, the group relied heavily on the tactic of recruiting tens of thousands of radical Islamist fighters from the Middle East, Europe and beyond. Many young men who were eager to join brought their wives and children with them.
Nadim Houry, director of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program at the Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line that the families of ISIS jihadists “are stuck in a legal limbo and are being held without trial. The local authorities in Syria don’t want to prosecute them because they want their home countries to come and get them, which isn’t happening.”
Instead, these people are stuck in camps that “lack proper sanitary conditions and breed malnutrition, skin diseases and other ailments. There are also no priorities concerning education,” Houry said.
Overall, he continued, “the resources in Syria and Iraq are quite limited. Less and less money is being sent and a lot of these women are expected to buy food like infant formula or milk with money they don’t have. The situation is certainly getting worse.”
Dr. Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism at Georgetown University, told The Media Line that the main reason that governments are resisting the return of ISIS family members is “because the administrations are afraid that they won’t find enough evidence to prosecute them upon their return. Evidence is a necessary part of trials in Western countries and much of it could be hard to gather from these settings [Iraq and Syria].”
It is also true, Houry emphasized, “that the decision to repatriate people associated with ISIS is politically toxic in the U.S. and Europe.”
Therefore, these people have few options, Dr. Speckhard added. “Many of them can be legally prosecuted because they supported a terrorist group, even as a wife or as a mother. In the U.S. one can be prosecuted for providing ‘material support’ to terrorist entities.”
Some stranded families just want to get their children out of these detention centers,” Dr. Speckhard continued. “They petition their home governments to take them back so that they can be properly cared for by extended family members. Others just want to be with their children and are willing to stand trial upon their return and serve time in prison as long as they can return together with their children.”
Houry contends that the latter is the best approach. “Those who committed a crime should be tried in court and these legal proceedings should be fair. There’s no reason to leave them in limbo.”
“A fair court case can take into account every level of responsibility in order to proportionately punish as well as distinguish those who killed for terrorism from those who were just housewives. And in the case of children, there is even less reason to leave them stranded because it’s an established understanding in international law that no one is responsible for the crimes of their parents,” Houry concluded.
“There are six and seven-year olds in the camps who might have been trained as spies or to do some preaching,” Dr. Speckhard said. “While a lot of people don’t believe it, we can certainly de-radicalize children and make a judgment about how ideological others are.
“In general, these people are no longer committed to ISIS’ radical ideology. They are discouraged and feel they were lied to.”
(Victor Cabrera is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)