From the Lion’s Den to London: The Repatriation of ISIS Children
It’s feared that the youngsters accompanying foreign fighters home from Middle Eastern battlefields could pose a national security threat
The recent death in Syria of Shamima Begum’s three-week-old son, Jarrah, has cast a spotlight on the children born to, and brought by, Islamic State’s foreign fighters when they return to their native lands, as well as the responsibilities of their countries regarding repatriation.
Begum, who left London in 2015 as a 15-year-old to join the caliphate, had her British citizenship revoked following her pleas to return home. Sajid Javid, the United Kingdom’s home secretary, faced severe criticism for his decision. According to British media reports, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said last week that the government was exploring methods to bring the children of British fighters back.
Various reports conducted by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) have indicated that there are at least 4,640 recorded foreign minors affiliated with ISIS, 730 of whom were born to foreign nationals inside the caliphate, including 566 born to Western Europeans.
Up to 1,180 foreign children are known to have already returned to a parent’s country of origin or appear to be in the process of doing so, according to data from the report.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), a coalition of rebel groups fighting against both government troops and ISIS, have been urging Western countries to take back their citizens due to a lack of capacity in Syria. However, European governments have been reluctant to do so out of fear of the security threat these returnees might pose.
In 2016, a 12-year-old German-Iraqi boy thought to have been radicalized by ISIS left a backpack filled with explosives at a local Christmas market in Germany. After they failed to detonate, he was taken into custody by authorities (although he was below the minimum age of criminal responsibility).
In January, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency BfV, told Reuters that these children “could be living time bombs” because of a danger that they “come back brainwashed.”
In addition to the potential danger they themselves pose, the methods of bringing these youngsters back can pose a threat to authorities as well.
“We will not expose our consular officials to undue risk in this dangerous part of the world. We will examine carefully what can reasonably be done to protect those who are innocent,” Scott Bardsley, manager of media and communications for the Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in Canada, told The Media Line regarding citizens currently detained in Syria.
Bardsley was unable to comment on specific cases or operational matters concerning national security, but according to Dr. Christian Leuprecht of the Royal Military College of Canada, while there are certain things that countries must do for their citizens, the obligations are not open-ended.
“Governments are legally obligated to take their citizens in if they show up at their doorstep, but they are not obligated to take them out of a foreign country,” he told The Media Line.
Juliette S. Touma, chief of communications for UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa regional office in Amman, stressed that children have age-specific human rights.
“UNICEF sees a child, anyone below the age of 18, as a child, regardless of the family’s affiliation or their environment,” she told The Media Line. “Children must not be separated from their mother or caregiver, and member states must repatriate and rehabilitate these children.”
She added that UNICEF’s humanitarian response to this crisis has been one of the most comprehensive in the world – and also in the organization’s history.
In a press release issued on March 14, Save the Children estimated that there were at least 3,580 children of 30 foreign nationalities living in three displaced-person camps in northeastern Syria, an almost 45% increase from its mid-February estimate of 2,500. Of the 3,580, 3,303 are below the age of 12 and 2,045 are under five.
“Regarding foreign children, we’re calling on countries to take them back while maintaining family unity,” Joelle Bassoul, Save the Children’s regional media manager for the Middle East, told The Media Line. “It is up to the country of origin to undertake legal procedures or measures that might apply to some of the adults, and then to see to what extent the family unit can be maintained.”
Bassoul added that when it comes to treating these children, the emphasis is purely on basic aid. No questions are asked as to political affiliation because the organization’s approach is that all of the children are victims and should be treated as such.
“When we work with children,” she explained, “we don’t ask them these questions. They’re little children, aged six to eight, with symptoms of psychological distress and shock. The last thing we’re going to ask them is if they’ve committed any crimes. There may be cases like that, but the majority of [the children] would not even be aware of it, and we don’t have on the ground staff for this kind of specialized psychological support.”
Dr. Anne Speckhard, director of the Washington-based International Center for the Study of Violence and Extremism (ICSVE), told The Media Line that many ISIS children, commonly known as “cubs of the caliphate,” received both military and ideological training.
“There are children who were trained to be killers by ISIS, yes, but there are plenty of children that didn’t have that training and very little indoctrination,” she said. “Of all the children that were under ISIS in Iraq, something like 10 percent went to an ISIS school and the rest were kept at home. Those who were not ideologically and weapons trained and do not have blood on their hands probably won’t be a threat.”
Speckhard said she had conducted 141 in-depth psychological interviews with ISIS men and women, as well as with 15-20 children. She said one must assess whether the children witnessed violence and the extent to which they themselves were involved in crimes.
“We talked to teenagers in the caliphate, the youngest being 10, who were trained to kill,” she stated. “Keep in mind that’s the minority of ISIS children. The children I’ve spoken to hated killing; they were forced to do these things.”
The ICSVE has a YouTube channel with hundreds of interviews documenting the experiences of some of these children.
In one of the videos, a 15-year-old says: “They picked a boy up in a truck and told him he was going to execute an infidel…. He sawed across his neck until he was beheaded. Some people felt upset deep down but they wouldn’t say anything. If someone were executed, everyone would act happy and shout ‘Allahu akbar!’ They couldn’t say they were upset or that it wasn’t right. I was upset.”
In another, a former child soldier identified as Abu Yousef, says: “They beheaded a man in front of my eyes. They threw his head in a container and they hung up his body and left it hanging. That scared me the most, so I fled…. I stayed with ISIS for seven months…. They take innocent people who have done nothing wrong, and force them to join.”
Jacqueline Bhabha, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, conveyed to The Media Line that many Western countries ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) and that these countries were “obligated to consider the best interests of the child and, according to Article 6.2, ‘ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.’” However, some of these children may have committed crimes, and as children (defined by the Convention as anyone below the age of 18), the legal ramifications are different than those for adults.
“Children are considered differently than adults since they’re considered not to be morally or ethically responsible. But this has to be seen case by case,” Bhabha said.
Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney, told The Media Line that the circumstances of each case were important.
“Children may be criminally responsible depending on their age and maturity – in particular, their awareness of the wrongfulness of their conduct,” he said. “They might not be responsible if they were forced to commit crimes by terrorist groups. Also, where children are forcibly recruited into terrorist groups, human rights law requires countries to treat them as victims and to rehabilitate and socially reintegrate them into society, not to punish them.”
However, according to Dr. Nayla Rush, a senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, one of the main issues to arise has been the difficulty in assessing awareness and agency.
“If children committed crimes,” she told The Media Line, “they could say they were forced to and that they didn’t want to. But how can you prove that or the contrary, especially with the lack of documentation? If that’s the case, how do you make a child responsible?”
If family unity is to be maintained – an importance emphasized by organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children – mothers have to come with repatriated children.
“If these countries bring these children back,” Rush continued, “the mother might then exert pressure that she needs to be with her child. Do you open that door? I don’t think what countries fear is a threat from the children; I think the fear is that by bringing them back, you need to bring the mother, the person that got them into this situation. It’s a tough humanitarian call, with a lot of security aspects to it.”
In addition, many European grandparents are now demanding the return of grandchildren.
Haroon Khurshid, a UK national, traveled to Syria in 2013 to fight for ISIS and became a father to Salmaan before being killed. Ash and Mahfooz Khurshid, the child’s grandparents, now want three-year-old Salmaan brought back.
For years, Patrice and Lydie Maninchedda asked for their three grandchildren to be brought to France. The couple’s daughter, the mother of the children, was killed after she joined ISIS in Syria. The three boys, ages one, three and five, who had been living in the al Hol displaced-person camp in Syria, were repatriated last week and are currently being treated at a hospital.
Many states have government-run programs for assessment and rehabilitation, and according to Speckhard, these children “should be okay” with intense multiyear treatment.
Back in Syria, the S.D.F. has been pushing farther into the eastern enclave of Baghouz in what is being described as a final effort to retake ISIS-held territory, which once spanned a third of Syria and Iraq. As the days pass, more and more children are being liberated and are in need of repatriation.
“This is not a one-off; this problem will recur,” said the Royal Military College of Canada’s Leuprecht. “What happens here will set a precedent for the future.”