The Unwanted Cubs of the Islamic State

On March 11th, Europeans came together to mourn the victims of terrorist atrocities committed worldwide and in unison voiced their condemnation of terrorist activities which have affected so many of us today. Yet, Europe remains silent on the fate of children of ISIS members, or the so-called cubs of the Caliphate. Very few governments have been willing to repatriate these children, many of whom have lost their innocence to religious fanaticism and whose minds have been perverted by their handlers as they laid trapped in the lion’s den. Our stubborn tendency to focus on short-term risks only further increases longer-term security repercussions for European citizens and for these children, many of whom now feel abandoned or alienated and who may grow up to become the Islamic State’s next generation of Jihadist fighters. The longer these children, who were raised on the battlefield, remain in dire conditions, in decaying refugee camps or in detention centres, the greater the risk of them becoming human ticking time bombs for countries that will eventually allow them to return.

Many Europeans remain understandably worried by the idea of repatriating children who have been systematically brainwashed and who have received military training in order to ensure the Islamic State’s longevity. In the meantime, the Islamic State having lost its past territorial gains, children now placed in refugee camps and detention centres in both Syria and Iraq are at risk of being further radicalised if they are to remain in what amounts to internment camps, a chaotic situation plagued by suffering, diseases and death. Children’s basic rights are further becoming a distant and fading reality. The longer minors stay in camps where the rules of the caliphate live on, the longer they remain at the mercy of the terrorist group’s radical ideology which still thrives among many members of the community and which feeds off grievances of ISIS-linked refugees.

These children are even now at the very core of the militant group’s continued existence through their intensive indoctrination and without any point of reference other than violent jihadism. Throughout their training and life in ISIS held territories, children have been confronted with death and violence from an early age. The acquisition of combat training and/or paramilitary experience, the trivialisation of shedding blood, of continual bombardment and the incessant sounds of machine guns, have led some experts to fear that these children could be willing to re-engage in acts of violence once back home or could continue serving ISIS by carrying out attacks in Europe. This could particularly be the case for children who have been the most exposed to violence through direct involvement in war crimes such as barbaric executions which have been extensively used by ISIS as propaganda material.

 

“Only a handful of children have been repatriated by some European countries due to a lack of sincere will and the absence of a proactive repatriation campaign.”

 

The exact number of children under the yoke of the Islamic State is near impossible to estimate because, while many were forcibly brought by at least one parent, many minors were actually born in the so-called Caliphate from foreign militants; to this day it is believed that over a thousand children remain trapped in the region in dire conditions. In spite of these estimates, only a handful of children have been repatriated by some European countries due to a lack of sincere will and the absence of a proactive repatriation campaign. EU member States seem to be lagging behind Russia, Turkey, Kosovo, and some Central Asian countries which have had a different approach in the matter and have spearheaded efforts in the repatriation of their own nationals. Human Rights Watch had observed that by summer 2019, over 1,250 nationals from these countries held in both Syria and Iraq, mostly children, had been admitted back home. Russia, despite its deteriorating human rights record, had been incredibly active in allowing for the return of detainees from both Iraq and Syria while most European nations have been reluctant and even at times completely unwilling to actively engage in the process due to security concerns and the risk of a political backlash. While some Central Asian countries repatriated children and wives based on humanitarian grounds, Russia allegedly did so due to security concerns and by looking at longer-term implications of abandoning these children to their own fate. Does this mean we should be looking to the East for potential models for Western countries still struggling to come to terms with the idea of repatriating these children? This is where things might get complicated. Some experts have voiced doubts over the success of rehabilitation centres in Kazakhstan, and Russia does not seem to have a clear policy regarding the repatriation of children from Syria and Iraq while Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov’s proactive involvement in the repatriation of both women and children has raised eyebrows amongst many counterterrorism experts. Furthermore, it could take years before we may observe whether such efforts have proven effective or not.

 

“Kosovo has set an important example for the international community to follow in the successful repatriation and de-radicalisation of children who have for years been immersed in a brutal environment.”



European nations have already allowed for the safe return of some children held in Syria and Iraq in the past couple of years meaning that the process itself is logistically possible despite bureaucratic hurdles and to some extent popular resistance back home. Yet, if Europe needs guidance, it could instead look at Kosovo, the newest country in Europe, which has set an important example for the international community to follow in the successful repatriation and de-radicalisation of children who have for years been immersed in a brutal environment. Despite obvious security risks and fewer resources available than in Western European countries, Kosovo and some of its Balkan neighbours remain committed to bringing back their citizens and reintegrating them into society. Authorities in Kosovo for instance have chosen not to prosecute women and children and have, since 2017, worked efficiently towards providing medical and psychiatric help, counselling, housing and education to returnees while promoting the involvement of imams and preachers in de-radicalisation and reintegration programs. An important aspect of the Kosovo situation was the availability of international cooperation in such activities. Without help from the US military in April 2019, Kosovo most probably would not have been able to allow for the safe return of over one hundred IS-linked refugees, mostly children, from Syria.

 

“The risks posed by abandoning children to their own fate remain not only European but global as this will only guarantee the success of the Islamic State’s longer term aspirations.”

 

While the phenomenon of repatriating these children does not involve all European States, the risks posed by abandoning children to their own fate remain not only European but global as this will only guarantee the success of the Islamic State’s longer term aspirations. While each European government could get involved in proactive efforts, the European Union should take the lead in encouraging coordination between Member States. Governments should not only look at Kosovo and other nations which could provide expertise and best practices, but should also have concerted efforts in working together on a European solution to a European problem. This should be seen as an opportunity to not only build security cooperation but also further rely on existing structures to facilitate the exchange of intelligence, lessons learned and best practices in order to allow for the successful de-radicalisation, disengagement, rehabilitation and reintegration of children who should be seen as victims of the Islamic State’s violent fanaticism whilst acknowledging the obvious possible security risks for society. More inputs are needed in establishing structures which will contribute to the sensitive rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees while guaranteeing a sense of trust and security through the involvement of community members. Lastly, while many European countries have been strictly opposed to the possibilities of repatriating ISIS fighters and women, most have favoured the safe return of children. Yet, while orphans have been a priority in many countries’ efforts, hundreds more children await. Severing the bond between a child and a mother could have detrimental consequences on de-radicalisation efforts back home thus prompting many to call for a change in some countries’ policy response.

Europe has been scolded by Russia for failing to actively repatriate its own children, a critique which illustrates a divided European approach and Western governments’ failure to live up to European values and democratic principles. Turning a blind eye on the worsening situation is creating a dangerous precedent which will only further impede international efforts to counter the threat of extremism and terrorism.

 

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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