The Iraq Report: Targeting aid workers leaves children vulnerable to recruiters

The Iraq Report: Targeting aid workers leaves children vulnerable to recruiters
This week's round-up of under-reported news from Iraq focuses on the threats to aid agencies and the potential impact of abandoning the most vulnerable people in Iraq.
5 min read
01 March, 2019
Children growing up in these camps will be vulnerable to extremist recruiters [Getty]
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.
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This week has seen yet another example of the deadly violence which the Islamic State group can still inflict in Iraq, despite their reported "defeat".

As militants begin to regroup, launching sporadic attacks in order to keep a war-weary population entrenched in fear, aid workers are struggling to reach the people who need help the most.

With displaced people living in wretched conditions all over Iraq, and attempts by officials as well as militias to ensure their continuing isolation, conditions are becoming ever more ripe for the emergence of a new generation of the Islamic State group, or the rise of something perhaps worse.

Mosul targeted again

Well over a year since Iraq's prime minister declared victory over the Islamic State group with the militants' de facto Iraqi stronghold of Mosul re-conquered by Iraqi troops and a coalition of Iran-backed militias, IS once again struck in the northern city, killing at least two and injuring dozens in a car bombing on Thursday.

Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, has been targeted for several bomb blasts claimed by IS in recent months. One attack in November killed four people.

Thursday's attack, which focused on Mosul University in the centre of the city, was typical of the insurgent-style tactics adopted by IS since they were vanquished from the swathes of territory they took in 2014.

Mosul was left in ruins by the battle to re-capture it from IS. Thousands of homes were destroyed and thousands of people killed.

Across the country, more than 1.8 million Iraqis remain displaced. Reconstruction efforts are slow, while sectarian attacks and rampant government corruption remain as strong as ever. With needy and vulnerable people being ignored, many fear a return of the social conditions which proved such a fertile recruiting ground for the Islamic State group when it was first emerging from the former Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda.

If these conditions continue, the eventual rise of "IS 2.0" is all but guaranteed.

Rising insurgency

That is, if it's not already a thing. There have been more than 2,000 attacks since IS was declared defeated, and global humanitarian organisation Mercy Corps warns that the militant organisation has regrouped in Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahuddin and parts of Anbar.

Extremist groups are "growing in confidence", said Tanya Evans, Iraq country director for Mercy Corps.

Investment in programmes designed to rehabilitate relationships and end sectarianism is needed, the NGO says.

"The key to tackling this problem isn't military intervention, it is helping people rebuild their lives," said Evans. "Alongside physical infrastructure and emergency aid, there needs to be much more investment in peacebuilding and good governance.

"Fifteen years of conflict have left a country divided; bridging the cultural, tribal and religious divisions is critical if Iraq is going to begin a new chapter. It isn't just about rebuilding towns, we need to invest in rebuilding communities."

The new rise in insurgent violence is putting humanitarian operations at risk, but the threat to aid organisations isn't just from non-state militants.

Iraqi authorities themselves are harassing, threatening and arresting aid workers in Nineveh province, Human Rights Watch reported this week. Aid workers are even facing bogus terrorism accusations after attempting to deliver food and medicines to families which officials have declared to have been supporters of the IS group.

HRW says these charges of families being affiliated to IS seem flimsy, and an effort to have international NGOs divert their aid to corrupt local officials instead of delivering it directly to vulnerable families.

One guard who refused to let local police enter a camp for displaced people south of Mosul was arrested after his shift. He was taken to a nearby police station and severely beaten. Officers robbed him and accused him of supporting the Islamic State group, HRW reported.

Lawyers working for aid organisations have also been targeted by military intelligence agents.

Children left vulnerable

As growing restrictions on help getting to the people who need it most begin to create what agencies are calling "aid deserts", thousands of children in these camps remain traumatised and vulnerable to extremists' recruiters.

Youngsters who had fled IS-held areas with their families are likely to have witnessed appalling brutality; loved ones beaten or beheaded. They need psychosocial support.

And then there are those born into "the caliphate". Many are stateless; their mothers having travelled from overseas to marry an IS fighter. Nobody wants them. Iraq has offered to repatriate captured IS fighters to stand trial in their home countries, but their home countries are trying their best to avoid taking on the responsibility for returning fighters - let alone their families.

After France's President Emmanuel Macron met his Iraqi counterpart Barham Saleh this week, it was announced that French IS fighters - captured in Syria - would face trial in Iraq.

And the widespread reaction to a request by London-born Shamima Begum to return to Britain has highlighted the attitudes of many towards the return even of "non-combatants" who sympathised with the IS group's twisted ideology.

But it is their children who are being abandoned by all responsible authorities. Allowing these infants to grow up in appalling deprivation in desert prison camps, with aid agencies prevented from reaching them, with sectarian thugs targeting their families and with the knowledge that their parents' homelands have washed their hands of them can only lead to a new generation of young people willing to sign up to any gang offering revenge.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.
Read the full series here or sign up to our mailing list on our front page