To avoid radicalisation, foreign children who lived under IS must be allowed home

To avoid radicalisation, foreign children who lived under IS must be allowed home
6 min read
30 Dec, 2019
Comment: The death of Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi has not removed the urgent need to resettle the children of Islamic State fighters, writes Judit Neurink.
Al-Hawl camp in Syria hosts families of foreign fighters who travelled to join IS [AFP]
"What is going to happen to us?" children imprisoned in Syria's Kurdish region asked reporters visiting their prison camp.

Crammed into two cells, there were more than 150 children - aged roughly nine to 14 - from a range of countries.

The Kurds lack a system for resettling these children, who have only one thing in common: their parents came from abroad to join the Islamic State group (IS) in Syria.

But their countries of origin do not want them back, either, because the children are considered to be dangerous. Some are orphaned, few know where their parents are, or even if they are alive.

This is not an isolated case. At a juvenile prison in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, I saw kids serving sentences ranging from months to years for their "affiliation" to IS. I also saw Iraqi children like them in the closed camps dotted across Iraq, and their numbers run into the tens of thousands. Add to them another 50,000 children from all over the world who are being held with their mothers in camps run by Syrian Kurds.

Conditions are dire. All these prison camps are overcrowded and lack basic services. But that is not the main problem. These children are treated as pariahs because of the choices their parents made. Keeping them in isolation as if they carry a dangerous virus only reinforces the world view instilled in them by their parents. And their indoctrination continues in the camps, where IS values are often passed on by their mothers, or other radicalised women.

These children are treated as pariahs because of the choices their parents made

While the future of these families and other detainees has still not been resolved, Turkey's October operation in Northeastern Syria added another danger: that they might escape.

According to some reports, hundreds of women and children have already managed to flee a camp in Syria sheltering foreign families affiliated with IS, after the Turks prepared the ground for them by bombing the area and scattering the guards. At the same time, there are reports suggesting that former IS members are now fighting with the Syrian militias Turkey uses as its proxies in Syria.

Furthermore, the death of IS leader al-Baghdadi does not mean the end of his doctrine. Whether they are in camps or on the run, being in a situation where they feel neglected, frustrated, or persecuted increases these children's vulnerability to radicalisation. Many of the older ones among them have already had been exposed to IS indoctrination, and trained as the terror group's next generation, no matter who its leader is. 

Wives and childern of former IS fighters gather at the fence in the foreign section of the
al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria [AFP]

Allowing this to happen to children in Iraq and Syria will come back to haunt us unless de-radicalisation is considered as a counter-option. In Iraq, western and Iraqi therapists are helping young Yazidi boys who returned badly traumatised after years of IS propaganda which prepared them for the battlefield with the promise of a martyr's paradise.

In many European countries, grandparents are ready to take children in, and the therapy they need can be made available. Experts on sects and radicalisation have repeatedly pointed out the dangers of not working with the authorities. But politics has got in the way, and the children are still imprisoned alongside the people who indoctrinate them. 

Western politicians do not want their citizens who joined IS back. They are afraid they will be unable to keep them in jail and off the streets for long enough, since it will be hard to prove how involved they were and what crimes they committed for IS.

Read more: Has this man replaced Baghdadi as IS leader?

Another problem is that radicals grouped together in jails will continue to influence each other and could come out with even more extreme views than when they went in.

But this argument does not hold for children. If they are given the care they need, they will become "normal" grown-ups - as therapists have told me, and research demonstrates. If however, they are left in situations where brainwashing continues and influence from outside is minimal, they do indeed represent a ticking time bomb.

These projects might be costly, as every child will have to be treated on the basis of his or her history and condition. But in the end, it will be far cheaper - and less painful - than dealing with the mayhem a group like IS would sow, if it were to return. This holds true not just for Middle East, but a failure to act would result in increased support and attacks in the West, too.

Western politicians do not want their citizens who joined IS back

It is time western nations started to look at the problem more creatively. IS cannot be eradicated simply by capturing or killing its members: its doctrine must also be wiped out, and that will not happen by allowing it to fester in Syria and Iraq. Which is why we need to take back our nationals and adapt our prisons and laws to deal with them.

At the same time, we need to work even harder at developing effective de-radicalisation therapies. While watertight success cannot be guaranteed, it is already a far better alternative than the monsters that will be created if we fail to act at all.

We also need to help Syria and Iraq deal with the problem of their IS members. If we do not, the shockwaves from the explosion to come will hit us, too. Camps must be closed, the guilty must be sentenced, and the rest must be allowed to get on with their lives again in a normal environment.

Instead of treating the IS doctrine as an incurable and highly contagious virus, societies need to discuss what is wrong with it and replace it with something else.

But most importantly of all, the children need to be reintegrated into society.

Foreign children should go back to their home countries, be reunited with grandparents or placed with foster families. And the West needs to help Syrian and Iraqi governments to find solutions too, which will probably also involve the children's extended families.

The taboo on dealing with them must be removed, and urgently. Only by openly discussing the faults and dangers of the IS doctrine can we help prevent new violence in countries that have already seen more than their fair share of bloodshed.

Judit Neurink is a Dutch journalist who lived in Iraq for 10 years. She is the author of 'Slaves Wives and Brides' and two other books on IS. Her forthcoming book details her experience with recurring violence in Iraq and will be published in the Netherlands in February 2020. 

Follow her on Twitter: @JuditNeurink

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.