How violence prevents healing after Islamic State

How violence prevents healing after Islamic State
Comment: To begin healing in Iraq and Syria, we must find new strategies of acceptance that fight dehumanisation and radicalisation, writes Judit Neurink.
7 min read
09 Apr, 2021
'It's important to house them decently, and provide the security they need' writes Neurink [Getty]
Two years ago, with the fall of the Syrian village of Baghouz, the Islamic State group [IS] lost its last foothold in Syria. But IS is far from finished. Recently, Iraqi F-16 planes carried out 19 air raids which destroyed caves and other IS hideouts in Iraq's Hamrin mountains. 

During the recent two-week Operation Red Lion, 313 air raids destroyed as many as 160 IS hideouts in Iraq's Mahmour mountain range, killing at least 27 militants.

While American Secretary of State Antony Blinken conferred with the other 82 member states in the Coalition against IS about how to achieve the group's lasting defeat, the situation in the Syrian Al Hol camp, which holds some 62,000 women and children, has got out of hand. Radical women who lead their own Caliphate within the camp have killed dozens for seeking to abandon the strict ideology imposed on them. 

In essence, the current anti-IS policy boils down to containment. And it doesn't work. Keeping families together in camps without education or de-radicalisation programmes means that the most radical can, and have, imposed their views on the rest; even more dangerously, it has led to most of the 40,000 children in the camps being radicalised.

Imprisoning IS men together, as is the practice in Iraq and Syria, carries the same danger. As does the use of Iraqi terror laws to prosecute perceived members of the group, sentencing them to death or to lifelong imprisonment, sometimes on the basis of testimony from two anonymous witnesses and a confession extracted under duress.

It is time to look for alternatives. Do we really need to kill every fighter that has joined the cause?

As a result, no IS member will ever turn himself in, no matter how fed up they are of living in caves on the run. And witness testimonies have also sucked civilians into the system. For instance, one 11-year-old was accused of having worked for IS and been jailed, simply because he had washed a car which belonged to his father, who was with IS.

For societies in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has proved to be a pestilence. As a result, anyone connected to the group is treated as a pariah and an outcast, to be shunned, feared and definitely not allowed back into society.

Consequently, many women affiliated with Islamic State have got stuck in camps and have nowhere else to go. When the Iraqi authorities decided recently to close all the camps for the internally displaced, this affected them most of all, as up until then, the camp had at least provided a home and some security.

With IS still active, these people are highly vulnerable to recruitment. This is compounded by the fact that since IS was defeated, Iraqi state discriminatory policies towards the Sunni minority have not changed. In addition, liberated Sunni areas are now under the control of mostly corrupt Shia militias.

This creates new recruits for IS, who then get killed in the coalition air raids, leaving behind wives and children who, because of their husband's or father's choice, end up living as outcasts in utter poverty, thus leaving the cycle of radicalisation intact.

The present policy against IS feeds into the local conviction that "the best Daeshi is a dead Daeshi" and stigmatises an entire group of people. The net result of the policy is frustration in its victims which leads to further radicalisation, with the struggle continuing and even intensifying again.

It is time to look for alternatives. Do we really need to kill every fighter that has joined the cause? A new policy should prioritise deradicalisation and preventing new radicalisation.

First of all, it is essential to look at the damage that is being done by trying IS suspects under Iraq's terror law. We need to put the suspects back in the criminal justice system, where the different crimes they committed can be taken into consideration.

Did they kill? Were they fighters? Did they keep slaves? Were they forced to join, perhaps by economic factors? Who are the real perpetrators, and who simply choose to abide by the new rules so they and their families could survive?

In essence, the current anti-IS policy boils down to containment. And it doesn't work.

Next, it is vital to find a solution that can prevent further radicalisation. The plan to resettle the thousands of Iraqis now in Syria's Al-Hol camp in uninhabited parts of Iraq will only serve to keep their stigma intact and radicalise them even further. These people need to see the world as it is, by talking to people from outside of the cocoon that IS formed around them.

It is important to house them decently, and provide them with the security and documentation they need to become part of society again. Many of these families don't have IDs and their children only have birth certificates issued by the Caliphate.

Crucially, societies must be persuaded to accept them again. History shows is this is possible: Germany after World War Two, for example, or South Africa after Apartheid - however different the situations - are two examples.

First and foremost, the dehumanisation of its members must end. They are criminals, who brought violence and ruin to Iraq and Syria, but they are also part and parcel of the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein

In Iraq, introducing policies that involve local women and tribal heads could be one way to reintegrate these families. It's a policy that is already working in Syria, where thousands of Syrian women and children have been released from the Al Hol camp on the basis of guarantees provided by their tribal heads.

But this policy will only work in the long run if it is accompanied by an active campaign against radicalisation. The best tactic here is to offer alternatives to the IS discourse. Using the arguments of people who left the group could also prove a powerful method, and statements made by many of these leavers to the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism are already online and ready for use.

Read More: How dismantling the counterterror narrative is long overdue

As they develop their campaign, authorities and NGOs could look at the strategy employed by the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to fight Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

By using information as the main tool, and making the practice punishable by law, NGOs and authorities were able to decrease the number of women subjected to the practice from almost 60 percent in 2014, to just over 37 percent in 2019.

This involved going to villages and mosques and recruiting imams, village elders and local women to persuade mothers and midwives that the practice was harmful to girls, who would still be able to marry decently if they were left untouched. The campaign helped villagers change their minds about FGM and reject the notion that uncut girls were somehow unclean.

A similar change in mentality is going to be needed in the campaign against IS. First and foremost, the dehumanisation of its members must end. They are criminals, who brought violence and ruin to Iraq and Syria, but they are also part and parcel of the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

They could not accept the change and fought it, using religion as their weapon. They were mistaken - and some of them were despicable, cruel and criminal - but they are human beings and have a right to justice.

Arguing that they're best dead while fighting them with violence alone will not benefit Iraqi and Syrian society in the long run. Doing so only allows IS to keep on finding the footholds instead of making sure they cease to exist. 

Judit Neurink is a Dutch journalist and author specialised in Iraq. Her latest book, Geweld is nooit ver weg, (Violence Recycled) about her decade in Iraq, was recently published in the Netherlands.

Follow her on Twitter: @JuditNeurink

Have questions or comments? Email us at

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.