By Vincent Lyn
Without a Country, Citizenship, Protection or Compassion. Thousands Remain in a Precarious Limbo
What to do with the children of Islamic State fighters is a crucial question not only from a humanitarian perspective but also from a security point of view. In countries with a long history of an insurgency, cases of children joining their fathers in combat are not rare. And while majority of countries are still trying to keep children with their radicalized parents, some countries do the opposite, hoping to stave off children’s inheritance of radical beliefs. At the same time, these are children, and the world should not give them up for gone. They are already at risk of becoming the new face of the Islamic State or whatever group follows, and the more the world abandons them, the more likely they are to feel they have no other option. That is why repatriation, with careful attention toward de-radicalization and reintegration, is key.
Accounts of two young girls, both named Amira, dominated the 2020 news cycle out of Syria.
One girl, a 3-year-old Australian, has been in the Kurdish-run refugee camp al-Hawl and was about to lose her fingers to frostbite because of the lack of heating and infrastructure at the camp. The other Amira, a Canadian, was discovered last year walking through the rubble of Baghouz after both her parents were killed in the aerial bombardment that heralded the end of ISIS’s territorial control. Amira was also held at the al-Hawl camp until international pressure forced the Kurdish authorities to move her to a safer location.
These parallel cases have ignited new debates about what to do with children from war zones, who now find themselves without country, citizenship, protection — or much compassion. The countries from which ISIS children originate are confronted with a grave humanitarian crisis. Leaving children to languish and die in refugee camps and prisons is an unconscionable abuse of human rights. The longer the children remain, the more they could be exposed to trauma and deprivation, and now, even face the threat of an outbreak of COVID-19, all factors compounding the problems of their eventual adjustment. Furthermore, there is concern that children enduring harsh conditions of refugee camps will be even more vulnerable to radicalization in the future.
These children had little or no say in whether their parents took them to ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq. Governments debating whether to allow those children to return must understand what they experienced as a first step to reintegrating them into society. What were the children coerced to do while they were the so-called “Ashbal al Khilafah” or ISIS “cubs,” the name given to them by the terrorist group? What did they witness as observers of ISIS war crimes? And what might have been done to the children themselves? ISIS would not be the first violent extremist organization whose members sexually abused children they recruited.
Given that ISIS indoctrination in many cases started at very young age, the children have to unlearn the distortions of the Islamic faith and re-learn basic life skills. They also should participate in vocational training to facilitate their transition to everyday life. This transition requires a long-term process, longer than the standard three-month rehabilitation program that exists in the Kurdish camps where so many ISIS children go.
ISIS heralded its exploitation of children. In ISIS propaganda, children were featured giving their “about to die” eulogies; ISIS also distributed propaganda videos of executions carried out by boys as young as 10. ISIS’s tactics led to an urgent call by Western governments and security agencies for increased efforts to prevent radicalization and violent extremism across the globe. But so far, there is little empirical evidence for effective prevention of such radicalization and violence around children. Prevention is challenging because armed groups employ so many various methods of indoctrination for children, and use children in so many different roles in conflict. ISIS’s approach to educating children demonstrates the breadth of the challenge.
By 2014, ISIS had assumed de facto control over schools in the areas under its control in Syria, which had been in chaos since its civil war began in 2011. The chaos came to the classrooms. Female teachers were dismissed immediately from all of their duties. While many male teachers remained in their positions, they were forced to teach an ISIS-controlled curriculum to gender-segregated pupils. These lessons included weapons training and intense ideological conditioning in which every element of education was imbued with military imagery to routinize violence. The mathematics textbooks had the students counting bullets and tanks, and students learned to tell time with clocks fastened to bundles of dynamite.
The schools provided ISIS recruiters with the opportunity to scout for talent or specific traits. For example, children with an aptitude for communication were deployed as recruiters themselves, adopting public-speaking roles to conscript other children, as well as adults, on the Dawa caravan. The goal of child recruiters was to engender a sense of pride, prestige and competition among what ISIS referred to as the “cubs of the caliphate” to increase their status. Students earned this “cub” status in one of the dedicated training camps where they learned the military, tactical, and combat skills needed to become a militant.
The evidence of how children were brain washed is chilling. Between May and July 2015, ISIS released three videos featuring children aged between 10 and 15 years old. A video from February 2015 showed 80 children — some as young as 5 — wearing camouflage, standing in formation and engaging in military exercises with guns. They were taught how to behead people and use AK-47s. Clearly, ISIS pioneered a form of individual resilience by combining intense physical and military training with deep levels of ideological and psychological indoctrination. The group designed a systematic process of education, religious indoctrination, and physical training to generate competent militants who were not just mindless drones, but who embraced every aspect of its teachings.
Many people have argued that ISIS’s exploitation of children is no different than the past creation of child soldiers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Darfur. Yet ISIS’s strategic use of child recruits is very different than the way child soldiers in African were employed. On that continent, such children were recruited throughout the 1980s and ’90s not for the future, but for the immediate exigencies. Most of the children fighting in African militias were killed in battle and few survived to progress through the ranks to become leaders.
This difference between the ISIS approach and the African example has important implications for the rehabilitation of former child soldiers. What may have worked for several Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs in Africa — trying to transform children’s roles with the aid of family, community, educational and religious authorities — may not work as seamlessly in Syria and Iraq, where the religious and education institutions were thoroughly co-opted, controlled, and distorted by ISIS’s control from 2014 to 2018. As a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, these children will likely lack empathy, suffer from attachment problems, and struggle with socialization.
Given that ISIS indoctrination in many cases started at very young age, the children have to unlearn their knowledge of the Islamic faith that was profoundly distorted by ISIS and re-learn basic life skills. They also should participate in vocational training to facilitate their transition to everyday life. This transition requires a long-term process, longer than the standard three-month rehabilitation program that exists in the Kurdish camps where so many ISIS children go.
Furthermore, the approaches of some of the Western countries could be vulnerable to criticism for violation of the rule of law. The arbitrary revocation of citizenship and barring of returns appear starkly in conflict with norms of natural justice. With this in mind, a consistent approach would require the Western approaches to treat ISIS-associated children as victims first and accord them protections recognized in international law.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts