How To Recover Lost Children And Spouses of ISIS
This paper was presented at the 2018 OSCE-wide Counter-Terrorism Conference – The Reverse Flow of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs): Challenges for the OSCE Area and Beyond in Rome May 11, 2018
Samantha Elhassani, a 32-year-old American, is sitting in a People’s Protection Unit (YPG) camp near Al-Hasakah, Syria, with her four children (two brought into ISIS and two born there), awaiting her fate. In 2014, Samantha took her two small children and followed her Moroccan husband into ISIS, only to learn that she had entered a misogynist organisation that was going to force her ten-year-old son into making a propaganda video threatening his native land and that she would be subjected to forced marriage when her husband died, witnessing rape of other women and total subjugation of her son to ISIS.
Samantha was not an emotionally healthy woman when she left her native Indiana for ISIS. She had fallen deeply under the influence of an evil man who his sister-in-law claims dealt in weapons and who would later become a media man for ISIS. When he died of shrapnel wounds, Samantha, like many other ISIS widows, was passed to another ISIS cadre. Samantha had two more children born in Raqqa. Her husbands also brought Yazidi women and girls into their home to rape and treat as sex slaves. She and her children endured and witnessed horror on a daily basis.
Samantha and her four children are now in a YPG camp near Al-Hasakah, Syria. She is not sure if she wants to come home and face prosecution, and her children’s fate appears to be subject by US policies to her decisions. So, unlike journalist James Foley, for example, who was taken hostage by ISIS and deservedly had the US Navy SEALs mount a rescue attempt on his behalf, the Elhassani children, who managed to escape ISIS, are not being rescued. Despite the YPG being an ally of the US, the US government has not to our knowledge demanded the children be turned over. Even if they were turned over, there are many issues to surmount. The two oldest children were US passport holders, but their identities have to be verified. The two youngest were born in Raqqa and would need genetic testing to link them to their US citizen mother or, if she refuses to cooperate, with a close American relative. The Elhassani children have a maternal aunt at home in the US ready and willing to take them in. But what are the legal challenges of severing paternal rights or awarding temporary custody? Inside the US, such decisions are carried out on a local jurisdictional level, by cities and states, not the federal government. At present, the US federal government does not appear to follow normal child protective services protocols that would swiftly remove children from mothers who are abusive or negligent; there is no doubt that it is both abusive and negligent parenting to willingly subject one’s children to the horrors of ISIS where they could witness beheadings, crucifixions, torture, floggings and themselves be forced to participate in these as well as undergo sick ideological indoctrination.
Based on this case, our recommendation is that the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress (along with similar bodies in other countries that follow the same practice of leaving the decision to return home up to the mothers) work quickly to devise policies and laws that sever, or at a minimum temporarily suspend, parental rights of those parents who took their children into ISIS and who are not bringing them home. This is necessary so that the children’s repatriation and return to the US and rehabilitation can be effected quickly rather than stall for months on end.
In this case, the eldest Elhassani boy has begun to say he wants to become a YPG fighter, indicating he is aligning himself with available role models. We should also expect that anytime we leave children in camps filled with ISIS cadres, they will become more, not less, like those they are exposed to. At the International Center for Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), we have encountered many cases where young boys were recruited into ISIS in precisely these situations. When young boys have no active father figure, they will easily look to the men around them for role models. And girls may fall prey to the same. Likewise, sexual predation of both also occurs.
All the countries involved need to acknowledge that to save the children who had no part in their decision to end up in ISIS, they need to be returned home swiftly to start rehabilitation efforts, regardless if their parents do or do not return home with them.
Iraqi Justice Ministry officials informed ICSVE researchers that there are currently approximately 700 ISIS women in custody in Iraq; approximately four hundred of them are from Turkey, 200 from the Caucuses in Russia, eight from Belgium, an unknown number from France and Germany, and some from Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Nearly all ISIS women were married – remaining single was not an option – and these women are no exception. On average, all of them have three or more children. The Iraqi prison policy is to remove any children over three years old from their mothers and place them in protective custody. At present, it is not clear what, if any rehabilitation these children are receiving for dealing with their time living under ISIS. According to one Justice Ministry official, a German non-government official recently came to Iraq to provide aid boxes, which included milk and diapers for babies, to mothers and children.
Russians recently worked to return 71 children from custody back to concerned relatives in Russia, along with 26 mothers. Yet between 70 and 120 children remain in an orphanage in Mosul and it is estimated that approximately 400 Russian children are still being held in Iraq. Yazidi women who were forcibly taken into hostage with their young children and taken into Syria have now been allowed to return home, but their culture does not allow converts or marrying outside the group and does not accept children born as a result of rape, so their mothers are left with the horrible choice of relinquishing their children to orphanages in Mosul in order to return home. Counsellors working with some of these women state that the women think often of their abandoned children and wonder how they are faring.
With the huge influx of foreign fighters, many Western men married local Arab women and fellow female travellers from non-Western countries. Children whose killed ISIS cadre fathers were Westerners are currently undergoing DNA testing in cooperation with their claimed homeland countries to learn if they are eligible to claim Western citizenship and can be repatriated to their father’s country, despite their mothers not being Westerners.
While some of the mothers arrested in Syria and Iraq are requesting to be sent home, their countries are not always keen for them to return. France for instance has claimed that French citizens, including women, who can obtain a fair trial in Syria and Iraq will be left to face justice there. It is believed that France had anywhere from 300–400 children living under ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq and some of these have now been repatriated to France. In the case of German nationals, at least six children are being held with their mothers in Iraqi camps, while the number of female German nationals held in Syrian camps stands at 15. In the US, more than 45 women are reported to have either attempted to join or joined ISIS in Syria, with at least a dozen American children ending up in ISIS-controlled territory.
A majority among the thousands of suspected ISIS members who survived and were arrested are now being prosecuted through specialised criminal counterterrorism courts in Iraq or local and quasi-judicial courts run by different opposition groups in Syria. For example, since the establishment of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), also known as Rojava, different courts were set up to handle civil and criminal cases, ending in the prosecution of over 700 terrorism-related cases since its establishment in 2014. In Iraq, around 100 Europeans, among them Belgians, Russians and Central Asians, are currently being tried in Iraqi courts, including five German women – one already sentenced to death for joining ISIS and another hung following her death sentence.
Many countries continue to struggle with the question of how to deal with female and children returnees from the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria, including women and children who remain in the ISIS-controlled territories or detention camps in Iraq and Syria. Given the lack of clear legal guidelines on how to address the issue of such returnees, many countries are dealing with them on a case-by-case basis. Difficulties in accessing evidence from the conflict zone, given the complex nature of the environments in Iraq and Syria, remains a primary obstacle, as well as the fact that the Syrian government is not functioning in a large part of Syria. In addition, there is a lack of clear understanding when it comes to the roles played by women in ISIS. Many were never asked to swear allegiance (that is, give their bayat) and most were not employed; however, some took part in the dreaded ISIS hisbah or morality police, acting as enforcers who were often sadistic in flogging and biting other women (with metal teeth). Others functioned as paid propagandists and recruiters, and a small group trained to be combatants and suicide bombers. Likewise, there are many questions regarding their desire to return home and the possible threat level posed upon their return. In some cases, such as that of 33-year-old French woman Emily Koening, an online recruiter for ISIS, the role played and the level of allegiance to ISIS seems to determine certain countries’ responses to dealing with women. Currently held in a Kurdish-run prison in Syria, she continues with her demands that she and her three children be repatriated to France from Syria. Despite her appeal, she remains in Syria. In contrast, Canadian authorities seem willing to facilitate the return of a woman who managed to escape ISIS with her infant daughters; though it remains uncertain whether she will face charges upon return to Canada.
The issue of children taken or born in the ISIS-controlled territory is even more complex. The issue of proving nationalities, challenges posed to immigration officials prior to travel – in regard to being issued travel documents – and to social services and teachers upon their return, and the level of threat posed by older children who served ISIS, are all looming. The exposure to ISIS’ extremist ideology and even militant training for some children makes their return particularly worrisome and unwelcome by some.
Challenges for social services include a lack of adequate capacities and manpower to deal with the return of women and children who are very likely to be in a traumatised state after living under ISIS rule. While some have proposed removing children from returnee parents who are tried on child abuse or negligence charges for having exposed their children to a terrorist group, such propositions continue to face criticism on the grounds that determining a parent’s threat level towards a child is often difficult, including the fact that governments are not best positioned to guarantee the best sponsorship of every child, nor even a simple upbringing. Some, like Belgian ISIS returnee Laura Passoni’s children, were temporarily removed from her care and put in the care of their maternal grandparents while she was prosecuted, but they were later returned to her. Laura (who ICSVE has made a counter narrative video about) is a great example of a disillusioned ISIS returnee who now lectures to students to warn them of the dangers of such violent extremist groups.
Legal hurdles related to the issue of repatriation persist, especially in light of bureaucratic barriers imposed by the YPG-run camps and detention centres in Syria. Some argue that such centres do not form a legally-recognised state entity, meaning they lack the legal authority to detain children and women in such camps. Some governments, including France, have openly demanded that adults captured in Syria be left there, provided they are guaranteed a fair trial or, in the case of children, “depending on their parents’ preference, either stay with them while tried locally or be repatriated, where they will be cared for by social services”. Many other countries remain undecided and uncertain about how to proceed, especially as it relates to children. The policy of allowing nationals of other countries to be tried or dealt with in Kurdish-run camps is found by some to be flawed, considering their lack of adequate resources, politicised nature of special courts and the lack of fair trial standards. Such policies seem to be a way for Western countries to avoid having to deal with female ISIS members who would be likely to face criminal charges upon their return, but who are difficult to successfully prosecute given the challenges of presenting evidence from a conflict zone. Yet there are no guarantees of fair interrogation procedures or just proceedings and by remaining in such camps, mothers and their innocent children in particular are being exposed to additional risks in terms of their health and potential increased radicalization while surviving in a war zone surrounded by other militant captives. Likewise, they may also be viewed as potential perpetrators requiring adequate counselling and care.
The Elhassani boy was forced to dress up in a suicide vest and pose with weapons while he threatened fellow Americans in an ISIS propaganda video. He is likely to encounter significant social stigma when he returns home. Social workers, psychologists, teachers and school counsellors will likely all need to be engaged to help him. Likewise, his mother who travelled to ISIS as a result of her own dependency, substance abuse and emotional dysfunction issues also needs to be put in treatment.
While each country has different standards of evidence and laws to prosecute on a terrorism, criminal or child protection basis, our recommendation is that, when possible, all ISIS wives and mothers be prosecuted for material support for terrorism where such laws and evidence exists or child endangerment at a minimum for the purposes of being able to force them into some kind of treatment to avoid serving prison time. Separating them from their children and serving prison time is not the goal, but having a means of requiring these mothers to engage in meaningful therapy in order to avoid serving prison time is. These are women who may go to one or two counselling sessions if invited, but they will not follow a thorough course of treatment unless compelled to do so. We know that many who left for ISIS were either hopelessly naïve and overly dependent on the men who groomed them for travel – these women need to learn to be more independent and stronger. Others left for opportunistic reasons, including free housing, salaries and the potential to reap material benefits. They need to be redirected and receive help in removing obstacles to legitimate ways of earning a living. Those who were suffering from marginalization, discrimination, Islamaphobia or other difficulties from being Muslim or of immigrant descent heritage need to receive assistance in addressing these issues while also being helped to integrate well into society. Many young women left for ISIS to throw off the chains of conservative families and seek adventure and romance, while some also went to escape from life’s problems. Many were looking for significance and purpose and believed that building an alternative world governance was a good thing. Those who left as ‘true believers’ need to have their ideological orientation redirected to non-violence and those who still adhere to the Takfir ideology of ISIS and are truly hate-filled may have to be imprisoned and separated from their children.
Many women were raped inside ISIS, forced into repeated marriages, raped by smugglers who helped them escape, or molested or mistreated in prisons before making their way home. All are likely traumatised by what they witnessed and experienced inside ISIS and are now facing the same emotional and psycho-social issues they faced before leaving, in addition to social stigma and children that may be acting out the traumas of having lived under ISIS. They need our help. Our recommendation is that OSCE countries quickly deploy qualified mental health and educational support as well as career counselling and community support to these women to put an end to the cycle of terrorism and social stigma in their lives and the lives of their children.
By Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci