Children in the Ain al-Issa camp in December 2017. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP.
When the US-led international coalition launched its campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, the hardline Islamist group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” still stretched across a third of Syria as well as vast swathes of neighbouring Iraq. Through a brutal, but highly effective social media strategy, IS managed to lure more than 40,000 people from across the world to help with “building the ‘state’,” including fighters and Islamic scholars as well as bureaucrats, engineers and doctors.
Today, that so-called caliphate has been reduced to little more than a sparsely populated patch of barren land in the southeastern Badia desert, and most of the 40,000 former inhabitants have either been killed, detained or repatriated to origin countries.
However, there are large segments of this population—around 24 percent—that have received far less attention: the women and the children of the caliphate.
In their 2018 report, “From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’ - Tracing Women and Minors in Islamic State,” researchers Gina Vale and Joana Cook from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation aim to shed light on these largely unknown groups.
“It is very important to look at these cases on an individual basis, and refuse such simplistic or reductive terms as ‘jihadi brides’,” Vale tells Syria Direct’s Alice Al Maleh, arguing for the necessity of a more comprehensive understanding of the roles and vulnerabilities of women and minors in IS.
While no exact numbers exist, thousands of IS women are estimated to live in detention centers or displacement camps across northern Syria and Iraq. Alongside their children, the women of the camps are trapped in a legal limbo, reportedly banned from leaving and with no or limited hope of repatriation.
Children born to foreign women in formerly IS-held territories are especially vulnerable—at risk of becoming stateless because the international community does not recognize birth and marriage certificates issued by the hardline Islamist group.
“We're seeing children who are not being included in repatriation efforts or have been overlooked on account of their paperwork,” Vale explains, while the risk of statelessness is “particularly acute for those born to mothers of Syrian or Libyan nationality.”
Ensuring the legal status of these children, she adds, is not only essential in order to grant them access to education, but also makes them “less likely to be isolated from the rest of society” in the future.
Q: Over the past year, the Syrian government and US-backed opposition forces have retaken large swathes of territory from Islamic State, with the group hemmed into small, sparsely populated areas of Syria’s southeastern desert. But what happened to what you call foreign IS affiliates—foreign fighters, women who travelled to the so-called caliphate, or children actually born under its rule—in these recaptured territories?
In terms of IS affiliates as a whole, [we’re] seeing low percentages of returnees, particularly in the case of women. If we look at the United Kingdom, we know that 50 percent of the 850 IS affiliates have returned, and 20 percent have been killed, but that means that the status of the remaining 30 percent is unknown, and this is a considerable population which includes women and minors.
[Ed.: While according to Vale and Cook’s research, women constitute 13 percent of all foreign IS affiliates, they only make up four percent of affiliates returning to their countries of origin.]
There are several reasons why this may be the case. Some may have remained in theater, willingly, or there are great difficulties for women to leave Islamic State territory. Not only do women have to be accompanied by a mahram or a chaperone, but also smugglers can prevent them from leaving IS-held territory.
We also have many cases of foreign women and children who have been held in IDP camps or detention centers inside Iraq and Syria.
[Ed.: According to Human Rights Watch, majority-Kurdish opposition authorities in northern Syria have shown interest in repatriating the female IS affiliates in their custody, rather than prosecuting them.]
It may [also] be the case that some women are returning to their countries of origin, or moving to third-party countries undetected. In many cases, women are able to pass through borders or checkpoints undetected because of the stereotypes of women being passive or innately non-violent. So these are some of the possible reasons why women have not been accounted for in public figures.
Q: Much of the reporting on IS foreign fighters has centered on the men, but what have you learned about the roles and motivations of foreign women during your research?
When we look at women, we need to not look at them as a homogeneous group, and similarly we cannot restrict them to a single role.
[While] the primary role for women when they enter Islamic State territory is as wife and mother, we're also seeing women as professionals across the government institutions of the Islamic State. On account of their strict gender segregation policies, women have adopted roles in the education sector as teachers, the healthcare sector as midwives and nurses and, in some cases, as doctors. We're also seeing women in the security services.
In February this year, we saw the first video evidence of women as frontline combatants and in March, Islamic State's Arabic-language newsletter, a-Naba, published a call for women's right to fight with strict criteria and stipulations.
[As for women’s motivations for joining IS], we need to look at radicalization drivers in a similar lens that we do to drivers for men. Women are individuals and they cannot be grouped. You would expect to see diverse motivations for men and the same goes for women.
In some cases, women have a very high ideological commitment. In other cases we see women who have faced discrimination or who have grievances towards both domestic or foreign policies from their country of origin and feel isolated or disenfranchised within their own society. And, like men, some women seek a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning and adventure.
This is why it is very important to look at these cases on an individual basis, and refuse such simplistic or reductive terms as "jihadi brides," that women have been groomed or lured or are naïve. In some cases, women may have been coerced or pressured to accompany relatives, husbands or friends, but that cannot be ruled out for men as well.
Q: Another role that many female IS members have taken on is raising “caliphate cubs.” Your report estimates that 730 children were born to foreign IS members in areas under the group’s control. What is their current situation?
This 730 is seen to be a vast underestimation, and it's likely that there are many, many others who have been born inside Islamic State territory and aren't included in the figure.
In terms of location, some are inside IDP camps, inside detention centres. Some have been repatriated as returnees.
But their status as returnees, particularly their legal status, depends on the country or countries of their parents' nationality. Some states have been particularly proactive with repatriation—the Iraqi government worked closely with foreign countries to repatriate foreign-born minors, and we hope this continues—[whereas] other states have been less proactive, or have not publicly presented clear policies on the repatriation of minors.
Q: What are the main challenges to repatriation, and what are the risks that children born under the so-called caliphate face?
First we always need to identify where these children are located, and that's not easy when we still have the Islamic State occupying certain pockets of territory. In some cases we're seeing children [who are] impossible to reach. The next stage is to ensure that these children have officially recognized paperwork and documentation, and identity status, which in the future will enable them to get an education and employment; and less likely to be isolated from the rest of society.
There's further uncertainty for infants born to dual nationals, both dual western nationals as well as [those with] dual [local and foreign] citizenship. There is an uncertainty over which state will assume primary citizenship and therefore primary responsibility for the infant.
Some states have publicized that they will revoke citizenship for dual national adults who have gone to IS. These policies haven't been clear with regards to children, but we know that Australia has revoked citizenship for minors as young as 14.
[Children born in IS-territory also] risk becoming stateless because of unofficial or unrecognised paperwork or documentation from the Islamic State, [such as] unregistered births and unofficial marriages that were conducted under Islamic State authority. We're seeing an issue with paperwork—or the legitimacy of marriage and, therefore, birth—being rejected.
We know of a thousand Russian children who remain abandoned and potentially stateless inside Iraq and Syria. So these are some cases where we're seeing children who are not being included in repatriation efforts or have been overlooked on account of their paperwork.
[The risk of statelessness] is particularly acute for those born to mothers of Syrian or Libyan nationality, because citizenship laws in these countries prevent mothers from passing their nationality to their children. So in cases where their father has been killed or detained, or is continuing to fight with Islamic State, mothers cannot give their nationality to infants, and therefore these children run the risk of becoming stateless.
[Ed.: In June 2018, the Syrian government passed a law allowing for Syrian mothers of children with unknown fathers to pass on their nationality. However, it remains unclear how exactly the law will be implemented.]
Q: Moving forward, what does the future look like for children born under IS control?
We need to understand that [once repatriated], these children have quite a damaging label which is of an ‘IS affiliate,’ and that they, going forward, may become stigmatized, isolated or disenfranchised within their community in society. [They] therefore have the potential to withdraw to radical fringes of society and [could become] a risk in the future.
For this reason, we need proactive responses that can look at rehabilitation of children rather than punishment of children. We need proactive and holistic efforts to address all minors in all aspects of their association and participation in IS activities. This is why we need to try to subcategorize minors and look at the circumstances surrounding their involvement and recruitment, the roles they assumed under the Islamic State and also the reasons or circumstances surrounding their separation from the group.
Rather than have generalized reintegration strategies that are similar to adults, we need to look at each individual case, as it [requires its] own assessment for the needs of psycho-social support.
This interview is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.