Their repatriation should be handled with care and they should be protected from stigmatisation
We must recognise the children of vanquished ISIS fighters as victims of terrorism
At the peak of its powers, the so-called “caliphate” erected over Iraqi and Syrian territories by ISIS drew in thousands of foreign fighters. The men and women who arrived in the Middle East from Europe, Africa and Asia nursing murderous delusions of grandeur have been routed. One need not mourn their end, which was just and richly deserved, to feel distressed about the future of their children. Currently, 833 children of captured ISIS combatants, accounting for 14 nationalities, are being held in prisons across Iraq.
That the government in Baghdad has been unsparing in its application of the law to anyone involved in terror – including children above the age of nine – is in many ways understandable. After enduring immense suffering at the hands of ISIS for three years, and years of war prior to that, Iraq is just getting back on its feet and embarking on the arduous task of rebuilding its ruined towns and cities. The effort to return foreign fighters and their children who have completed their sentences to their home countries is part of that larger project of national healing and reconstruction.
Yet how Iraq handles the delicate challenge of dealing with children is of vital importance. Many of the children in its prisons are likely permanently scarred by their exposure to war, and in numerous cases, by their experience of being indoctrinated and conscripted as child soldiers by their own parents. The trauma of what they witnessed in ISIS territories – mass executions, coercion and subjugation of women, and the near-total eradication of human empathy – will haunt them for the rest of their lives. As we have so often witnessed, it is children tormented by such memories who grow into alienated youngsters – and then seek absolution in terrorist ideologies and mass murder.
The reappearance of ISIS fighters in the form of sleeper cells has enraged the public, and the government can scarcely afford to appear lenient. Nonetheless, even though it may not be easy, these children must be recognised for what they are if the loss of another generation to deadly ideologies is to be forestalled: victims of ISIS. Iraq has urged the home countries of the detained children to expedite their repatriation. Every effort must be made to ensure this is done without causing further distress. Betrayed by their own parents and wrenched by an internal upheaval, these children should be protected from social stigmatisation when they return home.
A long-term plan must be put in place to help their recovery. In Tajikistan, for instance, psychiatrists from the International Committee of the Red Cross are working with the government to help rehabilitate children repatriated from Baghdad earlier in the year. This could be a potential model for the future. When it comes to children, compassion should be the principal – and preferably the only – tool in our arsenal.