In Syria, the Women and Children of ISIS Have Been Forgotten

Leaving thousands of detained Islamic State supporters and their families in poorly guarded camps poses a national security threat for Europe and the United States.

A woman and children near a water tank at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp for the displaced where families of Islamic State foreign fighters are held in northeastern Syria on Oct. 17.
A woman and children near a water tank at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp for the displaced where families of Islamic State foreign fighters are held in northeastern Syria on Oct. 17. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

This month, President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria and, in doing so, gave the green light to a Turkish incursion. In the chaos that ensued, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—which had until that moment been the United States’ chief ally in degrading and destroying the Islamic State in Syria—warned that its ability to protect the prisons and camps into which it had funneled tens of thousands of individuals in recent months—many of them Islamic State fighters, families, and supporters—had been critically undermined. 

The consecutive breakouts from a detention center near Qamishli, the departure of almost 800 women and minors from an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp just outside Ain Issa, and the most recent escape of more than 100 Islamic State prisoners during the Turkish incursion indicate that this was not just rhetoric. When considered in the context of the call by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to free the men, women, and children of the group’s so-called caliphate in September, the urgency of this situation becomes all the more apparent. 

At present, there is no plan for what to do next: The U.S. withdrawal has been abrupt and chaotic, and the response of European nations has, at least publicly, been largely symbolic—loud condemnation of U.S. and Turkish actions but with few meaningful political responses.

In the past, the U.S. government has championed the return of citizens to their home countries, having repatriated at least 17 U.S. citizens (12 men and five women), according to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, and facilitated the return of many more (including minors) to other countries who have requested assistance with their citizens. However, the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria could make such facilitation much more difficult, if not impossible, in the future. As for Europe and other Western partners, they have mostly shirked their repatriation responsibilities, frequently blaming the potential for political backlash at home. Some, including the U.K., have even gone so far as to selectively revoke citizenship. 

Amid this lack of appetite (and increasingly ability) to take action, thousands of women and a whole generation of children appear to have been written off by their governments as a lost cause. Not only does this miscalculation constitute a moral and humanitarian disaster, but its security implications are grave, for these same people could become a lifeline for the Islamic State moving forward, whether or not they support it now. 

While the U.S. policy community has tended to focus more in recent months on characters like the “Beatles,” British members of the Islamic State allegedly responsible for the beheading of Westerners, the vast majority of the foreigners who remain in northeastern Syria are women and minors. In camps such as al-Hol, which has approximately 68,000 residents, 94 percent of detainees are women and minors, and 11,000 of them (7,000 minors and 4,000 women) are foreign. Countries such as Canada are now seeing more female than male nationals detained as Islamic State supporters in Syria (and more children present than either men or women). 

Western governments find themselves at a crossroads—to repatriate or not? To date, the resounding answer has been no. Usually, governments explain this position by citing the difficulties they will have in prosecuting these individuals on their return. While men’s participation in the Islamic State has tended to be more black and white—after all, a sizable majority of them were deployed as fighters—the same cannot be said for women’s participation. In court, this has meant that women have often received lesser charges and sentences. 

Women’s roles varied significantly: Some were wives, mothers, and educators of the Islamic State’s next generation, while others joined the Khansaa Brigade, its all-female religious police unit, and yet more acted as recruiters and propagandists. By the time the battle for Baghouz came to pass, some had even deployed as foot soldiers. 

Today, some Islamic State-affiliated women are still ardent supporters of the group, remaining steadfast in their ideological commitment to its teachings. They could potentially rejoin the group and help ensure its ideology is passed to future generations or contribute to its ongoing activities, including conducting various forms of violence themselves.

Crucially, not all the women detained in al-Hol are supporters of the Islamic State, let alone its operatives. Hence, the potential risk they would present on repatriation must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Some foreigners appear to have been particularly naive in their decision to travel or were coerced or compelled into travel. In particular, this can be seen in cases where their partner had resolved to leave for the Islamic State and there was a threat of separation from their children—leaving them with little agency in their initial travel to the Islamic State.

Others had only limited interactions with its day-to-day activities. Many among this group now beg for prosecution if it means they and their children can return to the safety of their home countries. Yet, given that they tend to be tarred with the same brush as the hard-line Islamic State supporters gaining media attention in al-Hol, their prospects of return, rehabilitation, and reintegration have thus far appeared minimal. 

Even if there were more of an appetite for repatriation in Western capitals, time is running out. Over the last month, signs of volatility have increased inside the annex that holds all foreign women and minors in al-Hol. Across the rest of the camp, there has been an uptick of resident-on-resident crime—including murder—as well as violent acts against the remaining SDF fighters protecting and administering the camps.

It is in this context that the prospects of a breakout from al-Hol (or, indeed, a breakdown of security within it) are looking more likely. Already, a number of women have paid smugglers to facilitate their way out, including women who were beneficiaries of online fundraising campaigns. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has been laying the groundwork for the disintegration of these camps, distributing threatening letters to local communities demanding that they take in any and all who escape on pain of death.

Given these risks, it is critical that Western nations reconsider their position. While some of these women remain deeply committed to the Islamic State cause, many others regret their journey to Syria and seek to leave this chapter of their life behind. Western states should facilitate their departure, prosecution, and deradicalization because, aside from the many moral and humanitarian arguments for such a policy, these women are an intrinsic counternarrative and can speak to the falsehoods, hypocrisies, and violence that the Islamic State perpetrated in its heyday, potentially deterring others from supporting the group in the future. 

In al-Hol, an estimated 55 percent of camp residents are children under the age of 12, including many unaccompanied minors, orphaned by the conflict.

The status of minors affiliated with the Islamic State is even more complex and pressing—if nothing else because there are so many more of them detained in the camps. For example, in al-Hol, an estimated 55 percent of camp residents are children under the age of 12, including many unaccompanied minors, orphaned by the conflict. Regardless of what they are known to have done while living under Islamic State’s rule, children should not be punished for their parents’ actions and decisions—most were forcibly taken to the Islamic State’s territories or born into them with no option to leave and then obligated to live according to its doctrine. 

The dangers they face should the camps fall apart are insurmountable. If they escape or are forced to leave, many will find themselves in hostile territory with no safety net. Moreover, given that the Islamic State routinely deployed boys as front-line soldiers and, on occasion, executioners, they will likely find themselves at risk of reprisal attacks. The few who manage to avoid violence could land themselves in detention facilities administered by the SDF. Worst of all, they could end up in detention centers run by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, where they could face execution, torture, sexual violence, or be held alongside adult males—some likely to be highly violent Islamic State soldiers. 

A large number—possibly a majority—of these children already have PTSD and other mental, physical, and social consequences of having lived for multiple years in a war zone. They have lost family members, seen terrible violence, and experienced unimaginable trauma. For those hundreds of young citizens of the United States, Britain, Canada, and beyond stuck in northern Syria today, there is a way out—should their home states fulfill their moral, humanitarian, and security duties to their youngest citizens. The longer these children remain separated from their home countries, potentially exposed to violence and radical ideologies, the more difficult it will be to reintegrate them back into their communities. 

Governments cannot simply look the other way. Abandoning them in Syria now is tantamount to abandoning them to the Islamic State, the Assad regime, or otherwise dim prospects, something that is certain to have vicious long-term implications. These children should not be held responsible for the sins of their parents and must not be condemned to a dark and uncertain future.

As the situation on the ground in northern Syria has evolved in recent weeks, the window of opportunity for a proactive government-controlled solution is closing, just as the likelihood of a nightmare scenario in which the Assad regime takes these individuals on as bargaining chips increases. As with foreign fighters from the Iraq War, those who agree not to target the Syrian regime could be released and left to their own devices, including rejoining groups in other territories or carrying out attacks beyond Syria’s borders. 

And if they don’t end up in Assad’s jails, they are likely to slip back into the hands of the Islamic State or some other violent extremist group, burdening the already overstretched and unwelcoming local communities that suffered deeply under the Islamic State. It may be unpalatable for some, but leaving them there is not an option, and it is certain to make Western countries less secure in the long run.

Lessons can also be gleaned from Iraq’s actions against 1,350 suspected Islamic State-affiliated foreign women and 580 minors currently detained in the country. In 2018 alone, Iraq tried and convicted 616 foreigners of being members of the Islamic State, including 466 women and 108 minors. Many of the women were given life sentences, while others were sentenced to death. Iraqi authorities have been heavily criticized due to the quick and often flawed trials, usually lacking significant evidence, and housing detained persons in squalid conditions, often with their children. There are also multiple reports of arbitrary arrests, forced confessions, and even torture of minors while in detention.

Soon, Western governments may not have the ability to work through the SDF to access and repatriate their citizens. Indeed, that window may already have closed. A deal struck between Russia and Turkey means that the future of Syria will largely be determined without U.S. input. Yet the 10-point agreement outlined this week does not touch on the issue of IDP camps or detainees, leaving the status of these individuals unclear but seemingly remaining in SDF custody, for now. Questions remain on if the cease-fire deal will hold, as well as what a future for foreigners in Syria would look like if they were captured by Turkey—will Turkey release them and deny responsibility, detain them, or work to repatriate them?

These women and children need to be brought back to their home countries immediately in a measured, and government-controlled, manner. Adults should be given fair trials for the crimes they have committed and then imprisoned, rehabilitated, and reintegrated as appropriate. Children are the responsibility of their home countries, which need to address their future welfare and rehabilitation prospects. Even those who were forced to engage in crimes must still be recognized internationally as victims deserving of a sympathetic and supportive approach. Western nations have robust judicial, social, and penal institutions that are highly capable of managing these populations. They must do so before it’s too late.

Devorah Margolin is a senior research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Twitter: @DevorahMargolin

Joana Cook is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London and author of A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism Since 9/11. Twitter: @Joana_Cook

Charlie Winter is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. Twitter: @charliewinter