Questions of Jihad and Citizenship in Al-Hol Camp: Who Will Take Them?

The large scale detainment camp in Al-Hol, Syria, holds tens of thousands of women and children allegedly affiliated with ISIS. The camp is ground zero for a problem afflicting dozens of nation-states, as it holds their radicalized citizens. This corner of northeastern Syria was under ISIS control for some time, on a key route between Raqqa and Mosul across the border in Iraq. The Al-Hol camp sits near Baghouz, the last bastion of ISIS territory in Syria and is under SDF control. The camp has received more than 12,000 new arrivals since hostilities began in Baghouz, bringing its total to close to 65,000, according to the IRC. A Time article puts the count at 73,000 (!). The vast majority of these detainees are Syrian or Iraqi, with some 9,000 foreigners of various nationalities currently detained.

Several disturbances and hostilities continue to shake the Al-Hol camp. Shiraz Maher, an academic known for his work on salafi-jihadism, called Al-Hol “Camp Bucca 2.0” in reference to the camp inside Iraq where U.S. troops held thousands of insurgents during the Iraq War, now known to have been a hotbed for jihadi networking and activity.  Maher’s tweet also highlights the recurring nature of problems in Al-Hol. Erin Cunningham’s recent report from the camp laid clear how many of the women held there are recalcitrant in their allegiance to Daesh. Groups inside the camp are reportedly trying to enforce the strict dress codes Daesh was known for by harassing women who do not conform to the standards of dress. Cunningham reports that some continue to brandish weapons, burn down other’s tents, and target those who express regret for having joined Daesh. Most ominously, some detainees swear they will resurrect the “caliphate” if they are released. The question of what to do with such hardened Daesh members has no easy answers.

In the same camp, one finds many others who claim to have repented and now regret having joined Daesh. Now that the war is grinding to an end, many of these jihadis and their family members want to return to the countries they left earlier to join Daesh.  Their citizenship should have been sufficient (in theory) but legal citizenship has proven less durable in practice than theory says it should be. For governments, accepting such radicalized individuals back presents clear few benefits and many potential pitfalls. The ideal situation is that someone returns and manages to become a spokesperson qualified to talk potential jihadis out of their worldview. That assumes s/he has come to see the error of their ways, a big assumption. The most common picture of success is someone who reintegrates and never causes problems again, an outcome it is hard to take political credit for. The biggest potential pitfall is clearly that they would return and carry out an attack, any government’s nightmare scenario. Thus governments see significant risks and few, if any, potential benefits to taking back these former fighters. Shamima Begum was one such high-profile case.

Begum was a British citizen who wanted to return but had her citizenship stripped from her by Sajad Javid, the British Home Secretary. Her case raised complex questions. She was 15 when she left to join Daesh, thus not a legal adult, and she has had several children while in ISIS territory, who legally are British citizens. Stripping someone of citizenship would not legally negate the citizenship of her children, who were born before her citizenship was taken. This does not yet address the issue of whether Britain can legally strip her citizenship away. That question came into sharper focus because one of her children apparently died in the last week; should not Britain have done something for this child, a British citizen?

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt defended the decision to strip Begum of her citizenship when challenged about its morality and legality:

“Shamima knew, when she made the decision to join Daesh, she was going into a country where there was no embassy. There was no consular assistance. And I’m afraid those decisions, awful though it is, do have consequences.” Interestingly, Hunt frames Begum’s crime as her decision to leave the state’s reach. Yet Britain is not alone in trying to rebuff the return of these jihadis and their families.

The Sweden Democrats, a far-right political party, have echoed Hunt’s position and have similarly called for stripping returning fighters of citizenship. Sweden reportedly has dozens of returned ISIS fighters it is trying to rehabilitate rather than prosecute, a decision that is sparking controversy. Just to the south, a man born in Denmark was sentenced to five years imprisonment and had his passport seized by authorities who prosecuted him for having fought with ISIS. Referring to the accused, Danish prosecutor Natalja Fryd Lindberg argued that “(H)e is badly integrated and has no time for democracy…” none of which addressed his citizenship by birth. What other actions, exactly, would get one labeled “badly integrated”…? Danish lawmakers are trying to pass a bill that would not grant citizenship to the children born abroad of Danish jihadis. UNICEF Denmark responded with criticism that the law punished children for their parents’ sins, and might not be in accordance with the International Convention of the Rights of the Child. Danish authorities have broader issues with immigration and have taken a series of highly questionable approaches to immigration and deportation, not merely in regards to having fought for Daesh. Whether Daesh intended to or not, it seems to have precipitated a crisis in the concept of citizenship for western nations.

Hoda Muthana is in a similar situation with her home country of the U.S.A. Mike Pompeo, in his role as Secretary of State, has denied Muthana the ability to re-enter the USA, despite being born in Alabama and being issued a US passport as recently as 2014. Pompeo apparently is trying to use an exception in the law, namely that Muthana’s father was a Yemeni diplomat, and that diplomats are not subject to the law of the country they live in but rather their home country’s law. If so, this never prevented the US from giving Muthana a passport before. The technicality is important though, as Pompeo seeks to get out of the legal requirements of what the US owes a citizen, in Muthana’s case because of having traveled to Syria to join ISIS.

Belgium exemplifies the complex family law dynamics at play in debating how to deal with two Belgian women who want to return from Syria. The two women want to return but the state is refusing to allow them to re-enter, and their six children hang in the balance. The children’s grandmother has been acting from Belgium, putting pressure on the authorities to let the children come back to Belgium, as the conditions for them in Syria are horrible. The logistics of getting them back, without their mothers, remain unclear. Their mothers, who are sisters in law, insist that they want their children to return to Belgium at any cost, even if it means their mothers cannot return. Such may be the fate for other “children of the Islamic State” if different nation-states refuse to accept adults back from having joined Daesh but have a duty to address the needs of their children, innocent literally and legally, and possessing citizenship. France has similar issues, and has so far seemed to take an approach that children can only be repatriated if their mothers agreed to be separated from the children.

One Australian woman spoke to reporters in Al-Hol camp, conveying her strong desire to return home to her native Australia. While refusing to identify herself, she laid out her argument to be allowed to return home. “I understand the anger that they have towards a lot of us here, but the kids don’t need to suffer,” she argued. “My kids have a right at least to be treated like normal kids…”

Bosnia is an example of a country willing to take back its nationals who have left to join international jihad. The country will take back two of its nationals recently detained during the fighting in Baghouz. Bosnia has already prosecuted some 46 individuals in its state courts for terrorism offences, yet even 46 shows the scale of the challenge: “According to Bosnian intelligence, 241 adults and 80 children left Bosnia or the Bosnian diaspora in 2012-2016 for Syria and Iraq, where 150 more children were born” a Reuters article on the topic explained. “About 100 adults, including 49 women, remained there while at least 88 have been killed or died.” Between their volume and their complexity, such cases will prove problematic in the courts of western nations for years to come.

Germany, moving towards a policy like Bosnia’s, has said it will potentially accept returning fighters and try them in German courts. The catch, no small hurdle, is that they need consular access. One German woman recently was allowed to return with her three kids, and was arrested upon arrival. She had taken her children to Syria without their father’s approval, so the children will presumably be under the care of their father. Another case was Harry Sarfo, who returned from Syria under curious circumstances. Sarfo’s case highlights the difficult nature of trying to prosecute returning jihadis. Indeed, Sarfo claimed he had not engaged in any violence but mysterious video appeared, of unclear provenance, seeming to show Sarfo taking part in a death by firing squad. This was exceptional for a number of reasons, but primarily because there is rarely clear evidence of crimes committed. Like Sarfo, many who flee claim they were working in an office or did not take part in fighting. Whether difficult to carry out or not, citizenship should guarantee one a fair trial in the courts of his or her nation, as one woman insists here.

The decision to reject their return arguably parallels one of the pitfalls of nationalist thinking. By prioritizing territory and territorial belonging in law, nation-states can shirk responsibility for anything that happens outside their fixed borders. Yet humans move, we always have. Nation-states have arguably found it easier to just refuse these individuals the ability to return home, passing the responsibility for their trials to the very countries where they went to fight. Such a flimsy attachment to citizens will prove far more damaging to nation-states in the long run than it is “helpful” in the short term.

The Collateral Damage of Fighting ISIS: Families, Children, and the Future

At the center of terrorism, on the level of ideas, is a classification. The terrorist is the person beyond humanity, beyond the law, and beyond reason. S/he has crossed the threshold. In the US War on Terror, for example, those charged with terrorism offenses are kept out of civilian courts, and thus the standard justice system, and instead tried in military courts, with less rights and protections. In Iraq, such trials are swift and haphazard, surrounded by uncertainty. Children are also supposed to be excluded from the adult justice system, but for their own protection, not because they’re exceptional. At the crux of these issues, the actions to weed out ISIS from Iraqi society are catching families and children in a broad net with damaging long-term consequences. Collective punishment and rushing children through the adult justice system will not achieve transitional justice.

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screenshot from this VICE news report

The family members of accused ISIS fighters face a tumultuous road ahead with no clear end. Iraq has set up camps to detain returning family members of ISIS suspects, but the numbers of people being transferred and held in the camps are not clear, nor are the criteria for detention. Their long term fate is even murkier. In addition to the crime of collective punishment (i.e punishing someone because their family member was in a terrorist group) there seems to be no distinction made between children and adults. State seizure of the children from their parents is fraught with pitfalls and does not present a working alternative to detention of the entire family.   How might such detention impact children? It certainly is not good for the children’s welfare, and may well traumatize them further. While easier said than done, an alternative method must be found to deal with the families of ISIS fighters.

A recent Jerusalem Post story detailed the escape of an Iraqi minor whose family died when ISIS raided their hometown several years ago. His life from age 11 until age 16 was lived under ISIS rule. In the best case scenario, he can be reunited with extended family members in Iraq, but he will need years of help to deal with the trauma he experienced. So far, he seems to have avoided accusations of having fought for ISIS, but many other children deal with these accusations today.

Indeed, Iraqi and KRG authorities are detaining and in some cases torturing children whom they allege to have been ISIS fighters. Even once released from custody, these youth  have said they fear returning to their homes because of the possibility of further scapegoating as being tied to ISIS, or potentially being re-arrested.  Some of the children are foreigners, but many are Iraqis; HRW estimates that around 1,500 children remain in detention for alleged connections to ISIS. A comprehensive system needs to be put in place to handle youth caught up in the war or with ISIS. If they fought as child soldiers, their age makes them victims under international law and they should not be prosecuted as terrorists. A haphazard approach to the fight to stabilize Iraq and vanquish ISIS risks planting the seeds of yet more problems in the future. The UN writes in detail here about what’s at stake with regard to the reintegration of child soldiers into society:

“Providing reintegration opportunities for children affected by conflict is not only a moral and legal obligation to protect children and put their best interests first, but it is also an important pillar to create sustainable peace. Failing to follow this trauma with healing and helping services will result in negative long-term effects for these children and their communities, and will have broader impacts on economic development and social cohesion. Stigmatization of the returning children may also lead to further exclusion and violence when programmes are not well adapted to the communities, the context and to the children’s needs.”

Understandably, some Iraqis have no patience for concerns about how suspected ISIS fighters or their families are treated given the atrocities Iraq suffered through. A strong desire for vengeance against ISIS animates haste and fuels retribution in some cases, but Iraqi authorities must keep their eyes on a key long term question, namely how to reintegrate these family members and children.  In the process of putting this blog together, I found photos labeled to be the children of ISIS fighters in which their faces were recognizable; I chose not to use these photos because I cannot authenticate them nor should the children’s faces be visible even if they are genuinely children of ISIS fighters.  How might such photos impact their future? The children of ISIS fighters must not be punished for their parents’ deeds, assuming their parents are actually guilty of being ISIS members. Those who fought as child soldiers need help to see the error of their ways and help with reintegration into Iraqi society. They cannot be expelled (who will take them?) or locked up forever.

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Photo from National Geographic Kids.

The children pictured above are Iraqi children playing at school, nothing more and nothing less.