Cruel Dilemmas Keep 'ISIS Children' From Building New Lives

Some 2,500 children captured by Islamic State are living in orphanages and 17,000 are begging on streets in Syria and Iraq

Youths play on swings at Roj Camp for the families of Islamic State members in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, June 23, 2018.
IVOR PRICKETT / NYT

After four years of separation, a Turkish citizen was reunited with her 7-year-old son. She thought that her child would immediately be able to make friends and play with his peers, and begin to return to a normal life. But when the boy saw other children, he picked up stones and started throwing them at the youngsters. Shocked, his mother asked him why he behaved that way. “I only wanted to play with them,” he said.

Four years before that, the child's father, a Turkish citizen, had kidnapped him and the two moved to Syria in order to join the Islamic State. The father married another woman with children, who had left her husband in Turkey and moved to Syria to live a “proper Islamic life.” Within a short time the boy’s father was killed while participating in a terror attack. The stepmother was forced to marry an Islamic State member, and shortly afterward was also killed; the new stepfather decided to abandon the children.

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Fortunately for the Turkish boy, he found his way to an orphanage, and from there returned to his homeland, after many efforts were made to locate him. Now he is undergoing psychological therapy and may return to a normal life.

His mother, who was interviewed by the website Middle East Eye, said the child doesn’t talk much about his experiences while living with Islamic State fighters, he still has nightmares and is unable to communicate with friends. But he did tell her that on one day, he was annoyed with his stepsister and wanted to kill her with his father’s rifle. Luckily for her, the rifle was too heavy and he couldn’t lift it.

An Egyptian woman and two daughters in their tent, at Roj Camp for the families of Islamic State members in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, June 23, 2018.
IVOR PRICKETT / NYT

Another boy, who was staying at an orphanage in Mosul, Iraq, demanded a knife from one of the staff there. When the man refused, the boy took a pencil and stabbed one of the girls at the facility.

The person responsible for absorbing the Islamic State orphans at the shelter said that after arrival there, children sometimes sing songs they learned from the Islamic militants, others curse a lot, and many pray devoutly five times a day and devour the food they are given with uncontrollable voracity.

It is estimated that over 2,500 “Islamic State children” are still living in refugee camps and orphanages in Iraq and Syria. These youngsters can be divided into two main categories: Those who were kidnapped by Islamic State operatives in order to serve as fighters and carry out suicide attacks, and those who arrived with parents who enlisted in the organization, or were born during the war years.

When the fighting ended in locales where Islamic State had established itself, many of the fathers abandoned their families, leaving their offspring behind with their mothers. Now these women are awaiting a decision about their own fates – one that necessitates an investigation to determine whether they were Islamic State fighters themselves. Generally, their children are considered lucky, because for now they at least have something to eat and receive minimal medical care – albeit no psychological help.

On the other hand, about 17,000 “Islamic State children” are roaming the streets in Syria and Iraq without receiving any assistance. They usually beg for food and are easy prey for Islamic State militants, who kidnap and exploit them in order to continue their terrorist operations.

Many of these children have no documentation, and that is the source of another infuriating problem: At least 1,000 children are citizens of foreign countries such as France, Germany, Russia, Azerbaijan, Tunisia, and so on, but their governments are unwilling to recognize them as citizens due to the absence of identification papers.

But even when there are papers, no country is rushing to bring them back home. France and Germany have declared that they are willing to take in a limited number of children, but without their mothers, since they are unable to check whether the women were Islamic State operatives.

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Even mothers who never lived in Iraq and Syria, and who succeeded in tracking down their children at camps or elsewhere, cannot meet with them, due to regulations. That is apparently one of the twisted ways in which those countries are taking revenge against the mothers (and their children) for deciding, whether of their own free will or by force, to live with Islamic State militants.

These circumstances invite all kinds of cruel dilemmas. For example, situations where women can and want to return home with their children, but their husbands won't accept the children because they were born to Islamic State fighters, or because the woman became pregnant by another man, even if she was raped.

The mother must then decide whether to abandon her children in a refugee camp or other facility and go home, where a hostile society awaits her, or to remain with her children in the camps as long as the authorities allow it.

The many reports being disseminated of the distress of these thousands of children have yet to produce orderly rescue plans. At best they are being cared for by aid organizations that are not equipped t,o provide vital psychological treatment; in the worst case, by government services in Iraq or Kurdish forces in Syria. These children will be last in line for rehabilitation – and the first to give rise to a new, twisted and hostile generation.