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Risk of return

West weighs terror threat posed by ISIS wives who come home

Women and children at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

Risk of return
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Kahina El Hadra waited three years to come home. Last July, she finally got her chance. Leaving behind the dusty desolation of northern Syria, she boarded a plane for Paris and settled in for the five-hour flight. When the plane landed, she walked down the steps and set her foot on French soil for the first time in nearly eight years. But she didn’t get to enjoy it for long. French police quickly whisked her off to prison and dispatched her three children into the foster care system.

Among all the cases of French ­citizens who went to fight with ISIS in Syria, El Hadra’s stands out. She was just 17 when she left France in 2014, and she married Samy Amimour soon after arriving in Syria. Months later, eluding detection, her new husband returned to France. On Nov. 13, 2015, he blew himself up during the Paris Bataclan terrorist attacks that killed 137 people, including seven attackers. In messages to friends, El Hadra crowed with pride and boasted about her dead husband’s actions. A few months after the attacks, she gave birth to Amimour’s daughter. That child is now 7 years old.

When ISIS fell in 2019, the little girl, El Hadra, and two children from another relationship were detained in camps in northwest Syria. Roj and al-Hol are two Kurd-run camps designed to temporarily house refugees from the Syrian civil war. Since populations are constantly changing, it’s ­difficult to pin down the precise number of refugees housed in the camps. But using the best estimates, Roj and al-Hol together contain more than 50,000 people. Those who have clear affiliations with ISIS are confined to a guarded camp within the larger one called the Annex.

The Annex in al-Hol holds 11,000 people, 62 percent of them children. Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called for countries to repatriate their citizens and lift them from the camps’ deteriorating confines. That includes children born in Syria, who generally retain their parents’ citizenship rights. But the international response has been slow. While some countries quickly brought citizens home to face justice and receive care, others are still weighing security risks and remain mired in political debate over bringing ISIS fighters—and more importantly, their children—home.

The dilemma French authorities faced over El Hadra and her children has replayed in other capitals: How do governments committed to human rights guarantee those rights to citizens held in a foreign detention camp because of the actions of their parents? How much does the danger posed by women who supported terrorists trump the rights of their innocent children?

Women look after children at al-Hol.

Women look after children at al-Hol. Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

France had nearly 1,600 citizens fighting for ISIS—the highest of any European Union country. And it has been the most reluctant to bring them home. The latest group of 15 women and 32 children to return to France arrived in late January. “It’s immense progress,” said lawyer Marie Dosé, who represents the advocacy group United Families Collective. “But we have to continue. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the children were under 6 when they arrived at the camps. The camps are the only childhood they know. They can’t spend another ­winter there.”

“The children are not to blame for the fatal life choices of their parents,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last October when 12 Germans returned home. “They are ultimately also victims of ISIS. We must therefore not leave them without prospects in the camps.”

Germany began its repatriations in 2019, bringing back a total of 27 women, 80 children, and one adolescent. Other German children remain in the camps because their mothers have not given consent for them to leave as required by the German government.

Belgium brought back all of its ­citizens in June—16 children and six mothers. The last group of Dutch ­citizens returned home in November, making a total of 18 ISIS-affiliated women and 42 children. Spain brought back 15 of its citizens in January. Upon arrival, law enforcement officials take custody of the mothers, who are indicted for their links to terrorism. For their children, each nation has had to develop a system for reintegrating them into both society and their extended families.

The U.S. State Department said in late 2020 it had repatriated all American supporters of ISIS known to be held by the Syrian Democratic Forces. One exception is Hoda Muthana, born in the United States to Yemeni parents. She left in 2014 to join ISIS in Syria. Muthana once had a U.S. passport, but in a rare case of birthright citizenship revocation, the Obama administration canceled her citizenship in 2016, citing her father’s Yemeni diplomatic status at the time of her birth. Muthana, who says she was brainwashed by online recruiters and is ready to serve time if she can return to the United States, remains in Roj with her young son.

Hoda Muthana

Hoda Muthana The News Movement/AP

ABOUT 150 FRENCH CHILDREN and women remain in Roj and al-Hol, including some youngsters whose mothers refuse to have their children repatriated, with or without them. In those cases, Marie Dosé thinks the state should intervene. “In France, when a child is mistreated or abused, child ­protective services act to protect a child from its mother. In this instance, we must protect the children from mothers who insist that their children stay behind the barbed wire of a war zone.” Dosé says a speedier reconnection of children with their grandparents and other relatives in France will help with reintegration: “The child enters a ­country, and he must understand that it is his country because his family is there.”

But plenty of people disagree. In 2019, 80 percent of French people opposed repatriation. That figure has now dropped but, at 59 percent, remains a majority. A comment on the Facebook page of United Families Collective sums up the attitude: “No to their return to France. Their mothers made a bad choice. Too bad.”

Some have labeled the children of terrorists “a ticking time bomb,” implying the violence they experienced living under ISIS would cause them to become violent themselves. Others say that’s exactly why they need to return to the West. Jean-Charles Brisard is president of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism. “You have to consider the environment in which they are growing up there [in the camps],” Brisard said. “The majority of their mothers have not renounced the idea of the caliphate. It is still a radicalized environment. The children need support and psychological care, and they’re not getting it there. The best way to create a ‘ticking time bomb’ is to leave them where they are.”

Brisard regrets what he calls the government’s “missed opportunity” to educate the public on the need for repatriations, for both the well-being of the children and the ability to bring their parents to justice.

Having abandoned the black all-covering face veils and niqabs they previously wore, a group of women, reportedly the wives of ISIS fighters, pose at Camp Roj.

Having abandoned the black all-covering face veils and niqabs they previously wore, a group of women, reportedly the wives of ISIS fighters, pose at Camp Roj. Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

The Kurdish authorities running the camps promised a judiciary process for the adults associated with ISIS. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the camp environments have deteriorated. In a report released in December, humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders documented gang-­related murders, unlawful detentions and arbitrary punishments by security forces, childhood deaths from preventable diseases, and lack of access to ­education. Security forces forcibly take boys as young as 11 from their mothers and move them to all-male sections of the camps, leaving their mothers to wait for news in vain.

Seventy-nine children under 16 died in al-Hol in 2021 alone, according to the World Health Organization. To keep them safer, mothers make their kids stay inside their tents all the time. Doctors Without Borders found residents with chronic illnesses have ­limited and inconsistent access to ­necessary medications.

France originally pledged to repatriate all its citizens in 2019, but then switched to deciding on a case-by-case basis. That resulted in some kids returning without their mothers. The European Court of Human Rights condemned that policy in September, as did the United Nations Committee Against Torture in January. In a ­statement, the French-based United Families Collective lamented condemnation of a country known for the Enlightenment and the defense of human rights, but admits the criticism pushed France to change its policy to keep more kids and moms together.

Eight months after returning home, Kahina El Hadra still awaits her trial in a separate section for jihadists in the Women’s Prison in Rennes, about 200 miles west of Paris. Social services evaluated her children in the first weeks after their arrival. They are now living with foster families trained in trauma care, in hopes of an eventual reunification with their extended family.

—with additional reporting by Mirjana Babloyan and Emma Freire

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny is WORLD’s global desk chief and European reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute and Smith College graduate. She is the author of the novel Mountains of Manhattan and resides in Porrentruy, Switzerland, with her family.



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