The Women and Children Returning Home from the “Caliphate”

A new report on the Islamic State’s foreign fighters, released today by the Soufan Group, highlights an often overlooked population: the women and children who joined or were born into the group.

Along with male fighters, they are included among the 5,600 citizens or residents from 33 countries who have returned home after joining the Islamic State (also know as ISIS or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq. It’s believed that more than 40,000 people traveled to join ISIS since 2011.

What role did they play while members of ISIS? What threat, if any, do they pose to their home country? How will they be integrated into society? These are the difficult questions that will have to be addressed now that the Islamic State has lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria and thousands of its foreign fighters have returned home.

“Returnee women and children represent a particular problem for States, as they struggle to understand how best to reintegrate these populations,” the Soufan Group’s Richard Barrett writes in the report. 

Barrett says it’s difficult to know to what extent the women in ISIS were allowed to take part in combat. The group’s “strict and unbending social rules” for the most part would have prohibited it.

“Nonetheless, women who have joined IS must be assumed to have known what they were doing, and be treated accordingly. At the very least, some of the 600+ members of the all-female Al Khansaa unit in Raqqa claimed to have taken part in torture and to have enjoyed doing so,” Barrett writes. 

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin addressed “the somewhat problematic set of factual challenges that follow when women accompany spouses who engage in violence or join ISIS” in this July piece for Just Security.

In these contexts, there are complex issues of presumption (i.e. should we assume that a woman who follows has made a decision to ‘join’ an organization per se or is she following familial or spousal obligations/pressures to remain with a spouse?). Other issues include consent and assuming derivative responsibility as a spouse to a member of an illegal or extremist organization. When thinking about consent, it is worth considering the extent to which the choice of leaving a relationship and/or a geographical location might be meaningfully exercised when the threat of violence or ongoing hostilities make it practically impossible to leave. Moreover, there will doubtlessly be cases in which there may have been an original consent to accompany a spouse or join a potential partner overseas, but that material changes in circumstances will have negated that consent over time. However, it would be naive to presume that all women in such circumstances have been coerced or subject to threats to remain or participate in the group. We should never presume that a woman is innocent of engaging in violence or support to violence merely because she is female and/or a mother. Those two features do not make women (or any person) incapable of exercising autonomy in joining an extremist organization or lending support to them in a myriad of ways.

For these reasons, it will be difficult to assess a woman’s relationship to ISIS once she’s returned home. The report notes that women have been involved in ISIS-directed plots in Paris, Morocco and Kenya.

ISIS did not shy away from training children to carry out violent attacks either. The Soufan Group reports:

From 2014 to 2016, IS is believed to have recruited and trained more than 2,000 boys between the ages of nine and 15 as Cubs of the caliphate. In a report on IS atrocities dated August 2016, UNAMI and OHCHR reported a witness saying that IS was training Yazidi and Chechen children as young as 12 in the use of weapons, and IS videos have featured children that look no older than five executing prisoners.

The countries with the most children in ISIS are Belgium (~118), France (460), Kyrgyzstan (>130), and Russia (>350), according to the Soufan Group.

“Proper mental health and social support mechanisms will be especially relevant in the case of children,” the report says.

Image: ISIS recruitment video 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).