For terrorist groups, human trafficking is often used to generate revenue, unleash horror, and attract fighters. But it has also long been a tool for involuntary recruitment, with groups using trafficking tactics to lure adults and minors under false pretenses or force, as well as to keep them in exploitative situations.
Yet, in practice, governments and even courts overlook that recruits can themselves be trafficked. To rightfully address such a situation requires considering when the legal definition of human trafficking applies to ISIS foreign recruits, the implications of trafficking in such recruitment cases, and why authorities often ignore this phenomenon. The well-known case of Shamima Begum can help illustrate the relevant questions.
When Are ISIS Recruits Trafficked?
One of the most complicated aspects of the human trafficking and terrorism nexus is knowing when persons linked to terrorist groups might be trafficked. Under international law, trafficking requires three elements in the case of adult recruits: 1) an “act” such as recruitment or transportation with 2) the specific intent or “purpose” to exploit, and 3) the use of certain “means.” Such means don’t have to involve the use of physical force, but include deception as well as the broad category of abuse of power or a position of vulnerability.
To detect trafficking in situations of recruitment or otherwise unlawful association with proscribed groups, it is also important to recall that trafficking can occur through an exploitative process, or when an exploitative situation results or is maintained without a preceding exploitative process. Depending on the facts, for example, there might be an exploitative process if individuals from Central Asia were falsely promised jobs that then led to involuntary recruitment to ISIS. Or if women who traveled to Syria were genuinely deceived about conditions in ISIS-controlled territories. And because trafficking can occur due to changed circumstances, if women linked to ISIS originally freely agreed to a marriage that instead became “domestic servitude or sexual slavery,” this might change voluntary travel to an involuntary stay.
Children, too, are often targeted by terrorist and violent extremist groups such as ISIS in circumstances that can meet the definition of child trafficking when there is an “act” (e.g., recruitment or transportation) with the specific intent to exploit. For child victims, no specific “means” are required, as a minor cannot, under any circumstances, legally give consent to their own exploitation.
The Case of Shamima Begum
The question of when ISIS child recruits are themselves trafficked has been in the news with the case of Shamima Begum, a 21-year-old who was 15 when she left East London to travel to ISIS in Syria. The U.K. has stripped her of her citizenship, and last month the U.K.’s highest court denied her bid to return home to contest the deprivation. Yet as I and recently others (here and here) have argued, her treatment overlooks that ISIS child recruits can also be trafficked.
In Begum’s case, it is a matter of public record that she was recruited online by a known female ISIS recruiter before she went to Raqqa in 2015 at the age of 15. On arrival she was put in a house for women and married off to an adult Dutch fighter within 10 days. A child bride, she was pregnant the next year with a daughter who later died. A second child would die in 2018, and a third in 2019.
Legally this is not a very difficult case in which to establish human trafficking. If ISIS recruited and/or transported Begum with the specific purpose to exploit her, this means that she was trafficked. Unlike with adult victims, the means by which it happened, such as grooming, do not have to be proven, as a minor cannot consent to their own exploitation even if they seem to have agreed to travel to a terrorist group.
Yet when the media describes Begum as a “runaway teen” or “ISIS bride,” it implies her decisions were voluntary. Last year, the court that upheld revoking Begum’s citizenship similarly described the child recruit of ISIS as a woman who was in her situation “as a result of her own choices and of the actions of others.” Traveling to ISIS and getting married at 15 were “choices” that Begum was not legally old enough to make, however. And as a result of the U.K. government’s failure to prevent, investigate, and remediate her trafficking (e.g., through repatriation), she is now stranded in northeast Syria in conditions that U.N. experts call “squalid.”
A Blind Spot on Trafficking of ISIS Recruits
So why aren’t governments asking whether trafficking occurred in ISIS international recruitment or in the caliphate itself? Some point to the difficulties of collecting battlefield evidence abroad, particularly when it comes to women. But in Begum’s case, as in others, at least some evidence on their initial recruitment can be readily found within home countries’ jurisdiction. Repatriation, including to interview potentially trafficked individuals to collect evidence, would also fix this concern. For others, seeing ISIS recruits as victims may appear to prioritize ISIS members over the many who suffered at the hands of the group, even though accountability is not a zero-sum game.
Here, governments’ siloing of trafficking expertise from decisions on ISIS recruits also means trafficking cases—and complex interplays of victimhood and agency—are missed. To give one example, while security officials may see a destroyed or ISIS-confiscated passport as evidence of fealty to ISIS, anti-trafficking expertise would query if this created conditions tantamount to an involuntary stay. And looking at the situation from an anti-trafficking perspective would course-correct security officials and others who wrongly insist that trafficking victims should show real remorse as a precondition to being afforded their rights.
Sympathy for trafficking victims can also wrongly turn on their religion or race. Indeed, for countries grappling with how to deal with their citizens who are linked to ISIS, whether someone is trafficked seems to depend on who it is that is being exploited. For example, when the successful prosecution in a recent Newcastle gang sex trafficking case described “vulnerable victims of an organised, cynical, systematic organisation,” it could have been talking about Shamima Begum’s fate. Yet rather than seeing Begum as a child who was groomed online by a criminal group known for its predation, officials and British public overwhelmingly support taking away her rights.
Ultimately too, governments resist seeing recruits as trafficked because it fundamentally changes the calculus in already-complicated legal decisions on returnees.
What Does It Mean If an ISIS Recruit is Trafficked?
Key to anti-trafficking frameworks is that trafficked persons are recognized first and foremost as rights-holders, including by having a right to remedy (e.g., return to home countries) for the government’s failure to exercise due diligence to prevent and investigate their being trafficked abroad to proscribed groups. To be clear, those accused of links to terrorist groups also have human rights. But being identified as trafficked in the context of terrorism brings with it a certain set of guarantees that are designed precisely to keep their rights as trafficked persons intact in situations of forced criminality.
Core among those guarantees is the principle of non-punishment. Since trafficked persons often are forced to commit crimes linked to their own trafficking, such as undocumented labor or sex work, most countries have rules requiring that trafficking victims should “not be held liable under criminal, civil or administrative laws” for unlawful activities that are either a direct consequence of (for adult victims) or “related to” (for child victims) having been trafficked. This guarantee of non-punishment should apply “regardless of the gravity or seriousness of the offence committed.” And for child recruits to ISIS, a human rights-based approach requires that their involvement in “criminal activities shall not undermine their status as both a child and a victim, or their related rights to special protection.”
When governments respond to ISIS recruits with blanket measures such as citizenship deprivation, aggressive criminal responses, and non-repatriation, these are sanctions that violate the non-punishment guarantee for ISIS recruits who were trafficked. Moreover, this results in a form of double punishment—unwarranted sanctions against trafficking victims in situations when such penalties are, on their own terms, also independently antithetical to human rights. This results in denying the human rights of those who are at once victims of terrorism and trafficking, including rights linked to rehabilitation, recovery, and repatriation.
Recognizing that someone might be at once a victim and a perpetrator is a challenge. But politics and antagonism toward those associated with proscribed groups do not override countries’ obligations under human rights and anti-trafficking laws to determine where ISIS recruits sit, beyond the simple binary of innocent victims and willing terrorists. A full reckoning of ISIS’s exploitation— and prevention of future recruitment by proscribed groups — demands this scrutiny.