With the fall of the Caliphate, thousands of children born from foreign fighters face a bleak future: remain in refugee camps in the Middle East or, separated from their parents, return to Europe.

By Zsófia Baumann

The last months of the Islamic State have drawn attention to the future of foreign citizens fighting for the Caliphate. The men and women who have willingly joined the ranks of the Islamic State will have to face prosecution either in Iraq, Syria or back in their home countries. However, European countries are struggling to find a solution for the children of these fighters. Some have started to repatriate European children from Iraq and Syria, leaving their parents behind and raising the question of who will be responsible for their future.

The number of European women emigrating to the territory of the Islamic State in the past few years has shocked the continent. From young teenagers leaving with their friends to women following their partners and mothers taking their children, the total number of European women in the Caliphate grew to 680 by the end of last year. Together with their peers from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia their number reached approximately 1,800.

Many women chose to emigrate to the Islamic State in hopes of finding a husband among the fighters and establishing a family in a land ruled by Sharia law. The state-building ambitions of the Islamic State reinforced these dreams and explicitly encouraged women to join its ranks. Their strategy worked and within the past four years as many as 1,000 children were born from European mothers in the Caliphate and approximately 5,000 Syrian and Iraqi women have had children from European fathers.

EU women (foreign fighters) and children in the Islamic State
Figures based on estimates by The Soufan Group (October 2017)

Stranded in refugee camps

With vast territories taken back from the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, more and more foreign fighters have fled the Caliphate or were detained by coalition forces. Approximately 50 foreign fighters have been captured by mid-December according to US military sources. Most foreign fighters, together with their families (or “Daeshis” as they are commonly referred to), are taken to refugee camps, such as to the one in Ain Issa, near the Syrian city of Raqqa. Another 1,400 foreign women and children were rounded up by Iraqi authorities after the retake of Mosul and are held in camps there. Others are in Iraqi custody awaiting trial. Finally, there are still fighters on the run in territories still held by the Islamic State. According to estimates by the US-led coalition, there are less than 3,000 foreign fighters left in Iraq and Syria, mostly in remote areas, after having been driven out of major urban strongholds.

With the sudden decline of the Islamic State, European countries with a considerable number of returning foreign fighters must find a solution for their citizens captured in the former territories of the Caliphate. So far, none of these countries have managed to come up with comprehensive policies towards these people. Most countries agree that both men and women can be equally held responsible for their decision to join the Islamic State, despite the commonly held belief that women are naïve victims lured abroad by men and tend to be younger (often underage) than their male counterparts when they leave.

However, the situation of children is different both legally and morally, and thus, the status of women with children is also a different case. Children born under the rule of the Islamic State should not be punished for the decisions their parents made. Being born to European parents, they should be entitled to the same rights as any other European child. So far, there have been some women held in Ain Issa who have expressed a desire to return to Europe with their children. However most European countries do not actively help their citizens, including children, in their attempt to do so.

The Netherlands for example requires its citizens to travel to one of its embassies in neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, in order to request assistance for returning. However, due to a lack of travel documents, most of these women and children are unable to leave the camp, let alone the country. As Daan Weggemans of the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University points out, one of the main problems with the repatriation of children is that their fate is linked to their mothers’. Their mothers on the other hand are considered a security risk and countries are reluctant to actively seek solutions to let them back into the country. Separating children from their mothers also raises several ethical and legal concerns.


However, it seems like separating children from their mothers is the only solution. At the end of last year, France repatriated the first French children born to Islamic State militants. The three children between the ages of three and eight were born to French parents before the family left for Iraq in 2015. Their father was killed in Mosul and their mother was taken into custody by Iraqi authorities last summer. She remains in Iraq with her fourth child, while the three children were placed in foster care in France.

Germany has also chosen to separate children from their parents and plans to repatriate over 100 infants, mainly toddlers and babies, at the beginning of the year. The main reason Germany has made this decision is due to the concern over the radicalization of children: in 2016 three out of five attacks in the country were carried out by minors. Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the BfV domestic intelligence agency, had warned in October that children of returning Islamists could pose a threat after being “socialised and indoctrinated in the battlefield areas.” Therefore, the priority is to rehabilitate and reintegrate these German children into society as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Belgium introduced similar yet more restrictive measures to temporarily solve the problem of Belgian children staying in limbo in war zones. According to a 2017 December Council of Ministers decision, children up to the age of 10 would be eligible to return to Belgium if their Belgian lineage is proven by DNA testing. This means 87 children, which is approximately between 70-80% of Belgian children born in the Caliphate. It is questionable how and where the testing would be carried out and if children would be required to visit embassies in various countries around Iraq and Syria. This would prove to be equally difficult as in the case of Dutch children mentioned before.

The “Cubs of the Caliphate”

Belgium has a good reason to implement an age limit. The Islamic State has been known to recruit boys between the ages of nine and fifteen and train them to become the “Cubs of the Caliphate” (minors above the age of fifteen are considered adults in the terrorist organization). According to estimates by The Soufan Group, between 2014 and 2016 more than 2,000 boys were trained to fight and carry weapons in various Islamic State camps. This number includes children of fighters, including foreigners, children abducted from locals, orphans, abandoned children and voluntary recruits, based on a research by the Quilliam Foundation.

These boys can be used for a variety of different roles in the Caliphate. The indoctrination begins at an early age, in schools, and continues in training camps, according to the Quilliam Foundation. Here, in the camps, young boys are desensitised to violence and learn specific skills to best serve the Caliphate, such as martial arts and self-defense. But according to testimonies by children freed from the Islamic State, they are also taught how to kill, including by learning how to use explosive belts. It is therefore clear, that these children not only need to be taken out of the “battlefield environment” they grew up in, but will require serious rehabilitation and psychological care to be able to reintegrate into European societies.

Currently, most countries have not started to actively address this problem and have yet to take a more proactive approach to rehabilitate children from the Islamic State. There are also exceptions. Egypt, for instance, has initiated the repatriation and deradicalization of 15 of its Islamist fighters’ children captured in Libya. The city of Misrata was under Islamic State control until December 2016 when the Libyan army took it back from the terrorist group. Upon liberating the city, the Libyan army found 125 children, including the 15 Egyptians, of different North African and European origin. After the operation, the children were sent to a rehabilitation camp, where they were enrolled in psychological and educational programs run by the Libyan Red Crescent since January 2017. The children will be sent back to Egypt in the upcoming months, upon completion of the program. Ideally, they will be raised by other family members, who have been screened to make sure they do not harbor extremist views. Others will be sent to special orphanages where their rehabilitation will include preventing future exposure to radical ideologies.

Fate of children determined by that of their mothers

What future awaits the children of European foreign fighters largely depends on the treatment their mothers will receive from their home countries. At this point, most European countries are reluctant to take their citizens back, and, as it is the case in France, prefer their foreign fighters to be prosecuted where they were captured (although President Macron indicated mothers and children will be judged on a case-by-case basis). According to Belgian Islamic State expert, Pieter van Ostaeyen, what makes the situation even more complicated is that most European countries do not have extradition agreements with neither Iraq nor Syria. Facing prosecution in these countries, it is without doubt that these women will not be given adequate legal protections, a fair trial and an appropriate and proportionate sentence in accordance with European legal norms.

The case is different – and possibly worse – for the approximately 5,000 children who were born to European fighters and local Iraqi or Syrian women. After losing their husbands, many of these women appealed to the fighters’ home countries in Europe for protection, only to be turned away. Being a widow with a child in these countries is not only difficult due to prejudice and inadequate legal and social protections, but also because there is no way to prove that the deceased father was indeed a European citizen.

There is no ideal solution

It is not to say that sending children who do actually have parents to be raised in orphanages is an ideal solution to the problem, but neither is leaving them in refugee camps in the war zones of Iraq and Syria, even if they can stay with their parents. The longer these children are without proper education, health care and social security, the less likely they will be able to reintegrate into society and grow up to live a normal life. Under ideal circumstances, they could be reunited with family members in their home countries, provided their family members have been screened and the children will not face the danger of further radicalization.

Prosecuting their mothers will also be challenging. Women living in the Islamic State are given the traditional roles of housewives and mothers. They are not allowed to engage in fighting and if they wish to play a more active role in the building of the Caliphate, they can do so by recruiting other women via social media and disseminating practical advice to future foreign fighters. While joining and providing any kind of support to a terrorist organization is a crime in most European countries, it will be difficult to asses these women’s involvement and hand out appropriate sentences. It is without question that these women should be prosecuted upon return to their home countries. It is also doubtful whether they will be able to fully reintegrate into society and return to their roles as parents if they have not undergone deradicalization and rehabilitation. Their children’s life, on the other hand, should not be dependent on their mothers’ fate and past choices. With adequate psychological help and a social support system they should be given a chance at a normal life in Europe.

Cover Picture: propaganda image of “Muslim children being raised in the lands of Islam”, from Dābiq Magazine of  the Islamic State, Issue #15, July 2016

Categories: Europe Terrorism