ISIS may have been defeated on the battlefield; but thousands of Western fighters and their families remain in detention in Syria and Iraq. We do not expect terrorists to attract much sympathy. But the majority of detainees are not terrorists; they are children. At the largest detention camp, al-Hol in northeastern Syria, around two-thirds of the approximately 70,000 detainees are under the age of twelve. The Red Cross describes conditions there as “apocalyptic.” Children routinely die of malnutrition and hypothermia. Education, medical care, and trauma counseling are practically non-existent. Extremist indoctrination is rife.
Most detainees at al-Hol are from Iraq and Syria, but some are from Western countries. Western governments, for the most part, have refused to take their nationals back. Some have revoked their citizenship. Others have called for an international tribunal based in Iraq, which amounts to another means of avoiding the tough, but necessary, responsibility of dealing with their own citizens. Their trepidation is understandable; by blocking the return of people they regard as dangerous, these states believe that they are protecting their citizens at home.
In reality, however, this “hands off” stance will only create greater danger in the future. The squalor of the camps and the lack of just treatment there, especially for children, fuels the Salafijihadist narrative of grievance and revenge that has proven so potent in recruiting followers. Many of the women are victims of physical and emotional abuse, but some are also deeply radicalized, preaching toxic ISIS propaganda to the increasingly desperate detainees of al-Hol. Detained children, growing up in brutal conditions and subjected to persistent indoctrination, are at particular risk of becoming radicalized and pursuing the path of terrorism. The denial of citizenship by their home nations will bolster their sense of being, in effect, citizens of the Islamic State, potentially preparing them to form the core of a future resurgence. [Continue reading… [PDF]]