As published in Homeland Security Today
Four children, one the newborn of ISIS joiner Shamima Begum, have recently died in one YPG held detention camp, raising questions about why underage Western children are being held in Syria rather than returned to their home countries.
by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci
CAMP ROJ, SYRIA – “The children that have died…they were so small…They don’t even know how to run away from the tents [on fire]. The mom was outside, and they were inside,” a mother of a 4-year-old in Camp Roj stated recently to ICSVE researchers.
Four children under the age of 6 have recently died in the YPG-run Camp Roj in Northern Syria – at which foreign fighter wives and children are being housed – while their countries debate whether to take them home. They are not the first to die in this camp and will likely not be the last. The most recent death in the camp was the newborn son of Shamima Begum, a UK national who radicalized at age 15 over the Internet and left her country as a minor to join ISIS.[i] Shamima is accused of still being highly radicalized. Her newborn did not have a chance to show his predilections – whether he was likely to have grown up to follow in the footsteps of his mother in making wrong decisions or perhaps become a Nobel Peace Prize winner – having died within days of his birth.
The debate over what to do with the Western children of ISIS parents remains controversial. The debate cost Samantha Elhassani’s children more than a year in the Syrian camps, despite the fact that her two oldest children were U.S. passport holders at the time their mother dragged them into Syria to live in ISIS-ruled Raqqa. Failure to answer and quickly act on the matter will continue to negatively affect the lives of the children involved – in some cases, unfortunately, cost their very lives. In response to such growing concerns, President Trump has recently urged European countries to take back ISIS captives.[ii]
American-born Matthew, the oldest son of Samantha Elhassani,[iii] whose biological father was a retired American serviceman, lived under ISIS control as a very young boy. At the time, U.S. authorities were aware that his mother escaped from Raqqa, Syria, and that during his time there he had been forced by his mother’s new husband, Mousa Elhassani, to “star” in an ISIS video threatening his homeland.[iv] This young boy, reciting rote lines threatening his homeland into the video camera, can be viewed as a monster-in-the-making or a tragic abuse of an American child. In either case, he was born in America and was an American passport-holding child and a minor, and should have received timely physical protection, psychological help and protection from the U.S. government, meaning the moment we learned about his whereabouts he should have been protected. Instead he, and his three siblings, fell prey to political and legal wrangling, which left them in a vulnerable position for over a year.[v]
Matthew told CNN reporters in a particularly heart-rendering video that his mother had suffered a particularly harsh beating the day of his video production for trying to prevent her husband from using Matthew in the ISIS propaganda videos.[vi] She lost that battle and Mathew was eventually filmed. Samantha Elhassani and her children have been repatriated to the States. While now safe, the delay of more than a year in the process of repatriation may haunt the children’s lives forever. Likewise, hundreds of other Western children of ISIS parents, many under the age of 10, still await their undecided futures. For instance, a 9-year-old girl born in Belgium, whose parent we recently interviewed in Camp Roj, Syria, told us she would like to return home to attend school again. Is she a terrorist threat?[vii]
These very young children and minors should not be considered a national security threat. On the contrary, they need our protection. They are our citizens and are entitled to their human and legal rights, including our protection. Justice in their cases should be delivered swiftly, despite our need to also debate national security concerns. From a psychological standpoint, any delays in a child’s life are much longer in their perspective and in terms of their development than they are for the adults involved. Children heal quickly and do best when restored to safety, predictability, and nurturing – things Camp Roj, or any detention centers and controlled camps, can hardly provide to children. In raising concerns over food shortages, undernutrition, and hygiene in general in the YPG-run camps in Northern Syria – the factors that affect a child’s livelihood – several Syrian officials irritably pointed out to ICSVE researchers damage caused by ISIS to many innocent Syrian civilians who continue to languish, as they described it, in much worse conditions compared to ISIS wives and children currently housed in detention and camp facilities. While such arguments hold true, the children in question are Westerners and need to be brought home and cared for by the countries tasked for their protection and well-being. It should not be left to Syrian Kurds to provide for them.
Camp Roj in Syria, alongside others that the YPG struggle to maintain and run in a humane fashion, is plagued with concerning issues, such as lack of vaccinations for the children, spread of infectious diseases and lack of nutritious food. Mothers in the camp fear typhoid outbreaks, which have claimed the lives of both mothers and their children in the camp over the past year. Likewise, they fear the minority of other females, mostly non-Westerners, who are still radicalized and try to enforce ISIS-defined shariah behavior on all the women, such as wearing headscarves and not speaking out to condemn ISIS. “I’m afraid they will come with a knife – that has happened here, attack or steal all our belongings, or set fire to our tents,” one European mother told us.
The Kurdish forces are currently edging toward one of the last known ISIS hideouts in Syria, with ISIS fighters hiding out in tunnels and emerging still ready to fight to the death in Baghuz.[viii] Hundreds of YPG fighters, men and women, have died fighting ISIS in this and many other battles. YPG fighters and Syrian Kurds have paid a high price fighting ISIS. They now need our help and assistance dealing with all the prisoners and detainees they have under their custody. With the influx of surrendered and captured ISIS cadres and families since last year, the Kurdish authorities in Syria have been asking for all Western countries to take back their citizens, male and female, young and old, who came to join and, in some cases, fight for the ISIS Caliphate, or were born in Syria to their ISIS parents. While taking back the parents raises many thorny legal and other issues, taking the young children should raise few. The latter could mostly entail negotiating with their parents for the safe return of their children while the parents’ return may be delayed. Alternatively, parents and children would not be separated and would return together.
The YPG view on the matter is that it is not their responsibility to try these individuals, and even if it were, the YPG lacks the country legal status to do so and would have to hand them over to Syrian or Iraqi courts. Assad’s prisons are rife with human rights accusations of rape and torture. He is also known to have released al Qaeda fighters and other Islamist extremists into the battles when it was opportune for him to do so.[ix] He can hardly be a trusted partner on this.
In Iraq, ISIS prisoners nearly always receive a death sentence, with questionable court proceedings and evidence presented in place. Western women, such as a French woman we recently interviewed in Iraq, complained how she had no attorney representing her and did not even understand the rushed sentencing procedure that occurred, resulting in her life sentence to Iraqi prison. She just recently handed her young children over to her brother in France, admitting Iraqi prisons were no place for children – yet many are still there with their mothers as well. On the side of some Western countries, particularly those with prison radicalization issues already overwhelming the system, the view is one of being loath to take back ISIS fighters and wives. Some such countries fear they cannot collect sufficient and credible evidence from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria to prosecute and that ISIS fighters and wives pose national security threats at home, whether they land in or outside of prisons.
The children of ISIS fighters and ISIS wives hang in the balance. In the recent days, Shamima Begum[x] was stripped of her UK citizenship while heavily pregnant, begging the legal question of what does that mean for the child born to her, purportedly from a Dutch father? While stripping her citizenship was contentious, given she was denied any chance of a Bengali passport, what about her infant child? Is her newborn, clearly not guilty of anything, also stripped of EU and British citizenship rights and not considered worthy of protecting? UK officials claimed it was impossible and too dangerous to retrieve Shamima’s newborn, who is no longer able to be saved. He died struggling for his life in Camp Roj, in the last week, from malnutrition and breathing difficulties. Yet, despite British claims that he couldn’t be rescued from the camp, Western journalists and researchers, including us, have traveled there regularly, unscathed. He could have been brought home.
ICSVE researchers have talked to other ISIS mothers from Europe. One stated that her preschool-age child stopped breathing and turned blue while she struggled without adequate medications and medical care to keep him alive. We delivered asthma medicine to this child and alerted Belgians about his health issues, though we have not heard whether he has been returned home yet. Regardless of how one feels about their parents, the human rights and health issues for these children are many, and dire indeed. They demand swift and well-thought-out answers to serve the well-being of the Western children in question.
On the side of the ISIS mothers the legal issues are many and complicated. To simplify, in Austria, for example, an ISIS wife and mother cannot be prosecuted simply for having cooked and cleaned and otherwise served her ISIS husband in Syria or Iraq. Other Western countries prosecute such women under “providing material support” counter-terrorism and criminal statutes for having joined a terrorist group, although many of these women never formally joined and had no substantive roles in the group. However, ISIS wives are, quite rightly, feared and perhaps also reviled because there are ISIS women who were fearsome. For instance, in our interviews with ISIS defectors in Iraq and Syria, we have learned that members of the ISIS hisbah, (the ISIS “morality” police) were known for brutally flogging and biting other females, causing deaths in some instances by the wounds they inflicted, and for putting heads of beheaded family members into the cells of their arrested loved ones. They also participated in Internet recruiting and bomb-building and some have exploded themselves as suicide bombers. Hence, one cannot assume women participating in ISIS are neither lethal nor dangerous – although many are not. Likewise, there are cases of women who returned to the Balkans and Western Europe and proclaimed innocence but were in fact highly radicalized. Namely, they were committed to the group, continued to interact with ISIS members and materials over the Internet, and had, in at least one case we learned of, been responsible for the death of a Yazidi child.
All adult and older ISIS males and females should be carefully investigated and brought to justice. This and the questions of how long their children should hang in the balance and risk psychological and health issues as a result remain very pressing and important questions.
Emotions are running high in Camp Roj this week, where, according to our sources inside the camp, a small “mother’s riot” broke out two nights ago. Though the alleged event, aside from this sole source, has not been officially verified yet, we were told that angry mothers began throwing stones when YPG forces arrived in the camp to deal with the fires and deaths of the three children trapped inside the inferno. Twenty of these mothers, along with their children, were arrested and hauled off to another site, while the rest stood shocked and now are in fear for the future. Reports of mothers attacking journalists in the YPG-run camps are also circulating on the Internet.
Innocent children are dying in such camps. Many are struggling to breathe and survive diseases and lack of good food. In a recent online discussion, a counter-terrorism expert claimed that the fact women attacked journalists proves they are dangerous and radical. This is a serious and legitimate concern, though one might also ask if that is not normal mammalian mothering behavior – to helplessly attack when one believes her child is in danger. The mothers who threw stones in Camp Roj were likely expressing their total shock and anger over the needless deaths of their children – incarcerated for what crimes? Western countries have a duty to protect their young in all cases, always, and in all places – no matter what their parents have done or failed to do.
[i] Grierson, J. (2019). “ Shamima Begum’s mother asks Home Office to show mercy,” The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/11/shamima-begum-mother-asks-home-office-to-show-mercy
[ii] Romo, V. (2019). “ European leaders reluctant to meet Trump’s demands to take back captive ISIS fighters,” NPR, available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/11/shamima-begum-mother-asks-home-office-to-show-mercy
[iii] Childress, S. (2018). “ American mom charged with aiding terrorists after living under ISIS,” Frontline, available at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/american-mom-charged-with-aiding-terrorists-after-living-under-isis/
[iv] Zavadski, K. (2017). “ ISIS uses American boy to threaten Trump in new video,” The Daily Beast, available at https://www.thedailybeast.com/isis-uses-american-boy-to-threaten-trump-in-new-video
[v] Speckhard, A., & Shajkovci, A. (2018). “ In legal wrangling over ISIS families, should anyone be allowed home,” Homeland Security Today, available at https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/terrorism-study/perspective-in-legal-wrangling-over-isis-babies-parents-should-anyone-be-allowed-to-return-home/
[vi] Walsh, P.N., & Abdelaziz, S. (2018). “ Beaten, tortured, sexually abused: An American ISIS widow looks for a way home, “ CNN, available at https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/19/middleeast/syria-us-isis-bride-intl/index.html
[vii] Speckhard, A., Shajkovci, A., & Sebaly, H. (2018). “ Born in Belgium, raised in ISIS: ‘ I want to come home’,” Washington Examiner, available at https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/born-in-belgium-raised-in-isis-i-want-to-come-home
[viii] Chulov, M. (2019). “ ISIS releases video of fighters in Baghuz as Kurdish forces advance,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/12/isis-releases-video-fighters-baghuz-syria-kurdish-forces-advance
[ix] Gutman, R. (2016). “ Assad Henchman: Here’s how we built ISIS,” The Daily Beast, available at https://www.thedailybeast.com/assad-henchman-heres-how-we-built-isis
[x] Willis, E. (2019). “ ISIS Brides: Two more mothers ‘stripped of US citizenship’ as Shamima Begum row continues, “ Evening Standard, available at https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/isis-brides-two-more-mothers-stripped-of-uk-citizenship-as-shamima-begum-row-continues-a4087446.html
About the authors:
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College.
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (March 18, 2019) Deaths and Prison Riots in Syrian YPG-held Detention Camps Among ISIS Mothers whose Children are Dying in Front of their Eyes. Homeland Security Today https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/terrorism-study/perspective-children-of-isis-mothers-are-dying-in-front-of-their-eyes-in-detention-camps/