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The challenge of ‘rehabilitating’ the women and children of IS

We need to take a realistic approach to all this. No, not all returning women and children pose a danger to our societies and not all are inhuman monsters.

When we think of terrorists we usually have a fairly set image in mind (here I am referring solely to Islamist extremists and not members of other types of terrorist movements): young, dedicated, brutal – and male.  Photos tend to show men in various poses: raising one finger in the air (not an attempt to say ‘We’re #1!” but rather a perverse adherence to the Muslim concept of tawheed), clutching an automatic weapon, holding a severed head…

But what if this picture is  increasingly inaccurate?

What we have begun to realise is that Islamist terrorism is no longer the sole purview of the male sex.  A group like Islamic State (IS) was very successful not only in establishing a self-styled ‘Caliphate’ and hence a functioning polity but in attracting non-traditional supporters to Iraq and Syria.  Some of these surprising travelers included women and children. It is important to acknowledge that some of the women went because their husbands did and they just ‘tagged along’, perhaps not willingly and perhaps ignorant of the reality of IS.  Likewise, it is hard to assign agency to children who had little choice in the matter: furthermore, many children were born after their parents arrived in the new ‘state’.  But some women deliberately chose to leave their homelands out of enthusiasm for what IS represented (there is a great Canadian example of three teens who did just that: fortunately – for them and their families – they were interdicted and sent home) and we have to accept that.

The problem facing many countries, and not just Iraq and Syria, is what to do with these women and children.  Based undoubtedly on the assumption that they are/were duped, many are calling for their home governments to bring them back and let them get on with their lives.

This is a naive and dangerous suggestion.

The fact remains that these women (and perhaps some of the older children  – see below) pose a security threat to their societies and must not be allowed to reintegrate without serious assessment and possible action.  Recall that in many countries, including my own, the decision to leave to join a terrorist group like IS is a criminal offence: hence criminal charges are warranted at a minimum.  Complicating this, however, is the challenge in gathering enough evidence to gain a conviction as well as the likelihood that not all the women engaged in crimes other than leaving to join IS.  Cases will have to be assessed individually and the stronger ones should go to trial.

In this vein there is so much we do not know about the activities of these women in Iraq and Syria.  Did they engage in or facilitate crimes against humanity (e.g. the rape of Yazidi women and girls)?  Did they support such crimes?  Did they play back-up roles?  Or did they really just cook, clean, watch the kids and satisfy their husband’s sexual needs (actually I should have written ‘husbands” as it was normal for women to be asked – forced? – to take new partners upon the deaths of their own). Hard to tell.

It is nice to see  that Joana Cook and her colleagues at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College in London have taken up this issue in a recent study.  They conclude that ” the danger they (i.e.women) pose is likely to be much greater than official figures suggest.”  This is a welcome change from the previous assumption that the females deserved to be given a pass as they were seen as less of a threat.

So, what about the kids?  What do we do with them?   That same ICSR report noted that “ISIS indoctrinated and trained foreign children, calling the boys “caliphate cubs” and the girls “pearls.” They were featured heavily in propaganda videos, and in some cases were shown executing prisoners.”  14 such children are apparently Canadian.

Our laws rightly treat children differently. There is an acceptance that young children cannot formulate criminal intent and thus must be seen in a different light: this was not always the case as in the past convicted ‘child criminals’ were sent to prison.  The question remains however: what programs are available to deal with the trauma these young people witnessed?  Are there adequate approaches to tackle the depravity of IS to which they were exposed?  And what do we do with the older kids who probably did take part in crimes and may even have killed people?  All very tough challenges.

We need to take a realistic approach to all this. No, not all returning women and children pose a danger to our societies and not all are inhuman monsters.  But some probably are and we are back to the perennial problem of which is which.  At least some people are starting to recognise that.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

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