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Born in Belgium, raised in ISIS: ‘I want to come home’

ICSVE article originally published in Washington Examiner

by Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci, and Hamid Sebaly

At a recent counterterrorism conference held by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism in Brussels, Belgium, a seven-year-old’s words touched the issues currently pressing upon the heart of Europe more deeply than any of those made by the many high-level international experts speaking there.

EU Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove highlighted the need for strategic messaging to delegitimize groups and ideologies like that of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Belgian OCAD Deputy Director Gert Vercauteren spoke about the value of using the accounts of ISIS insiders, such as in the ” ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative” series. He pointed out that such stories are highly accessible, as ICSVE subtitles them in nearly all the languages in which ISIS is recruiting and the insiders’ stories are phrased in the simple words used also by those they might warn off from joining.

While European governments feared until very recently a flood of returning foreign fighters who might be ideologically indoctrinated and weaponized, the fact is that many of these males have been killed. The West is instead surprisingly confronted with the need to grapple over the fates of ISIS women and children. The Belgian-born but ISIS-raised Sara spoke about her life imprisoned in a Syrian detention camp, due to her mother having brought her to Syria in pursuit of the ISIS Caliphate. This child raised and personified, in a heart-rendering manner, the troubling issues of allowing European children to languish as prisoners in both Syria and Iraq, unwelcome to return home.

The underage citizens of the West, especially those whose citizenship is established not by place of birth but by blood, and who were taken or born into ISIS by no fault of their own, indeed have a legal right to return home. Moreover, Western laws and legal traditions do not allow for imprisoning young children, nor for prosecuting the very young for criminal acts, nor for holding them responsible for the criminal and mistaken actions of their parents.

Approximately 600 young and underage foreign citizens are being held with their ISIS mothers in detention facilities in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Defense Forces and the government of Rojava (in Northern Syria) would like these children and their parents to be sent home, but public opinion in many European countries, like Belgium, precludes that option at present.

These children’s traumatic experiences (and, in a few cases, indoctrination) are arguments for, not against, our swiftly bringing them into rehabilitation, as opposed to allowing them to be held untreated in far-away detention camps. None of these children are so damaged as to make them “throwaway” children.

While Vercauteren warned about the dangers of radicalized individuals, he also rightly pointed out that it is human to make mistakes and said that we must reintegrate those former ISIS members who have rehabilitated themselves and renounced the group.

Those gathered in Brussels puzzled over the exodus of over 5,000 Western European citizens traveling to Syria and Iraq. They questioned whether they were seeking dignity, significance, belonging, a purpose, adventure, enrichment, love, or a myriad of other possible reasons. They also questioned how many of these travelers to ISIS sought to protect innocents against the atrocities of Bashar Assad’s government while Western governments were slower to act. Or was it simply that they preferred life in the so-called caliphate over their own lives in the West?

Belgian-born but ISIS-raised Sara’s video was short and to the point, as she spoke about having no school in the Syrian camp in which she is held in detention and about wanting to come home to Belgium. Her words were met with silence as the audience was asked to make up its own mind as to whether children as young as Sara could really constitute a security threat in the heart of Europe.

The opinion of many who work in the security sector and who know what constitutes real versus imagined threats, is to bring them home, particularly the women and children — most who are not people we need to fear. Those who can and deserve to be prosecuted can be sentenced to serve their prison time, and hopefully even they can be offered rehabilitation programs as well. But innocent children should neither be subject to imprisonment for crimes they did not commit nor to collective punishment due to the bad judgment of their parents.

Sara, and children like her, just want to come home; to be vaccinated, live with heat in the winter, as opposed to now-freezing camp conditions; to go to school and recover a normal life distant from the conflict zones they have lived under for far too long already.

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