Can we at least save the children?
It shouldn’t even be a question — rescuing the spawn of a delusional caliphate, born to a Canadian parent.
Because the alternative is to leave these kids in detention camps overseas that are breeding grounds for the next generation of terrorists.
That too is part of the long game being played by the Islamic State. Keeping the idea alive of a proto-state sustained by a covert global network with a weakened but enduring core. Making alliances with other terrorist groups. Re-establishing a foothold in lawless states. Continuing to exploit a sophisticated social media recruitment outreach to radicalize adherents.
It is a multi-generational war requiring a multi-generational counterattack to un-indoctrinate, rehabilitate and reintegrate.
Not the fighter fathers, who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law — although Canadian officials have been confounded by the how of doing this. Perhaps not the mothers who are authors of their own misfortune, willingly or via self-ascribed ignorance. But surely the children who are innocent of crime even if they’ve committed crimes as passive or active child soldiers.
Which might very well mean, at its most stringent, separating those children from their mothers.
Most of these “caliphate” kids are far younger than the Geneva Protocol definition of child soldier as those under age 18. Some have been born to mothers already in detention.
Endangered youngsters are seized by child welfare agencies all the time, or until such time that a parent can prove fitness to rear. Fostering isn’t an optimal solution but it’s sometimes the least harmful option, particularly if the child can be placed inside his or her broader family, a grandparent, an aunt, a guardian.
Is it more inhumane to wrest a child from a mother’s arms or to leave that child in a godforsaken environment, behind barbed wire, vulnerable to disease, malnourishment and embittered ideology?
“I don’t have a good answer for that,” admits Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Whitman argues that these children, even if they’ve been raised to cleave to jihadist beliefs, have a better chance at rehabilitation than adults. “It’s not the fault of the child. The way the brain works, if you have experienced trauma under the age of 17, you have a good chance of overcoming it. The malleability of the brain is much more difficult the older you get.”
There are those who claim rehabilitation from radicalism is a fraud, that the metrics are unreliable. Yet Whitman and others with expertise in the area point to quantifiable success. “If this can be done in conflict zones, why would we not think we’re capable of it in a country like Canada, where those children will be exposed to people who are caring and willing to help.”
I’ve seen that myself, in reintegration camps in the Congo for children rescued from the Lord’s Resistance Army — kids who cannot return to their villages because they’ve committed horrific crimes against their families as enslaved abductees.
Children with Canadian blood in their bones simply can’t be abandoned to a grim fate.
Global News recently reported there are at least 13 Canadians — three alleged terrorists, their wives and children — currently detained by Kurdish authorities in Syria. These kids are among the detritus of a failed ambition.
ISIS — or Daesh — has been all but destroyed in northern Syria and Iraq, at least territorially, with 95 per cent of the ground it once held liberated and tens of thousands of its fighters killed by a U.S.-led coalition. But it’s definitely not dead. It’s shape-shifting. Even as a purely combat non-state army, there are still 14,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and 17,000 in Iraq, according to a Pentagon report released in August.
It is estimated that 40,000 foreigners from 110 countries travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the jihadists.
In fact, ISIS has been making a comeback of sorts in recent months, as smaller attacks have become more frequent and with the adaptation of tactics such as weaponized drones. These are the boomerang effects of making war on ISIS — they learn, they pay it back.
Among their most fertile potential conscripts are children who were either born into the war or taken to the “caliphate.” Many of the women have been widowed; some are detained separately from their captured husbands.
Nobody wants them, including their captors. Few countries have any strategy for dealing with them.
In Iraq, some 1,000 women accused of belonging to ISIS have been rounded up from the ruins of towns and cities previously held by the insurgents, More than 800 infants are being held with their mothers. On one day in May, as reported by the Guardian, following 10-minute trials, 40 of those women were sentenced to death by hanging.
Kurdish forces currently holding hundreds of women and children captured on the battlefield are determined to deport them to their countries of origin.
A couple of weeks ago, France announced that it is working on repatriating the children of jihadist nationals — about 150 have been identified — but not their mothers. Belgium and Denmark are considering similar undertakings. The United Kingdom has stripped citizenship from known terrorists with dual citizenship, including two members of the notorious “Beatles,” originally a four-man cell suspected of committed 27 beheadings and now held by Kurdish forces.
British officials have said the government will bring home of some of the jihadist widows, a group pegged at about 80, from among the 360 British terror subjects still believed to be in Syria and Iraq (from an estimated 900 British subjects who went to fight). But there was instant outrage when a Sunday Times investigation reported that, among the 80 women, some had been part of a deadly terror cell linked to Jihadi John (Mohammed Emwazi), who had performed and filmed executions for ISIS before being himself killed in a 2015 drone strike.
Britain and France are among the countries that have suffered most deeply at the hands of homegrown jihadists so the leeriness is understandable. Earlier this year, a British extremist was sentenced to life in prison upon conviction of grooming children as young as 11 at an East London mosque — showing them footage of beheadings and conducting terrorism role-play exercises.
Canada’s contribution to ISIS has been relatively small. As of last year, the government reported there were about 190 extremists “with a nexus to Canada” who’d travelled overseas to engage in terrorism and another 60 who have returned. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month supported a Conservative-tabled motion to devise a federal strategy within 45 days to deal with Canadian jihadists who want to come home.
This came on the heels of on-the-scene reporting by Global TV’s Stewart Bell — this country’s most accomplished terrorism journalist — who’d interviewed Muhamed Ali, a.k.a. Abu Turaab Al-Kanadi, allegedly an ISIS sniper who hails from Mississauga, at a detainee facility run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, along with several wives of fighters held at another camp.
All yearn to come home.
Historically, repatriation is fundamental to the aftermath of ceasefire. Of course there has been no ceasefire with ISIS, never will be.
But a nation of mercy doesn’t visit the sins of the father or the mother upon the child.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno