The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hosted a counterterrorism conference March 25-26 in Bratislava to assess efforts to prevent and fight terrorism as well as violent extremism and radicalization. The issue of foreign fighters and return to their home countries was extensively discussed. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism was invited to participate. Below is the ICSVE intervention to one of the panels.
I am Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) a U.S.-based, action-based think tank in which our researchers have interviewed at this point over 140 ISIS and 16 al Shabaab defectors, returnees and prisoners from around the world. At ICSVE, we would like to ask what are governments doing and what is the political will to bring ISIS children home, particularly those held in detention camps in Kurdish-controlled Syria? At ICSVE, we keep going into Kurdish-held Syria and seeing children under the age of 10 that were either brought or born into ISIS by their parents. Many have been detained or even born into camps with no vaccinations, little to no medical care, where diseases such as typhus have resulted in the deaths of mothers and children, camp fires that recently killed two children under the age of 5 in Camp Roj, bad food, no toys, uninhabitable conditions, no schools etc.
It appears that Western governments and populations appear to fear these very young children as national security threats yet our international and national laws dictate that we protect our youngest citizens.
Recently a UK citizen, Shamima Begum, was stripped of her citizenship although her parents’ country of origin denied her a passport, and there are issues in cases like this of is it disproportionate to punish with citizen revocation, and furthermore illegal if the person subject to it will end up in a country that tortures? And when it comes to the children of such ISIS members, it’s unclear if revocation also applies to them? For instance, when Shamima’s citizenship was revoked did that also apply to her newborn, who anyway died with weeks of his birth? Many said he was a terrorist spawn but we question that, as he could also have grown up to be a Nobel Prize winner if rescued from Syria and put into the hands of loving caretakers. UK officials said it was unsafe to go and rescue this fragile newborn, yet he was in an area of Syria ICSVE staff have traveled to numerous times now. Even I would have carried that baby home to safety.
At ICSVE we also have the question of is it collective punishment to hold innocent children whose parents, not themselves, committed terrorist crimes and are being held at least in Syria without any charges or evidence brought against them? Why is the fate of ISIS children tied to their mothers?
At ICSVE we know terrorists quite well — their evil minds and evil deeds. We know how to recognize a terrorist. Yet we also know that children are simply children. We presently have a video that we are happy to share with any of you of a 9-year-old Belgian passport-holding girl who was taken into ISIS at no fault of her own, sweetly telling us she wants to come home. I hope you can make that happen. We applaud [governments] working — sometimes in the face of difficult political pressures — to bring these children home, but it needs to speed up.
We hear a lot of discussion from Western and OSCE nations that children’s rights should be protected, that children of ISIS under 6 should be reintegrated and resocialized, but our question is why is it taking so long while our children of ISIS mothers and fathers are literally dying in the camps?
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