On 2 February the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University and the National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE) held the virtual event “Foundations of the Foreign Fighter Problem: Investigating Blindspots Relating to Gender, Minors, and Families.”
Since the fall of the Islamic State (ISIS) “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, policymakers, experts, practitioners, humanitarian workers, and public opinion have been discussing multiple issues concerning the foreign fighters and their families. This event focused on some of the most crucial problems related to this and provided valuable insights on gender, minors, and families.
Devorah Margolin, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Senior Research Fellow, moderated the discussion with the following speakers:
- Mary Beth Altier, Associate Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs;
- Moustafa Ayad, Executive Director for Africa, the Middle East, and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD);
- Joana Cook, Assistant Professor of Terrorism and Political Violence in the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, Leiden University, Senior Project Manager at ICCT, and Editor-in-Chief of the ICCT journal; and
- Austin Doctor, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Nebraska at Omaha, a member of the executive committee for NCITE, a DHS Center of Excellence, and a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point.
Opening the set of presentations, Austin Doctor highlighted the relevance of the family and the life cycle of the foreign fighter’s family. Between 2011 and 2015, he noted, half of the travelers were married and one-third had children.
The strong presence of families within the foreign fighter flows to join terrorist groups appears common within a certain type of campaign, mainly those that have clear state-building aspirations—ISIS or Daesh most obviously, but Al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, Al-Shabab, would be another example, and Al-Qaeda’s spiritual parent organization, the Taliban, is another case.
By its nature, a state needs a society, not just soldiers, and this kind of differentiation is in evidence with these groups. After arriving in the “caliphate” and being processed by ISIS, which was paranoid about spies and other security challenges, those who arrived with families engaged in a variety of life-patterns; the fate of women and children was multi-faceted and diverse, though all involved coercion and trauma, albeit with varying degree of agency and severity.
For married women, the media created the label jihadi brides, as if these women had no role in the state and society ISIS constructed beyond incubating the next generation, but—important as that role was—the reality was that even in households women were often involved in abusing Yazidis and other religious minorities taken as slaves, and outside the house women worked any number of civilian jobs, as doctors, teachers, and so on, while also serving in the religious police (hisba) and even in fighting units. The even more uncomfortable truth is that some children brought to ISIS are both survivors and perpetrators.
For these reasons, Austin Doctor warns that addressing the issues related to repatriation and reintegration requires new understanding of these women and children both as individuals and as part of the broader foreign fighter’s family.
Dr. Joana Cook, who has been working extensively on this, highlights some of the challenges in tracking and understanding the population who used to live under ISIS. One of them concerns gender stereotyping: women are often perceived as non-threats or just family members.
This stereotype sometimes had a damaging effect on global security as governments did not really track the women who left their various countries to join the “caliphate”. This was especially true in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and it is a mistake that has had a huge impact on figures and data.
On this aspect, Dr. Cook notes, there are gaps in every aspect of the demographics, including age, background, and motivation to travel. What people did in areas under ISIS rule is distinctly opaque, and all the more so for women because the focus on male militancy has meant hardly anybody is even trying to figure out what they did.
Similarly, age has several implications for tracking the population that moved to live under the ISIS “state”. For older children, or children who became adults while in ISIS-held territory, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish fighters from child victims. What is to be done with these children? Punishment? Psychosocial treatment? Both?
At the other end of the age spectrum, any child under-7 was probably born in ISIS lands; setting aside the psychological and radicalization issues with children born under a jihadist regime and knowing nothing else for the first few years of life, there is a difficult legal issue: what nationality are these children born in the “caliphate”? The conventional answer is that of their parents, but if their parents are of differing nationalities and one or more of them are missing, the issue of which jurisdiction is relevant in assigning citizenship—and social services’ care if and when their parents are prosecuted—becomes very difficult very quickly.
Obviously, these issues and the answers decided upon have dramatic consequences, not only for the individuals concerned but the precedents set will impact the procedures of juvenile justice for years to come.
Mustafa Ayad, the Executive Director at ISD for Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (AMEA), worked with foreign fighters and minors in the Middle East and foreign fighters in the United States.
Ayad underlined three primary challenges that need to be addressed:
First, the lack of accurate data at the internally displaced person (IDP) centers, refugee camps, and prisons in Syria, and the range of human rights abuses within this archipelago that are not being directly addressed.
Second, the rehabilitation systems themselves, involving a range of different populations, with different levels of engagement (and sometimes none at all), just are not made for this challenge. In the MENA region, these programs are more focused on the ideological-religious aspects and not on the trauma; however big a problem this is to begin with, it often ends up being much worse since many of them are continuously re-traumatized by the conditions of the displacement and detention camps.
Third, the responses of Western governments to this foreign fighter problem are beyond an issue of mere hypocrisy about the human rights of the women and children in these camps; this crucial point needs to be addressed for security reasons, too.
Mary Beth Altier provided a few interesting observations about gender, minors, and families.
First, it is important not to underestimate the agency that some women have, not only in the group but also in their own family.
Second, women generally have more difficulty in disengaging from terrorist organizations, despite having sometimes deeper disillusionment. Often, women have a harder time seeing their way out, and this because of stigma, logistical challenges, and less employment opportunities.
Related to this, Mary Beth Altier explains that disengagement, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs historically prioritize men and de-securitize and de-politicize women and girls. Some women involved in these kinds of programs describe them as increasing their dependency on men and in general being infantilizing.
Moreover, some choose not to participate in DDR programs to avoid social stigma, especially in cases of forced marriage.
Based on this, we should understand that deradicalization is only one piece of the puzzle and successful integration is much more.
Governments and practitioners need to be careful how they frame programs and participants. It is imperative to think seriously not only about the content of the programs but also about how to promote them in order to ensure community acceptance.