Thanos Chatziioannou, a young researcher in the field of Crisis and Security Management at Leiden University
The defeat of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) “caliphate” in March 2019 reduced the threat of terrorism in the Netherlands, but the post-conflict era generated new risks for its security. De-escalation of the conflict prompted many Dutch nationals to express a desire to return home. Approximately 40 women and 200 children with ISIS affiliations are still imprisoned in Kurdish-controlled camps in northern Syria, with most of them residing in Al-Hawl camp, awaiting repatriation. Bringing those Dutch foreign fighters home constitutes a wicked problem for the Ministry of Justice and Security because of its complexity and contesting stakeholders, who shape the debate and frame the issue in conflicting terms. While the short-term security risks and political costs of bringing them back home cannot be overlooked, I will argue that active repatriation remains the best course of action for the Dutch government in securing the long-term safety of the country—and the governing’s coalition short-term political fortunes, heading into the 2025 elections. This analysis will seek to explain why.
Why Not Just Leave Them in the Camps?
Dutch women and children in Kurdish camps pose a policy dilemma with fundamental implications. Leaving them there seems an attractive solution, since short-term security risks like the opportunity to commit domestic terrorist acts diminish if they never set foot on Dutch soil. On the governmental side, Dutch Prime Minister Matt Rutte’s cabinet will not have to expend political capital to implement a decision that the public at large, and especially the voters for Rutte’s Right-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), are opposed to. However, hard measures, such as revoking their nationality, may prove short-sighted and harmful from a security and political standpoint. First, appalling living conditions in Kurdish camps have rendered them hotbeds of radicalization, and the extended presence of Dutch women and children there will likely exacerbate their anti-Western sentiments. Women and children will continue to be exposed to jihadist ideology, while harsh measures will intensify their resentment towards the Netherlands and give them more incentives to harm it.
The possibility of escaping the camps has even more alarming implications, especially since fifteen Dutch women have already succeeded. The “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria” (AANES)—the zone run by the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—is an unstable region surrounded by failed states, a situation that prevents Dutch authorities from successfully monitoring any of the escapees and getting feedback on their activities. Considering that female foreign fighters are deeply committed to jihadism and had active roles within ISIS, such as recruitment and indoctrination, the possibility of them joining terrorist networks in the region and empowering them with valuable expertise is high. The region is still afflicted by multiple terrorist organizations that could significantly benefit from these women and their children, since their capacity to harm Western countries like the Netherlands will be increased. Aside from monitoring their activities in Syria, barring their entrance to the Netherlands does not mean that they will not be able to come back, only that they will not be noticed. By leaving them there, the government will strip itself of the ability to control its actions and confront them on its terms, creating an information vacuum that will harm it in the future.
Moving on to the children, radicalization in camps and exposure to violence and death in Syria is indeed turning them into major risks to Dutch security. However, the danger they pose does not stop there. Most Dutch children are younger than 8, which means that they probably haven’t received training from ISIS, which starts recruiting at the age of 9, but that also means that time is not on the Netherlands’ side. While the threat they pose now is limited, the more their stay is extended, the more they will be radicalized and put themselves at risk of being forced to join ISIS. Older kids have already been smuggled out of the Hawl camp and received training to become terrorists in order to be deployed for international attacks. These new “Cubs of the Caliphate” will serve as fuel for ISIS’ resuscitation and prove a significant security threat for the country and political risk for the cabinet if they manage to commit an attack back in the Netherlands. The next elections are due to take place in 2025, and three years is enough for a fledging terrorist network to organize an attack on Dutch soil, which will result in loss of civilian life and a significant backlash for the cabinet. Dutch citizens will be greatly dissatisfied if harsh policies prove one of the reasons these perpetrators were not monitored successfully. Aside from their direct contribution to future attacks, the plight of these children in the camps is being exploited by ISIS as a propaganda tool to mobilize “lone wolves” in the West to commit terrorism.
The Risks of Repatriation
This is not to deny what is obvious: repatriating them is not a risk-free choice. In the short term, their threat to the Netherlands will increase since they will have direct access to citizens and the opportunity to commit attacks when they relocate to domestic soil. Any attack perpetrated by returnees will cause a loss of life, inflict a grievous political wound on the Rutte cabinet with the public, cause splits within (and the potential collapse of) the coalition government, and will decrease the appetite for further repatriations.
Even if a terrorist hit doesn’t materialize, the government will create dissatisfaction among a portion of its voters by bringing the ISIS operatives home, again especially with the Prime Minister’s own party supporters, who have voiced their disagreement with repatriation. Repatriation alone, without a terrorist atrocity, has the potential to alienate conservative and even centrist voters from the mainstream parties, and push them towards the Right-wing populists of the Party for Freedom (PPV), which has a more vocal anti-repatriation stance, further exacerbating polarization and fragmenting the country’s political landscape.
The security risks associated with Dutch women and children in the camps originate from the vital functions they performed for ISIS and the level of radicalization they have been exposed to. Jihadi-affiliated women were rarely victims of their husbands but are known to be zealous fundamentalists who were at the forefront of recruitment and propaganda initiatives. Desensitization to violence, participation in war crimes, and PTSD may render any deradicalization attempt a failure, which is alarming since the prison sentences handed to them for their crimes are usually short. Aside from psychological problems, ideological commitment to ISIS and stigmatization from the community might lead these women to link up with domestic terrorist networks and provide support, even after completing reintegration programs or prison sentences.
Dutch children constitute an even greater conundrum. While being victims themselves by involuntary participation in ISIS, the horrendous experiences they went through on the battlefield and the crimes they might have committed themselves may make their indoctrination irreversible. Many children have acted as soldiers and executioners for the Caliphate and as a result, were afflicted by severe psychological drama and exposure to violence. These circumstances may lead to them becoming security threats to the Netherlands, especially since they will be present on Dutch soil. Reintegration programs are not a guaranteed success in any case, and in this case the chances for success seem slimmer, given the extent of the indoctrination and psychological trauma these children have been through, the abuse and torture some have experienced, the accumulation of combat experience, and the atrocities they have participated in. Even setting aside the problem of simulated compliance, putting these children through deradicalization programs cannot do much to reassure society that the threat they pose has ended. For example, they may still be challenged by stigmatization as “jihadis” and be alienated from Dutch society. Alienation has been cited by jihadi terrorists and foreign fighters as a push factor for their actions.
The Case for Repatriation
In light of the risks associated with each policy choice, repatriation of Dutch women and children from Kurdish camps in Syria is the most viable option to safeguard the long-term security interests of the Netherlands and the cabinet’s public approval.
The political momentum favors repatriation, especially since neighboring Belgium and Germany have begun to bring their own female and minor-age foreign fighters back, making the policy more legitimate for people in the Netherlands as well. The Netherlands should begin actively repatriating its own women and children from the camps on a case-by-case basis. Extensive investigations should commence in order to evaluate the threat level every individual returnee poses and begin repatriating them accordingly. The primary focus should be on children returnees, not only because they are more vulnerable to radicalization and highly sought by ISIS to revive the organization, but because the public itself is more sympathetic to their plight and will not be as vocally dissatisfied by their return. This will prevent ISIS irreversibly traumatizing these children and using them as cannon fodder for its comeback in Iraq and Syria, and deprive it both of a major propaganda tool and the basis upon which it can build for new international attacks. The reintegration process will be complex and challenging. However, Dutch authorities, such as the Dutch Protection Board, have proven capable of dealing with the task and exhibit promise regarding deradicalization initiatives.
Regarding women, bringing them back will allow the Netherlands to confront them on its terms. On domestic soil, the government can monitor them and anticipate future hits from a much better position than if they were left to their own devices in Syria. Moreover, potential risks will be minimized, depriving terrorist groups in the region of their expertise and avoiding further radicalization from exposure to the camps’ environment. Bringing them back will also allow for their utilization as informants on ISIS activities, consolidating domestic security by filling information gaps regarding the group’s network in the Netherlands.
Every policy towards the women and children who joined ISIS involves critical risks, but repatriation is more effective in guaranteeing long-term political stability and security. The possibility of a terrorist attack can never be fully eradicated. However, until the next election in 2025, there is ample time for ISIS to regroup and use disillusioned Dutch women and children as weapons against the Netherlands and reverse its hard-earned victory against it. Short-sighted policies, which postpone the confrontation of the problem, will only lead to its amplification to the point where the Netherlands won’t be able to deal with it.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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