The Children of ISIS Foreign Fighters: Are Protection and National Security in Opposition?

Children at a camp for displaced persons near the town of Sarmada in Syria. (AAREF WATAD/AFP/Getty Images)

One year ago, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was declared “defeated.” Since then, much attention has been given to the fate of its male foreign fighters, in particular the security concerns regarding their return. Less attention has been given, however, to the children of these fighters—both those born in Iraq and Syria and those brought by their parents to the region.

It is estimated that about 12 percent of the more than 40,000 foreign ISIS affiliates are minors. Thousands of children are also likely to have been born in Iraq or Syria to at least one parent of foreign origin. As high as the numbers are, they do not include those minors who were born in or are currently in besieged areas, those born without proper civil registration, those who authorities have lost track of, or those that are simply unknown to authorities.

There are also the cases of children who left to join ISIS on their own. Minors, defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as individuals below the age of eighteen, are often considered part of the category of returnees that are “hardest to quantify, assess and address” and who require special focus. While the involvement and recruitment of children in armed conflict is not a new trend, their association with terrorist and violent extremist groups is a rather recent phenomenon. ISIS is also different from other terrorist organizations in that they have attracted members from a wide range of countries. In the current context of increased securitization and a focus on counter-terrorism, states—mostly Western—are now grappling with the need to respond to the return and reintegration of foreign fighters’ children, balancing their special status and national security priorities.

Because of the charged nature of terrorism and violent extremism, the approaches to returning and reintegrating children of foreign fighters have become more punitive. Children are seen as potential security threats and “ticking time-bombs.” This perception has been bolstered by ISIS itself, who brand youth as the guardians of their ideology and the “cubs generation” that will become the lions of tomorrow. The fact is that ISIS has forcefully indoctrinated, trained, and exposed minors under their control to violence from a young age. They have also widely shared footage—especially via social media—of the indoctrination and recruitment of children or their participation in violent acts. This showcasing has also contributed to an absence of a perspective of children as victims in public perception.

As a result, the return and reintegration of these children is seen in opposition to national security priorities and counter-terrorism efforts. The repatriation of children has thus been rather slow and carried out on a case by case basis by most states.

Yet, returning and reintegrating the children of foreign fighters is integral to national security. Leaving them isolated in formerly ISIS-controlled territories with very limited access to basic needs, a lack of a sense of belonging, unaddressed trauma, frustration, and with an uncertain future presents a long-term security threat.

The reality is that these children are victims of serious human rights violations. Moreover, it is estimated that the majority of the children of foreign fighters are less than five years old and were likely born in ISIS territory. Under international law, all children associated or recruited into armed or terrorist groups are to be considered first and foremost victims, and policies should thus always align with the best interest of the child.

Currently, most children of foreign ISIS fighters in Syria are in internally displaced persons’ camps where living conditions are dire. Foreign children have reportedly also been held in detention centers in Iraq, where the legal age for criminal responsibility is set at nine years old. Cases of torture of detainees have been alleged in Iraq and concerns been raised regarding the lack of due process and expedited trials. Under international law, the arrest, detention, or imprisonment of children must be a “measure of last resort for the shortest and appropriate period of time possible.” Further, in line with their status as victims, children should not be detained, investigated, or prosecuted based only on their family’s suspected or actual affiliation, nor should they be prosecuted for unlawful presence or illegal entry in a state.

Certain states have, however, moved to prosecute minors as adults under anti-terrorism laws and are attempting to lower the age of criminal responsibility to prosecute children for terrorism-related offenses or suspected association with ISIS. These maneuvers fit within the current securitization context, but they are questionable from a legal perspective, where standard minimum rules for juvenile justice apply. The status of children in armed conflict does not, of course, exclude criminal liability and accountability for grave offenses, but it necessitates that due consideration be given to their right to child-specific due process, and that the minimum internationally recognized fair-trial standards for juveniles based on their age, needs, and specific vulnerabilities be applied.

Although there is no universal age threshold for criminal responsibility, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that this age not be less than 12 years old. The absence of this universal threshold has allowed states to apply a rather broad approach in detaining and prosecuting these minors. While experts have called for the return and reintegration of the children of foreign fighters and the need to address their specific needs, the impact of these calls has been limited by the fact that the main responsibility lies first and foremost with states, in line with their duty of care and responsibility to protect children—their own citizens—from violence.

The approach being taken by states has brought on numerous challenges. Foremost is establishing nationality for these children, a significant challenge in the context of an armed conflict and even more in the ISIS context where reaching the nearest consulate or embassy often means crossing the border amid ongoing violence. Furthermore, the complexity of the conflict has created a range of situations requiring different responses. Children born in ISIS territories who were given birth documents often find that their documents are not recognized internationally. Also, identification documents may have been destroyed in combat. Children also have often lost both parents or their fathers, which is a significant challenge for countries where nationality is paternally granted. This lack of identification also means that children are unable to access public health services or civil registration, leaving them in a legal void and facing discrimination.

These factors, coupled with the difficulty of taking them into account, have raised concern regarding the risk of creating a “generation of stateless.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the CRC, provide for a right to nationality for children. The Convention on the reduction of statelessness also prohibits arbitrary deprivation of citizenship if it renders a person stateless. States can work to address the material and administrative obstacles to the return of these children, and repatriate children who are citizens, through the issuance of temporary travel documents, for example, and working with other organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Another challenge relates to the fact that the policies and programs specifically designed to help these children are often directly linked to those for their mothers, the wives of foreign fighters. Yet, the immediate needs and responses to these women and children differ and cannot be conflated. Even more, since most states have been reluctant to repatriate mothers due to the limited information available on their exact roles—active or not—in the armed conflict. Further, linking the fate of children to that of the mothers can delay their return and reintegration given the limited capacities of Iraqi and Syrian authorities to provide timely and accurate information about these women.

These circumstances require cooperation and information sharing among states for the return of children, some of whom may be eligible for two nationalities. Coordination should also include engagement with a wide range of child protection actors such as UNICEF and the United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, to ensure full compliance with the framework of children’s rights and to set viable alternatives to their reintegration.

Beyond their legal status, the question of the long-term reintegration of these minors is also a paramount concern, including their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. Here again, coordination between social workers, psychologists, child protection specialists and organizations, and legal actors is critical. Maintaining children in a family environment—with extended family for example—is also an important aspect of reintegration, especially for those born and raised in this context and whose only known identity is as part of ISIS. Families can provide psychological support and help deal with the trauma, however, it can be difficult to determine the ability of families to care for traumatized children. This underscores the importance of ensuring a multi-stakeholder approach.

Reintegration initiatives must further take into account gender and age sensitivities. Older children, for example, are more likely to have been exposed to violence and indoctrination. Similarly, the experience of trauma for boys and girls will likely have been different, e.g., their experience with sexual exploitation and abuse. As such, for older children, increased risk assessment and monitoring may be required depending on their roles, with always keeping in mind the best interest of the child.

While the tension between protecting children and prioritizing national security continues to exist, it must be recognized that inaction in the form of leaving children without a clear path forward is the worst possible scenario, if the goal is to mitigate security “threats.” When considering the situation of the children of ISIS, it is not just a question of one state’s national security, but rather the future of Iraq, Syria, and other states. The experience of these children affected by armed conflict—including those nationals of Iraq and Syria—requires strategies and approaches that ensure this generation of children is helped to become positive contributors to their countries.

Aïssata Athie works with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.