Isis women must be repatriated and deradicalised

Loyalty and circumstance blinded many to Isis’s atrocities. Such people need help

Al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria: Ireland has set a pragmatic example to other countries by agreeing to repatriate Lisa Smith who is currently there.  Photograph: Issam Abdallah/Reuters

Al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria: Ireland has set a pragmatic example to other countries by agreeing to repatriate Lisa Smith who is currently there. Photograph: Issam Abdallah/Reuters

 

Hardcore jihadi fighters have held out for weeks in a shrinking corner of the Syrian village of Baghouz, besieged by Kurdish forces. Jihadis fight on because they have no option; no future. Islamic State (Isis) no longer has a state: territory it conquered has fallen to its enemies.

Isis remnants are trapped in Baghouz or turned into fugitive mujahedin hunted by Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians, and the US-led coalition. Isis fighters retaliate by launching counter-attacks and suicide bombings against sensitive targets.

In Barghouz, food and medical supplies are depleted but fighters rely on stores of weapons and munitions for survival in the trenches and tunnels of the tiny encampment. According to Kurdish spokesman Kino Gabriel, 1,600 Isis fighters have been killed and 25,000 captured. Most women and children, who were used as human shields, have gone to crowded internment camps in northeastern Syria.

When the offensive began last December, the Kurds estimated there to be a few hundred fighters and 1,500 women and children in Baghouz. More than 61,000 have escaped or fled to camps created to accommodate 20,000. Newcomers lack shelter and food. The Kurds who run the camps and prisons complain they have received no funding from the US, which supports the military offensive, but refuses to provide humanitarian relief.

An Egyptian woman and two daughters in their tent, at Roj Camp for the families of Islamic State members in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times
An Egyptian woman and her two daughters in a tent at Roj Camp, holding the families of Islamic State members in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. File photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

At two women’s camps in northeastern Syria, hardliners have installed a mini-caliphate. They reimpose harsh Isis restrictions on those who seek to shed their cloaks and return to their countries. Hardcore believers in prisons vow to resume warfare if they are freed or escape. Now that the cross-border false “caliphate” created by Isis in Syria and Iraq is dead, “long live Islamic State” remains the slogan on the lips of the cult’s dedicated servants – both men and women.

Imprisoned and raped

They remain committed to the cause. Others are not quite certain where they stand but stay on. “It’s hard to change your mindset whey you have lost everything and sacrificed everything. Even if you feel a tug that tells you something’s not right here,” according to Kimberly Gwen Polman (46), a US-Canadian citizen who joined Isis in 2015 after marrying an Isis fighter she met online. She did not believe western news reports of the brutality practised by Isis. When she realised her mistake and sought to leave, she was imprisoned and raped, and threatened with death if she tried again. She seeks to go home to Canada.

Shamima Begum was stripped of British citizenship last month. File photograph: PA
Isis bride Shamima Begum, who left the UK for Syria at age 15 four years ago, was stripped of her British citizenship recently. File photograph: PA

Australian “jihadi bride”, Zehra Duman (25), agrees it is difficult to abandon Isis. “People tell you, ‘Oh, just walk out,’ but you can’t do that, it’s not safe. You’re looking for a way only there’s no way out until somebody makes a way for you.”

Bribes and smugglers have not always succeeded for men and women trying to escape the clutches of the cult.

Bribes and smugglers have not always succeeded for men and women trying to escape the clutches of the cult

Recruits flocked to Syria and Iraq for many reasons. Muslims believed Isis had created a utopian “state” harking back to the entity founded by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. Chinese Uighurs and citizens of the Russian Muslim republics sought relief from repression. Arabs sought to take revenge on the West for the division of the region, the emergence of Israel in Palestine, Israel’s wars on Gaza and Lebanon, the 1991 and 2003 US wars on Iraq, and a host of interventions.

Europeans, some from colonial backgrounds, thought Isis offered freedom from oppressive families, dead-end jobs, discrimination, and boredom. Criminals fled prosecution in their home countries. Men without social status at home boasted of paramilitary status in Isis’s frontlines. Some wanted multiple wives and slaves while veterans from earlier campaigns found employment at high salaries.

Lives without purpose

Core to the loyalty of recruits was the belief they gained purpose in lives without purpose. This blinded them to Isis’s atrocities and brutality, to head-chopping and torture.

Ireland’s attitude towards its Isis recruit contrasts sharply with other countries which insist they will not allow fighters and wives to go home

Ireland has set a pragmatic example to other countries by agreeing to repatriate Lisa Smith (37), who joined Isis five years ago after resigning from the Air Corps. She is currently subsisting at al-Hol camp. Ireland’s attitude towards its Isis recruit contrasts sharply with other countries which insist they will not allow fighters and wives to go home.

Lisa Smith on the extreme right of picture as then taoiseach Bertie Ahern thanks members of the Aer Corps before boarding the Government jet in 2008. Photograph: Collins Dublin
Lisa Smith on the extreme right of picture as then taoiseach Bertie Ahern thanks members of the Aer Corps before boarding the Government jet in 2008. File photograph: Collins Dublin

Having permitted some men to return, they are now turning their backs on women and suggesting children should be claimed by their parents’ homelands. However, this would mean unfairly dumping seasoned fighters and indoctrinated women on Syria and Iraq, countries which already struggle with their own citizens as well as instability and destruction.

Overtaxed Syrian Kurds cannot hold Isis’s survivors indefinitely. Even if children of Isis parents go to their homelands, there is no guarantee that women will cease having children with men at large who remain dedicated to the Isis cause.

The only solution is to repatriate Isis women, interrogate them, try, sentence and imprison those who have committed crimes and deradicalise freed women and children. There are techniques to overcome the brainwashing they have endured.

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