Refugee camps are the new victims of jihadism
Ten years after the outbreak of the conflict, Syria remains devastated. After the arms attacks have ceased, hunger and poverty have spread across the country, causing national and international displacement of thousands of refugees in search of a better future. Bashar al-Assad's regime has managed to hold on and the latest Syrian elections, described as 'fraudulent' by the international community, are evidence of this, but now al-Assad rules over a country of misery and ruin.
Civilian clashes, international interventions and, above all, the spread of terrorism have marked the course of a war in which the most disadvantaged victims, both directly and indirectly, have been civilians. This sector has been the victim of a bloody war in which national and international units have fought over territory and influence on the death.
The emergence of Daesh as a new actor in the war has posed a threat to international security that has led to the reaction of the main powers to prevent its expansion in the area. The terrorists managed to occupy extensive Syrian territories through terror, murder and rape of civilians of all kinds. In this respect, the most vulnerable sector to be recruited into the jihadist ranks has been and continues to be children. The former to learn how to kill and kill each other in the name of Allah, in order to fulfil the dream of creating a global caliphate, according to their doctrine. The latter to carry out the doctrines spread by the manifesto of the Al-Jansa brigade, which vindicates the role of Muslim women in society, destined to procreate, educate and sexually serve the terrorists in order to give birth to children who from the minute they are born will be rejected by international society, considering them to be points of union with terrorists and future jihadists
Some of them, after the defeat of Daesh in the Syrian territories, have succeeded in fleeing and taking refuge in camps where new jihadist cells are awakening and are now seeking to operate by other, quieter but equally effective means. The figures point to a wave of deportees that has surpassed 3.2 million refugees who have been distributed in camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, in the same camps, former wives of jihadists and children born of their unions are considered terrorists for glorifying the acts committed by the terrorist acts of their parents, who are either dead or in prison. The future of these children remains uncertain because they live in a constant moral debate as to whether they are victims or perpetrators, when in reality they are children who know no other reality than war and its circumstances.
The war has taken children away from their families and their childhoods and they have fallen, due to multiple factors, into an atrocious and cruel terrorism that indoctrinates in fear and uses children to manipulate them and turn them into "soldiers". Many of them, as young as ten years old, already know how to handle AK-47s and slit throats. In the same way, they learn that their lives are worthless in the cause of the common good of this kind of jihad.
A former Daesh recruit, 17-year-old Jomah, told The Wall Street Journal that he received "lessons" alongside children as young as eight on how to behead and stressed the desensitisation he was exposed to after the normalisation shown by the jihadists: "It was like learning how to cut an onion. (...) You would grab him by the forehead and then slowly slice the neck area". The fact that the political-ideological message was hidden in the religious discourse is not trivial. For Daesh, attributing criminal actions to religious messages is of paramount importance in order to justify them and to make children not feel fear. For this reason, the jihadists choose violent passages from the Koran and make minors study the Shari'a while alternating it with military training.
On the other hand, international analyst Ayman al-Tamimi showed videos dated June 2014 showing 5-year-old children committing terrorist acts. This is the case of Isa Adare, a five-year-old boy born from the marriage of a British woman and a Swede who travelled to Syria to serve Daesh. In the video, the child could be seen activating the detonator of a bomb that blew up a car with three prisoners inside, accused of espionage.
One of the most extreme cases of child abuse is the use of children as "sacrifices". In these cases, jihadists encourage children to sacrifice themselves for the greater cause of Daesh, which is the creation of a global caliphate. In 2016, 88 such children fell victim to these deceptions, committing suicide attacks after detonating the explosives they carried around their own bodies.
Girls have a different kind of destiny, most of them being raped and forcibly married while they are still young. Syria is thus a reflection of inhumane crimes in which no end has been able to justify the means. The children, if they manage to escape from their ranks, will suffer long-term physical scars, emotional trauma and difficulties in escaping from a spiral of violence. Syria continues to breathe war and inhumanity through its pores, and children are the most vulnerable and harmed victims in a war that knows neither gender nor age.
The fall of Baguz in 2019, considered the last terrorist stronghold in Syria, led to thousands of arrests of jihadist fighters and the transfer of their families to prisons and camps in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria. Among them were European terrorists who, attracted by Daesh propaganda messages, travelled to Syria to fight for the construction of a global caliphate, far removed from "immoral European ideas". This dilemma generated a debate that revolves around the moral duty, human rights, justice and international security of repatriating their European nationals.
While awaiting international responses in this legal limbo, the Roj and Al-Hol camps in northeastern Syria are home to more than 70,000 people, including 10,000 women, many of them widows, and children whose parents are Daesh terrorists.
Al-Hol is one of the camps designed to gather displaced former Daesh members. These camps are proving to be centres of radicalisation due to the deep-rooted radical ideas that are further increased by international neglect and the very defeat of the 'caliphate'. Similarly, within the camp it is very difficult to distinguish between who are radicals and who are not. In this regard, near Al-Hol, in the Al-Houri rehabilitation centre, there are many teenagers who have been former Daesh fighters and who suffer the most direct consequences of having belonged to the organisation, regardless of their age.
The situation in these camps is becoming extremely serious, both because of the influence of jihadism on the children and the poor conditions in which they live, and because of the violence. According to the EFE news agency, 20 people were killed in Al-Hol in January, one of whom was beheaded. The activist collective Rojava Information Center (RIC) reported that all 19 victims were residents of the camp and were in their twenties. The 20th victim was a member of the Kurdish police, the Asayish, who was executed after being shot several times in the head.
However, the camp maintains rehabilitation centres that try to provide psychological support to these young people, but in most cases, resources are scarce, and they do not do the job.
In addition, most of them are widely rejected internationally as terrorists. Meanwhile, the latent cells that are organised in these camps take advantage of their psychological state to try to continue recruiting them. When they try to return to their communities, many of the inhabitants reject them as having been part of terrorist groups. A leader of the armed opposition in Syria told The Economist that "they killed our family and friends and for that they deserve to die".
This context can lead these children, growing up in a climate that repudiates them, to become new Daesh jihadists who, in the future, will constitute a new danger to international society. Apart from this international rejection, it is necessary to mention the terrible consequences that these children suffer as a consequence of having perpetrated crimes from a very early age. If children have been direct ex-combatants, they suffer multiple cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and high clinical cases of anxiety, adding to the long list of invisible wounds as a direct consequence of war.
According to a Save the Children report, "49% of children report that they always or almost always have feelings of extreme grief or sadness" and 78% feel this way at some point during the day.
Daesh has used the recruitment of these children as a key part of its terror propaganda. The report 'Children of the Islamic State' counted as many as 254 videos issued by the terrorist group featuring children between 10- and 15-years old detonating bombs and carrying firearms.
In former Daesh-controlled areas of Syria, terrorists 'educate' children in these dynamics by offering them food, drink, and sweets as rewards. As part of this indoctrination, school classes were suspended, and classrooms were transformed from educational centres into weapons depots and centres for the military training of minors. In addition, the jihadists carry out a policy of terror in the occupied territories in which they seek to starve the population. With this bloody strategy, families send their children to the training camps in order to get money and to be able to eat.
Along these lines, the NGO Human Rights Watch issued a report in which it was reflected that the jihadists paid 100 dollars a month to families who sent their children, while those of legal age were paid 200 dollars. Similarly, children learn teachings from the Koran and are indoctrinated in violence, learning to use all kinds of weaponry. On the other hand, if a child refuses to follow the training, he is punished severely with whipping or torture through severe beatings on the soles of the feet.
Many of these children have known no other situation than war. The fear, the vulnerability of the children and the very loneliness that some of them experience after losing their families make this sector of the population key to becoming "servants" of terrorist groups. Children become victims both directly and indirectly, as they become victims of murder, forced labour, mutilation, and sexual violence, as well as being the ones who, forced by Daesh, commit these actions.
The situation in camps such as Al-Hol is experiencing phenomena that have not been experienced before in Islamic terrorist groups. Women are taking on a fundamental role in the recruitment of children, to the extent that they themselves are forming a kind of matriarchy in the camps, under the directives of an emir who controls the management of the camp. Motivated by the death of their husbands or their imprisonment, their ideology has become increasingly extremist, and it is they themselves who motivate their children to continue perpetuating radical jihadist ideas.
One of the administrators of the Al-Hol camp, Jaber Mustafa, stated that "the most radical foreigners are secretly working to reorganise themselves. They want to rebuild the Islamic State inside this camp. There have been many crimes related to this".
These actions put the camps under international attention as to what the future of these women and their children should be. Following the withdrawal of US troops in northern Syria in 2019, Trump alerted European countries to repatriate their prisoners, so that they could be tried in their country of origin and be under greater control, given the risk of collapse of Kurdish prisons and the difficult control inside the camps.
However, Europe considers that the returned jihadists represent a security risk for the country, as they claim to have "received military training and to be deeply indoctrinated in the jihadist project". For this reason, Europe's decision was focused on keeping both the jihadists and their relatives imprisoned or tried in Syria and Iraq.
In this regard, UNHCR estimates that there are a total of 11,000 women and children being held in the Syrian Kurdistan area. The European dilemma poses the same measures adopted towards male jihadists to keep women in Syria, arguing that they have a high capacity for recruitment and the military training they have undergone, in some cases. Although there is no proof that they have carried out terrorist attacks, as soon as they return to Europe they will be arrested and tried, so it is not necessary for a terrorist act to be committed in order to be judged as such.
This measure is maintained in all European countries, with the exception of Germany, which rules that women who have accompanied their husbands to Syria but have remained in the private sphere of the home caring for children will not be prosecuted as terrorists.
With respect to minors, the Governments agree that they should be treated as victims. In fact, the children of jihadists are the only group for whom European states have been drawing up repatriation plans. However, these repatriations have been limited.
In this line, Belgium has been one of the countries that has taken the lead in managing the repatriation of the children. Last March, Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre de Croo pledged to do "everything possible" to repatriate children under the age of 12 who were in the camps. De Croo said the measures had to be taken as quickly as possible because of the deteriorating living conditions in both camps. According to the minister, requests for repatriation will be considered on the basis of three criteria: the best interests of the child, the danger to the system and the security and safety implications.
Europe thus faces a new debate that puts the continent between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the fear that jihadists and their wives might commit terrorist acts that threaten national security continues to be the basic argument against repatriation. On the other hand, the camps that take in family members along with Daesh sympathisers are becoming terrorist hotspots that seek to carry out their own jihad from a dialectical and doctrinal point of view that could lead to future attacks that could once again endanger international security. Meanwhile, in this dilemma are the children who, far from assuming what will happen to their future, have been the victims of a jihadist phenomenon that has spread like wildfire and has transformed opportunities and growth into fear and misery.
Children, both those who have been captured by Daesh and those who have not, are the ones who suffer the most as a result of the physical and psychological damage and the situation that, although they are not aware of it, they will have to face throughout their lives after having lived a past in which war has been their childhood and the after-effects of this will remain permanently.