The projected defeat of Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in Syria may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for Europe given that it will result in the return of combatants trained to carry out attacks on the home front.
An ancillary issue is the repatriation of children who either travelled to Syria alone or with their parents, or who were born there. They are a key component in Islamic State’s strategy to develop the next generation of jihadists.
In May 2016, Patrick Calvar, head of French national security, revealed that around 400 French minors were present in the combat zone. Two-thirds of these had travelled there with their parents and one-third were born there and are now under the age of four. One five-year-old girl was abandoned in Syria following the death of her father, Eddy Leroux, who had left France with his wife and four children in August 2014 to wage jihad in Syria.
He was killed a year later and his wife returned to France with three of their children, leaving the youngest in the hands of Islamic State. The mother was jailed in France for abandoning and endangering the child.
Islamic State propaganda videos show these children wearing balaclavas engaged in military training: hand-to-hand combat, body-building, shooting with assault weapons, hostage-taking and suicide bombing. They are slapped and beaten with sticks by adults to desensitize them to violence. In some cases they carry out executions of prisoners by shooting, beheading and detonation of explosives.
For the children who return to France, reintegration will not be easy. What should be done with a child who has carried out an execution?
Calvar says these offspring of jihad have been raised to hate Western values and are potential time-bombs. “They have been trained and instrumentalized by Islamic State.“
The problem is that there is no plan on how to deal with these children whose indoctrination began at birth with inculcation of Islamic doctrine and memorization of passages from the Koran. They are seen as purer than adult fighters because they have never been exposed to secular values and therefore have a superior understanding of Islam.
Intelligence and psychology experts reckon that it will take a generation to bring them back to normality.
Leslie Shaw is an Associate Professor at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe Business School and President of FIRM (Forum on Islamic Radicalism and Management).