Are they victims or jihadis?
As the story broke this week of two Canadian women living in ISIS territory turning themselves in to U.S.-backed forces in Syria, a controversy followed them: Were they victims of circumstances or stealth jihadis? Are their children, who most likely know (or remember) nothing from their previous lives redeemable? And finally, what to do with them?
Information on the two women is spotty. “She just knew she wanted to get out,” says Alexandra Bain, director of the organization Families Against Violent Extremism, who was contacted by one of the women over the weekend as Syrian Democratic Forces moved in on the area where they were living.
That area, Baghuz in eastern Syria, is one of the last remaining strongholds of ISIS from the vast swaths of territory the terrorist group once controlled in Syria and Iraq.
Who wouldn’t want to “get out?”
Bain contends that, based on her conversations with one of the women (which were reported as being conducted through “a messaging service over a spotty internet connection,”) the woman was unaware of the dangerous situation around her.
“She said she had been trying for the past seven months to escape ISIS with her children…I guess she saw it as her final chance,” Bain said.
Bain described the woman as being in a “bubble” and only “getting news from ISIS over the past several years.”
Most notably, Bain said that the woman didn’t disclose her reasons for travelling to Syria in the first place.
The story of these Canadian women is being played out all over Syria and Iraq with other foreign wives of ISIS fighters – and even with foreign ISIS fighters themselves.
There are an estimated 4,500 foreign wives of ISIS fighters.
Leaving them in Iraq, almost always means a 10-minute trial in front of three judges, no representation from their countries of origin or human rights organizations, a defense lawyer who stands outside, and a guilty verdict followed by death by hanging (usually executed immediately).
“They didn’t come for tourism,” said Iraqi judge and judiciary spokesman Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar in an interview with Foreign Policy.
Al-Birqdar was most likely referring to the fact that “while some women of the Islamic State were forced into their role, others embraced it, serving as ‘morality’ police and abusing Yazidi women and girls sexually enslaved by the Islamic State,” writes the magazine.
Muslim countries have no problem with this method of “justice” and apparently, many Western countries don’t either.
“Turkey, for example, dispatched an investigating team of officers to Iraq with a clear aim: To bring the ISIS women to trial and ‘to hand each of them the severest punishment,’” reports YNet News in a long study of the issue. “Britain, France and the Philippines gave the ISIS women an advance warning: ‘Don’t summon our representatives to the trials, we have no interest in participating, and will not accept the defendant back.’”
When 1,700 women and children were captured last summer by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq, children without mothers were sent to orphanages. Iraqi officials will allow the boys (if they are claimed) to be released to a relative who promises to take care of them.
“Kurdish officials have made it clear that they can’t release the women and children, ‘since they have no documents or travel documents. And another, no less important matter: Some of these women, like some of the older boys, still hold an ISIS worldview, as they have not been exposed to any other point of view in recent years,’” the YNet report says.
As for Canada, leaving the country to participate in a terror group is a criminal offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Bain argues in favor of rescuing at least the children. “Leaving them there only feeds the ISIS narrative that the West hates Muslims, that the West hates Islam,” she says. “Bringing these kids home, and healing them and allowing them to lead productive lives encourages them in the future to stand up against violent extremism — to be a voice against joining things like ISIS, and that’s really what we’re hoping for.”
This is clearly a best-case scenario. The question is: Is it a false hope?