17 Nov 2020

Children of ISIS: a humanitarian challenge to Western democracies

The issue of Daesh children still raises many questions as it is related to the future of innocent minors who are being forced to pay a price for their parents’ mistakes. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the elimination of the self-proclaimed caliphate on March 23, 2014. Since then, the issue of Daesh children has remained unsolved. It has triggered legal problems for political and human rights elites. It has also raised vital security and social concerns in countries of origin, especially in Western countries, where lone wolves have carried out a series of deadly terrorist attacks.

A large number of children are living in detention camps[1] in appalling conditions marked by widespread diseases, malnourishment, lack of basic life necessities, deprivation of healthcare and poor educational and social services programs. The majority of these camps are not subject to the supervision of international organizations, and their residents live in constant fear of revenge acts and uncertain future. This situation raises the possibility these children veering towards extremism and heightens tension in the sheltering communities.

The issue and its paradoxes

The issue of Daesh children came to the fore after Daesh’s military retreat, especially following the formation of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh in September 2014[2] and its successive pullbacks from Syria and Iraq. Consequently, migrant families who were promised a life of bliss by Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi found their dream shattered and many of them fell into the hands of the global coalition forces, especially the Kurdish faction, which is known as the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF).

Western research centers were the first to draw the world’s attention to the future of child captives and the implications of their return on the security situation in their countries of origin. In March 2016, Quilliam Foundation, the UK-based think tank that focuses on counter-extremism, issued an investigative report on the issue covering the period between August 2015 and January 2016. The report emphasized the importance of paying immediate attention to Daesh child soldiers.

In its annual report on terrorism in the European Union, released on July 20, 2016, the Europol said: “The future of children who were born and raised in the Islamic State deserve the attention of the international community”.[3]

However, the issue was forgotten as it often did not get official attention of the countries concerned, and the desire of the SDF to use it to achieve geopolitical gains. It has resurfaced as an international issue as a result of political and military developments and transformations on the ground. The inability of the SDF to shoulder the financial and administrative costs of the camps forced it to urge the governments of the countries from which the children came to repatriate their children and find a way to put their mothers to trial.[4] The SDF even hinted that it might stop monitoring the detainees, as was the case during the 2019 Turkish offensive “Operation Peace Spring” into areas east of the Euphrates.

Nonetheless, the official silence of the countries concerned would open the way for civil society human rights organizations such as “Save the Children” to intervene. New organizations have also been established — such as “the United Families Collective’ in France — for the sole purpose of supporting these children. Through these organizations, families of those children have campaigned for their repatriation and the governments of their countries have found themselves under heavy pressure from human rights groups.

The pressure intensified especially after the discovery of Covid-19 infected cases in their camps, including Al-Hawl camp, which is supervised by the SDF, according to the UN.  Before that, The Unites States also intervened, with President Trump threatening to release more than 800 European fighters captured by the SDF if European allies do not take them back.[5]

Given the complex nature of the issue in terms of humanitarian and child rights, there is no immediate hope for resolution. These children’s parents are accused of engaging in terrorist activities, making security considerations a prerequisite for their return in order to safeguard social peace in their countries of origin. The solution requires bold and courageous political compromises from the governments of the countries concerned. Officials of these countries say that any decision would involve an intertwined web of procedural considerations that are heightened by fear of security implications, in addition to the vague legal status of these children.

Security implications

Panic overtakes Western societies in general when it comes to matters related to Daesh and “Islamist” terrorism. This affects the government decision-making process on Daesh children, especially as some of them have been brainwashed and indoctrinated by their own mothers. Also, a number of them were forced by Daesh members to carry out atrocious activities and to attend mass executions as part of the “Cubs of the Caliphate” program launched by Daesh in 2014. All these exposures have affected their psychological balance which has further been shaken by threats, subjugation and extortion from their fellow residents in the camps.

The appearance of a British child nicknamed Abu Abdullah Al-Biritani, who is said to be the son of retired singer Sally Jones,[6] in Daesh video clips “leading five other children in full military fatigues, shooting at a group of Kurdish prisoners who were wearing orange outfits and prostrating”[7], has deepened people’s fears of these children. It has also complicated the government procedures to get them back home.

Legal status of Daesh children

The legal dilemma of Daesh children in their countries of origin is four-pronged:

  • The children are detained in camps with their Daesh mothers although the children were not involved in any crime and they may even be imprisoned with their parents in their countries of origin, as happened in Iraq.[8]
  • The absence of official documents to prove the children’s nationalities after they were separated from their fathers who suddenly disappeared either because they escaped or were captured or murdered. What further complicates this situation is that these fathers were known by their nicknames rather than their real names, and they avoided registration in civil courts either for lack of faith in them or to conceal their identities.
  • Their mothers have the right to their custody according to international charters and laws, and they will not relinquish this natural right, especially as some of them have been instilled with Daesh ideas and hope for a revival of the caliphate.
  • There is a legal vacuum which makes the issue subject to interpretations and evasion of responsibility, given that a number of Western countries, such as Britain[9] and Germany,[10] have amended their laws so that they can revoke nationalities from those involved in terrorist acts that threaten national security.

For these considerations of ‘security implications’ and ‘vagueness of the legal status of Daesh children’, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian emphasized the importance of respecting the law and security of French citizens “as the two pillars of the French position on this issue”.[11] However, despite the ostensible consensus among European countries regarding these two pillars, their adoption to solve the issue has remained a source of contention and led to differences in the views between these countries and within their individual governments.

  • Belgium: In February 2019, Belgian Minister of Justice Koen Geens reiterated the government’s position that all children under the age of 10[12] must be brought back while others should be treated on case-by-case basis.
  • Britain: Britain reactivated its decisions to revoke citizenship from those who are proven to be involved in terrorist acts in an attempt to deny their children the right to return. However, in March 2019, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government was looking at ways of bringing the children of British female recruits of Daesh in Syria back to the UK, in an apparent shift in policy after the death (in a Syrian camp) of the child of Shamima Begum who was stripped of her citizenship.[13]
  • France: Although France is considered the major exporter of Western jihadists to the so-called caliphate land, it presented a special example of how Western countries deal with Daesh children who hold their nationalities.

French priority: politics or law?

The French government has consistently stressed the importance of prosecuting its terrorist citizens in the countries where they committed their crimes, even if they are sentenced to death there, with complete disregard for the fate of their children and the fact that death penalty contradicts with the French laws. It tried to dodge the demands of the SDF that European countries take back their citizens by supporting the establishment of a mixed court in Iraq to try foreign fighters whose governments refuse to receive them. However, it then confirmed their right to return. In an interview with ‘Libération’ on January 11, 2020, former French Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet said that France has no other solution than to repatriate French jihadists detained in Syria and put them to trial, and that the situation in Iraq would make their trial there impossible.[14]

This new position is mainly attributed to the association of the children’s fate with that of their mothers. In a previous interview with ‘Ouest-France’ on March 31, 2019, French Foreign Minister  Jean-Yves Le Drian argued: “There is no return. The position of France is very clear from the beginning. Those who are French and who fought in the ranks of Daesh fought against France. They are enemies and should be tried where they committed their crimes, especially in Iraq and Syria”. Young children whose mothers could eventually give up their custody rights will be treated on case-by-case basis in coordination with the Red Cross.[15]

Under the pressure of human rights activists and media reports, France took the first practical step in mid-March 2019 by bringing back five orphan children from Syria.[16] On June 10, 2019, it repatriated 12 children described by the French foreign ministry as “minors, orphans or isolated”.[17] On April 22-23, 2020, it repatriated a seriously ill minor girl.[18]

On June 22, 2020, France took back “ten young French children who were minors, orphans or humanitarian cases and were in camps in northeastern Syria, according to a statement released by the French foreign ministry.”[19] This brought the total of repatriated children over more than a year to only 28 out of 200 children.[20]

It is clear that the French government has finally decided to deal with each case separately, in line with the statements of the foreign affairs minister and in contradiction with what the former justice minister said. This means that political considerations have outweighed a strictly legal approach as confirmed by the current Minister of Justice Éric Dupond-Moretti, who previously supported the return of French jihadists and their right to a fair trial instead of the death sentence they face in the host country.[21] However, following his appointment as Minister of Justice in the government reshuffle on July 6, 2020, Dupond-Moretti declared to Le Journal du dimanche that he now belonged “to a government which defends the idea that prisoners should be tried where they committed their acts, and which deals with the situation of minors for repatriation on a case-by-case basis”.[22]

Crisis of conscience for Western democracies

The mechanism adopted by France and other Western democracies and the case-by-case basis approach undoubtedly constitutes a denial of a child’s natural rights and an outright violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. These countries have also decided to strip European mothers of their citizenship and almost totally agreed on are refusing to receive them. Any decision degrading their children is conditioned by their giving up the right of child custody. Court rulings have been issued in support of government positions, as happened in Belgium,[23] emphasizing the importance of trying those mothers where they committed their acts and ignoring the state of ongoing war in Syria.

This has provoked the anger of human rights organizations, such as the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) whose president, Jean-Marie Delarue, reminded the French authorities on May 27, 2019, of their human rights obligations and called upon them to “unconditionally bring back all the children detained in camps in Syria”.[24]

Jacques Toubon, France’s ‘Defender of Rights’ since 2014, issued a 17-page recommendation on May 22, 2019 to the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH).  The Defender of Rights is a French constitutional position appointed by the President. Toubon’s recommendations to the French government included four major suggestions:

  • Adoption of effective measures to put an end to the inhumane treatment suffered by detained French children and their mothers;
  • Adoption of effective measures to put an end to the arbitrary detention of French children and their mothers;
  • Adoption of effective measures guaranteeing French children and their mothers the right to approach the French authorities to put an end to the abuses;
  • Adoption of effective measures to compensate them for the harm they suffered and to put an end to violations of the rights and best interests of these children.[25]

The Defender of Rights’ proposal asked the prime minister, minister of Europe and foreign affairs and the justice minister to respond to its recommendations within one month.[26] Although this independent constitutional authority’s[27] proposal was ignored, Toubon renewed his call to the government in a press release on May 29, 2019 to “put an end to violations of the rights and best interests of these children”, reiterating that the presence of detained children in camps violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified by France in 1990.[28]

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by all European countries, is one of the most important agreements which detail the obligations of countries toward the rights of children. Below are some of the key articles of the Convention.

  • Article 1: The child is everyone under the age of 18.
  • Article 7: Every child should be registered at birth and has the right to a name, to a nationality and, as far as possible, to be cared for by their parents.
  • Article 8: Every child has the right to their identity – including their nationality, name and family relationships. Where a child is deprived of one or more elements of their identity, the state will act to re-establish them.
  • Article 9: No child should be separated from his or her parents against their will unless it is in the child’s best interests. Children whose parents have separated have the right to contact and a relationship with both parents, unless that is not in the child’s best interests.

Based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted on January 30, 2020 a document underlining that Daesh children are neither responsible for the actions of their parents nor for the circumstances in which they find themselves (Article 2). The document adds that repatriation should include all children whose parents, believed to be affiliated to Daesh, are citizens of their state, regardless of their age or degree of involvement in the conflict, and should be repatriated together with their mothers or primary care givers, unless it is not in the best interest of the child (Article 8). It further states that “continued stays in camps or detention facilities cannot be considered to be in the best interest of the child”.[29]

The plight of Daesh children is one of the worst human tragedies inflicted by terrorism in its new form. It is the current biggest challenge to Western democracies. These children live on the margins of the international community’s awareness or concern, and the UN interventions in their case have not been forceful enough. Their predicament highlights the floundering manner in which Western democracies are managing such an important humanitarian issue. It presents a litmus test for the values of our civilization and the moral conscience that Western democracies have long sought to project in their conflicts with others.


[1] According to UNICEF, there are close to 29,000 children, most of them under the age of 12, in detention camps in Syria, and some 20,000 children in Iraq. See: “Protect the rights of children of foreign fighters stranded in Syria and Iraq”, Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, May 21, 2019. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/protect-rights-children-foreign-fighters-stranded-syria-and-iraq.

Among the many refugee camps in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Al-Hawl is the most famous one. It is located in Al-Hasakah District in northeastern Syria. It holds “about 4,000 women and 8,000 children from the foreign families who were in the ranks of Daesh, according to Kurdish authorities”. See: How the European countries could coordinate to repatriate the children of Daesh fighters from Syria”, July 06, 2020, Euronews. https://arabic.euronews.com/2020/07/06/how-european-countries-are-tacking-isis-children-in-syria-issue. [in Arabic].

[2] See: https://theglobalcoalition.org/en/

[3] Sarah Diffalah, “L’Europe doit se préparer au retour des enfants-soldats de Daech”, 03 août 2016, https://www.nouvelobs.com/monde/20160802.OBS5700/l-europe-doit-se-preparer-au-retour-des-enfants-soldats-de-daech.html.

[4] Nazreen Soofi, “Ignoring thousands of Daesh men and women, the UN Coordinator urges a solution to the crisis of 2,500 foreign children of Daesh in Al-Hawl camp”, April 18, 2019, xeber24.net. https://xeber24.org/archives/173697. [in Arabic].

[5] LEXPRESS, “Retour des djihadistes: Trump met l’Europe sous pression”, 17 février 2019, https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/monde/proche-moyen-orient/retour-des-djihadistes-de-syrie-trump-met-l-europe-sous-pression_2062771.html.

[6] Sally Jones was known as “Mrs. Terror” after her escape to Syria in 2014 where she “drew up a list of targeted Britons threatening to behead them and to blow up Britain’s underground railways and herself”.  See: Ahmad Fawzi Salim, “Britain is about to end the crisis of Daesh foreigners and take back their children”, October 22, 2019, Noon Post. link: https://www.noonpost.com/content/29896. [in Arabic].

[7] Ibid.

[8] Human rights Watch criticized the Iraqi decision and called upon the Iraqi government to reject “a plan that would unlawfully detain families with perceived ISIS affiliation”; “The Iraqi government proposal to confine alleged families of ISIS members not only violates international law but is also contrary to the government’s stated aim of reconciling populations post-ISIS”;, “Detaining families not accused of any crimes is a form of collective punishment that will fuel resentment and put the lives of thousands of people on endless hold”, May 07, 2019, Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/07/iraq-confining-families-alleged-isis-ties-unlawful.

[9] “London revokes British citizenship from two sisters who joined Daesh in Syria”, March 01, 2019, DW. https://bit.ly/3kdWYpi. [in Arabic].

[10] “Germany – laws against terrorists who hold dual nationality”, March 09, 2019, DW. https://bit.ly/35t5Tzf. [in Arabic].

[11] La rédaction de LCI, “Selon Nicole Belloubet, la France n’a «pas d’autre solution» que de rapatrier les djihadistes français détenus en Syrie”, 11 janvier 2020, https://www.lci.fr/terrorisme/selon-nicole-belloubet-la-france-n-a-pas-d-autre-solution-que-de-rapatrier-les-djihadistes-francais-detenus-en-syrie-2142475.html.

[12] Pauline Perniaux, “Enfants belges retenus en Syrie, le retour interdit”, 4 juin 2019, https://www.alterechos.be/enfants-belges-retenus-en-syrie-le-retour-interdit/.

[13] Ben Quinn, “UK considering how to bring home children of Isis Britons, says Hunt”, 10 Mar 2019,

[14] La rédaction de LCI, “Selon Nicole Belloubet, la France n’a «pas d’autre solution» que de rapatrier les djihadistes français détenus en Syrie”, op.cit.

[15] Ouest-France, “ENTRETIEN EXCLUSIF. Jean-Yves Le Drian sur Daech: « La position de la France c’est qu’il n’y a pas de retour »”, 31 janvier 2019, https://www.ouest-france.fr/politique/jean-yves-le-drian/entretien-jean-yves-le-drian-sur-daech-la-position-de-la-france-c-est-qu-il-n-y-pas-de-retour-6287799.

[16] Elise Vincent et Nathalie Guibert, “La France a rapatrié de Syrie cinq enfants orphelins de djihadistes“ , 15 mars 2019, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2019/03/15/enfants-de-djihadistes-la-france-a-rapatrie-de-syrie-plusieurs-orphelins_5436588_3210.html.

[17] See the statement issued by Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs: “Syrie – Rapatriement d’enfants mineurs ou isolés (10 juin 2019)”. https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/dossiers-pays/syrie/evenements/actualites-2019/article/syrie-rapatriement-d-enfants-mineurs-ou-isoles-10-06-19.

[18] Ludwig Gallet, “Taymia, 7 ans et gravement malade, rapatriée de Syrie”, 23 avril 2020, https://www.leparisien.fr/politique/taymia-7-ans-et-gravement-malade-rapatriee-de-syrie-23-04-2020-8304783.php.

[19] See the statement issued by the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs: “Syrie – Retour de dix jeunes enfants français – Communiqué (22 juin 2020)”, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/dossiers-pays/syrie/evenements/actualites-2020/article/syrie-retour-de-dix-jeunes-enfants-francais-communique-22-06-20.

[20] “Des enfants de combattants français de Daesh bloqués en Syrie et en Irak exposés au risque d’apatridie”, 9 septembre 2019, https://index.statelessness.eu/news/des-enfants-de-combattants-francais-de-etat-islamique-bloques-en-syrie-et-en-irak-exposes-au .

[21] SudOuest, “Éric Dupond-Moretti, nouvel espoir pour les détenus français de Syrie et Irak et leurs enfants?”, 7 Juillet 2020, https://www.sudouest.fr/2020/07/07/eric-dupond-moretti-nouvel-espoir-pour-les-detenus-francais-de-syrie-et-irak-et-leurs-enfants-7636563-10407.php.

[22] Emmanuelle Bourdy, “Éric Dupond-Moretti souhaite rapatrier les djihadistes français”, 23 juillet 2020, https://fr.theepochtimes.com/eric-dupond-moretti-souhaite-rapatrier-les-djihadistes-francais-1469671.html..

[23] In February 2019, an appellate ruling was issued in Brussels reversing an initial court ruling issued on December 26, 2018 which was in favor of two Belgian jihadist women demanding the return of their six children to Belgium but was rejected by the Belgian government. See: Pauline Perniaux, “Enfants belges retenus en Syrie, le retour interdit”, 4 juin 2019, https://www.alterechos.be/enfants-belges-retenus-en-syrie-le-retour-interdit/.

[24] See the full text of the letter sent by Jean-Marie Delarue, President of the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) to Prime Minister Édouard Philippe at:


[25] “Décision du Défenseur des droits n°2019-129”, 22 mai 2019, p 2, https://juridique.defenseurdesdroits.fr/doc_num.php?explnum_id=18912.

[26] Ibid., p 3.

[27] See Article 71 of the French constitution (amended in 2008) at: https://mjp.univ-perp.fr/france/co1958.htm#11b

[28] See the full text of the press release: “Décision du Défenseur des droits suite aux saisines relatives à la situation d’enfants français retenu en Syrie”, 29 mai 2019, https://www.defenseurdesdroits.fr/sites/default/files/atoms/files/cp_defenseur_des_droits_-_enfants_francais_retenus_en_syrie_0.pdf.

[29] Parliamentary Assembly, “International obligations concerning the repatriation of children from war and conflict zones”, Resolution 2321 (2020), Text adopted by the Assembly on 30 January 2020, http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-EN.asp?fileid=28581&lang=en

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