Welcome to the jungle/Watch it bring you to your knees, knees/I wanna watch you bleed
Recent articles about foreign fighters and travellers to Syria suggest that the current emphasis on framing Syria and IS, almost exclusively, as a counter-terrorism problem may lead to ‘cures’ that don’t deal with the variety of cases in play.
In the space of a week, the Australian press reported that an Australian couple have both died leaving 5 children as orphans in Syria. The Bosnian press wrote that there are 70 minors with 29 Bosnian couples in IS territory. And IS released yet another video in its series featuring children, this time with a four year old UK minor taking part in the killing of alleged spies.
The presence of children and their participation in violence within foreign fighter mobilizations is not new; foreign traveler families lived under the Taliban, and the Omar Khadr case is a sad and complicated example of what can happen to children due to a combination of the choices of their parents and circumstances.
The number of children in IS territory is on a scale not previously seen in prior foreign fighter conflicts involving jihadis. A very rough count based on 10 countries which have provided estimates for minors suggests that there are at least 642 currently in IS territory and on average they comprise 16% of the foreign traveler contingent; although the 10 country sample is too small for the average to be reliable across the entire foreign traveler population.
In the case of the French, a majority of the minors are female and at least 5 of this group are reported dead. One of the Bosnian minors is thought to have been killed in a combat operation. There are likely similar cases for the other national contingents that that may have gone unreported.The Dutch authorities reported that up-to a third of Dutch minors were born in country. Given the length of time that some of the families have been in Syria, the marriages of single females, it is probable that the same phenomenon is occurring amongst other nationalities. The use of passport removals, stripping of citizenship and other administrative sanctions means that there will be potentially stateless children or children without documentation.
The response to the foreign fighter mobilization in the West has been primarily a counter-terrorist one; driven in part by the understanding that some returnees engage in violence upon return. This assessment has been reinforced by the declared intention of IS to target the West, the existence of an external operations entity that has emerged in the past year, and confirmed through the series of attempted attacks (Belgium and France) and the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
However, the counter-terrorist response while having a countering violent extremism component may not be best adapted to dealing with minors as and when they return from Syria. Two French minors who spent only weeks in Syria have been charged and will be tried for terrorist offences – it remains to be seen if the judicial system will weigh mitigating factors or whether it will imprison them, with a possible sentence of up-to 5 years. Counter-terrorism as the exclusive or dominant channel for dealing with the foreign traveler issue may not be the best adapted to finding innovative ways of seeking solutions to the foreign children of IS.
As Malet notes in other conflicts not involving ‘jihadist’ foreign fighters, a demobilization approach has been adopted – this is an alternative way of framing a conflict and by extension of adopting solutions linked to the diagnosis. If Syria were to be framed in a different manner and not just as a counter-terrorist issue then ways might be found to encourage demobilization of the foreign contingent; airdrops or social media blitz of information calling for demobilization with contact numbers and details for those wishing to leave or defect or the organization of exfiltration networks for those wishing to leave. For example, during the Vietnam war the US offered safe conduct passes – how well these worked in that context is another question.
Currently, reports suggest it is both difficult and dangerous to openly declare an interest in leaving IS. An account of a French traveler trying to leave was recently reported – he spent an extended period of time trying to have the French consulate obtain a guarantee from the Turkish authorities that they would not fire as he crossed the border with his family including a young baby
If Syria is a foreign fighter mobilization, it seems that a strategy for demobilization is necessary, and not only one that seeks to mitigate IS external operations activity or risks related to a small number of returnees likely to engage in violence at home, but one that also addresses issues related to minors taken to and growing up in a conflict zone.