Since the fall of Raqqa – the Islamic State (IS)’s self-styled capital and last stronghold in Syria – in October 2017, much has been written about the fate of European women who left their homes to travel to the so-called caliphate, an estimated 100 from the UK and more than 500 from Europe as a whole.
But what about those returning to Europe? As the caliphate unravels, there is little information about the number of female fighters and jihadi brides making their way back to their home countries. We do know, however, that European governments are reluctant to deal with the political and security consequences of greeting them back on their soil.
The narrative framing women as passive participants – raising the next generation of jihadists and supporting militant husbands – has been dispelled by reports and testimonies detailing the prominent, and often violent, role occupied by many women in the group.
A vital group
During the battle for Mosul that began on 16 October 2016, ISIS deployed an all-female sniper squad. European women were involved in suicide operations and policed other women as part of an all-female morality police unit, the al-Khansaa Brigade. Some also trained for front line action. However, not all returnees will have taken part in violence or zealously embraced the group’s ideology; therefore, not all will constitute a threat to the national security of European states.
Most European countries have so far tackled returnees on a case-by-case basis. This approach predominantly applies to women who have made it back to Europe. However, the fate of the hundreds of European women currently being held by Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria remains uncertain.
About 800 female recruits and their children surrendered to or were captured by the Peshmergas in recent months and remain in detention. According to Human Rights Watch, these women come from around 40 countries, including France and the UK. Many of them have expressed a desire to return home, despite the possibility of facing criminal charges.
When Europe shuts the door
While Kurdish authorities are reluctant to prosecute these women, European countries have also refused to sanction their return. The women remain stuck in limbo, unwanted by both host and home country. France is one of the countries that has adopted a hard-line approach, arguing that the women should be tried by Kurdish authorities, provided they are guaranteed a fair trial. This may prove difficult due to the lack of a cohesive judicial system in Kurdish territory.
Iraqi forces have treated captured women ruthlessly. In January 2018, an Iraqi court found a German woman of Moroccan origin guilty of “offering logistic support and helping the terrorist group to carry out criminal acts” and sentenced her to death. German authorities have previously called on the Iraq government to abolish the death penalty, but any desire on the part of Germany to repatriate women held by the Iraqi authorities will prove difficult without an extradition treaty between the two countries.
The UK, for its part, has adopted a more pre-emptive approach. In July 2017, it emerged that the British government had banned 150 suspected jihadists and “jihadi brides” from returning to the country by revoking their citizenship. Among them was Glasgow-born ISIS propagandist and recruiter Aqsa Mahmood. Mahmood joined Islamic State in 2013 and became a key member of the group, using her social media account to encourage other girls and women to carry out attacks in western nations.
The UK government has relied on passport removal to deal with the potential threat. While the temptation to adopt such an approach is understandable, it merely serves as a way to divert the problem to other countries. Additionally, this approach can only be used in the case of dual nationals.
The push back
If jihadi women’s fate in Iraq remains uncertain, legal action could be a game changer. Lawyers for a group of captured women have started a legal challenge against French authorities for their failure to repatriate them. The case of Emilie Konig, a French convert and ISIS recruiter, made headlines in France after Konig expressed remorse and her desire to go back to her country. To lawyers defending other returning women, France must repatriate its citizens as part of its international commitments.
Some countries like Canada have shown willingness to repatriate women involved in terrorist activity – but little action has been taken to this day. The complex ethical dilemmas that surround women who have expressed regret for their actions may call for a more nuanced approach. Children of returnees and the individuals who travelled to the caliphate as juveniles also need a tailored response. While women who left their homes to join ISIS arguably made a moral choice to do so, the same cannot be said of the children they took with them.
As security concerns continue to eclipse humanitarian ones, women and children remain trapped in Kurdish and Iraqi camps, unsure of their fate.
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