Human Rights Watch report and the Commonwealth’s Isis problemScene from a Human Rights Watch video - Trinidad and Tobago: Bring Home Nationals from Northeast Syria.

‘My father lied to me – he told me we were going to Disneyland,’ said a 17-year-old Trinidadian boy in a Kurdish-run detention camp in Syria. ‘My dad told me I was going to go to a hotel in Egypt and swim in a pool,’ another teenager from Trinidad and Tobago said. ‘I was 11 years old – I only knew the names of countries like Trinidad and America.’

Their plaintive accounts, collected by Human Rights Watch, say much about how at least 56 bewildered children from the Caribbean nation ended up in the self-declared ‘caliphate’ of Islamic State (also known as IS, Isis, Isil or Daesh) a decade ago. But it does not explain why they are still in the Middle East, desperate to return home.

A new report from the New York-based rights group has condemned Trinidad and Tobago for taking ‘almost no action’ to help up to 100 of its nationals to return, noting that 44 of the children in the camps and prisons run by the Kurds of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are 12 years of age or younger.

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Victims of Isis

The country was ‘turning its back on its nationals unlawfully held in horrific conditions’, said HRW’s Letta Tayler. ‘The government should bring home its citizens, help those who are victims of Isis rebuild their lives, and fairly prosecute any adults linked to serious crimes.’

The report is an unpleasant reminder of a cruel few years the world would rather forget, when militant Islamists emerged from the ruins left by the US-led war on Saddam Hussein and harnessed modern information technology to attract devotees of its mediaeval barbarism to Syria and Iraq. Their regime was short-lived but nevertheless left a legacy of radicalised and brutalised men, women and children, who have remained in limbo because so few countries will confront the issue.

The most comprehensive study, From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’ by King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), estimates IS had 52,808 foreigners from 80 countries, including 6,902 women and 6,577 minors (up to 60% of whom were born in the caliphate). The report identified a serious problem for several Commonwealth states: the UK had an estimated 900 citizens who joined IS; Australia had 232; Malaysia had up to 154; while Canada had 110-120. Singapore had just eight (some Malaysian and Singaporean militants followed IS’s instructions to wage jihad in the Philippines); Bangladesh had 40; Pakistan and Kenya a suspiciously rounded 100 each; Sri Lanka 32-36; and South Africa had 140-163. Some figures seem implausible: could Trinidad and Tobago’s 1.4 million people really have contributed far more zealots (130-250) than the 67-75 from India’s 200 million Muslims?

Citizenship cancelled

By 2019, British MPs heard, only 40 people had been successfully prosecuted in the UK of 360 returnees. Most people wish to bar them; a parliamentary petition, signed by nearly 600,000 people, called for all IS members to have their citizenship and passports cancelled, even though it is illegal under international law to strip someone’s nationality if it leaves them stateless. The UK’s quandary over how to deal with its returning jihadists is best illustrated by Shamima Begum, one of three east London schoolgirl friends who made their way to the IS stronghold of Raqqa.

She polarises opinion: to some, she deserves compassion as a misguided victim of grooming and trafficking who has seen all three of her infants die; to most, she was a willing ‘Isis bride’ who enforced the caliphate’s rule as a member of its feared religious police. After fleeing from Baghuz, the last IS stronghold, Begum was found in an SDF detainee camp. The UK removed her citizenship in 2019, claiming she had Bangladeshi nationality through her parents. The decision was upheld last month, leaving her marooned in the Syrian camp. However, the government’s own legal adviser on terrorism, Jonathan Hall KC, said she should be returned and prosecuted, saying: ‘Repatriation, if it took place, should not be confused with moral absolution.’ He added: ‘The status quo does not eliminate risk … but all this is extra-legal rather than a basis for policy.’

A Times leader argued: ‘The government has still given no convincing answer on why she must not return home, or what threat she still poses that cannot be countered by close monitoring … Punishing people by leaving them stateless in the desert is no answer to terrorism.’ And, it asked, what about the youngest detainees, left to rot in camps: ‘Is there any doubt that these children, now young, will be brutally schooled into becoming terrorists themselves?’

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Risk management

Hall believes IS volunteers’ children in particular must be repatriated: ‘Managed return, with proper preparation, reception committees, police with risk-management plans in place, local authorities primed to undertake safeguarding, wider family members engaged, is better than chaotic return.’

The Canadian government has said it favours reintegrating returnees into society but its more progressive approach also has its pitfalls – few foreign fighters who returned have faced trial. ‘Western countries, Canada in particular, appear reluctant to prosecute nationals who joined Isis and subsequently returned home,’ the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) said, noting that most governments appeared to have no strategy for how to deal with these radicalised citizens.

Referring to the genocide and enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority by Isis, the CGAI argues that Ottawa should prosecute its nationals in its own courts under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. ‘In choosing not to prosecute returning Isis fighters … Canada is turning a blind eye to sexual slavery and the trafficking of women and children [and] ignoring our country’s responsibility as a … founding member of the International Criminal Court. Worse, Canada is failing to bring justice to the victims of Isis, some of whom are now living in Canada, including a sizable Yazidi refugee population.’

Open trials

It is understandable that the west rejects the volunteers who flocked to join Isis. Governments do not know what to do with them, so would rather leave them in the Middle East. But that is a mistake, even for those like Begum, who were reportedly enthusiastic devotees (she was apparently observed sewing would-be martyrs into suicide vests, so the devices could not be removed without detonation).

Governments cannot abdicate their responsibility to deal with a problem that gestated in their countries. Begum was born and radicalised in London, so why should Bangladesh (which has its own jihadists) have to deal with the issue? The difficulty of successfully prosecuting her should not prevent her being put on trial. She may have been 15 when she left to wage jihad but children of that age are still deemed to be responsible for their crimes. As the CGAI put it: ‘Open trials can serve as means by which to lay bare Isis’s narrative and to help counter violent extremism. They can also serve as a deterrent and warning to other Canadians who might try to join Isis as it mutates and moves to other countries.’

This last point is crucial: the caliphate may no longer exist but the warped theology that underpinned it still exerts a grip on millions of people – and several governments – around the world. Far from the problem disappearing with Isis’s defeat, it just moved elsewhere: yesterday the jihadists were in the Middle East; today they are spreading across Africa. They are already firmly established in Nigeria and Mozambique. Where will they be tomorrow?

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.

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