Dr Maher on radicalisation: “The only innocent victims in the ISIS camps are the children”

Conflicting narratives about the innocence of the women who emigrated to Syria have emerged in the wake of Anthony Loyd’s interview in the Times with Shamima Begum. European governments are trying to figure out what to do with the citizens who have left for Syria since 2011, currently appearing to be at a stand-still. Director of the KCL-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), Dr Shiraz Maher, gives Roar News his take on the return of the ISIS women to Europe, the women’s role in ISIS and what comes next for the women in the camps.

‘A lot of the European and British women in Syria now wanting to return went for ideological purposes. They made a conscious decision to relocate themselves and in some instances, their families to Syria after ISIS called for migration in order to populate the Caliphate. The act of migrating was the end in itself,’ says Maher.

An estimated 39 000 people who joined ISIS are living in camps in Syria after the take-down of the Caliphate ISIS sought to establish, captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Among these are hundreds of foreign fighters who seek to return to their European home countries, creating difficulties for governments in Europe.

‘The most important thing here is that the victims of ISIS are given justice. However, SDF is a militia with no competence or authority to hold this amount of people or to detain them. This became evident after the Russian bombing of a prison in Idlib, after which many ISIS fighters escaped.’

Dr Shiraz Maher of the ICSR is an expert on the current crisis in the Middle East.

Women in ISIS territory

Dr Shiraz Maher is a renowned expert on the current crisis in the Middle East, radicalisation and jihadist movements. Maher and the ICSR have conducted ground-breaking research and interviewed hundreds of British emigrants to Syria. A 2018 study by the ICSR found an estimated 850 foreign fighters have travelled from the UK to Syria since 2011, 145 of which were women and 50 were children.

In Norway, the women who joined ISIS have been compared to the Norwegian women who fell in love and had children with German soldiers during the World War Two occupation of Norway. Their citizenships were revoked in the post-war period, although they were not political participants or supporters of the occupation regime per se.

– Were the women active participants in the regime, beyond being wives and mothers?

‘The women in Syria were very much active political participants in the Caliphate, although they had non-combatant roles. There was female morality police enforcing moral codes, and the women participated in what seems to be the most systematic and deliberate extermination campaign since the Holocaust, Maher says of the women who joined ISIS, maintaining the women were not innocent victims who simply fell in love.’

The extermination campaign Maher is referring to is the one committed against Yazidi men and women in Iraq and Syria. Thousands of Yazidi men were massacred, whereas an estimated 6383 women were sold as sex slaves within ISIS territory. Nadia Murad, a former ISIS captive, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for her work to recognise the genocide against her people, has long maintained the women’s role within the Caliphate in facilitating the sex trade of Yazidi women.

‘The women who joined ISIS were often the ones presenting the Yazidi women to their husbands, and did play a role in the genocide,’ says Maher.

 Returning the women to the UK

As of now, Shamima Begum has been prevented returning to the UK, and it seems unlikely that British authorities will retrieve the women in the camps anytime soon. According to Maher, there is no consular assistance in Syria Britons can refer to for help to return, and UK authorities seem uninterested in facilitating the return of the women.

 ‘The case of Begum and the Bethnal Green Girls is unique because they were so young when they left the UK. Nevertheless, even fifteen-year-olds have some common sense, haven’t they, Maher says, referring to Begum and the London-trio who travelled to Syria to join ISIS in 2015. All of the girls were minors, which is a common argument for letting them back to the UK.’

– What do you think the UK government should do with the women who now want to return?

‘The matter of retrieving the women is complex. The majority of the evidence that exists of what the women have done cannot be used in a British court, which could result in the women being charged for offences that do not bring justice to the crimes they have actually committed. And once in prison, who says they will not be able to radicalise others there? On the other hand, these are dangerous people who need to be held in secure locations. In Syria, there is a lack of secure locations to detain those who joined ISIS.’

Maher believes it unlikely that the government retrieves the children who were either brought to Syria by their parents or born in Syria to British migrants.

‘If the governments retrieve the children from Syria, why would they not also retrieve women, and if they get the women, why not get the men? Retrieving the children poses its own set of challenges; the younger ones may be easier to retrieve and resettle, but many have become child soldiers and psychologically exposed to barbarity. For now, the government seems to be sitting it out, waiting to see how the situation unravels.’

On one issue, Maher remains explicitly clear; the only innocent victims in the ISIS camps are the children.