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ICSVE Intervention on the Issue of ISIS Children Returning Home at the OSCE Wide Counter Terrorism Conference

The OSCE wide Counter Terrorism Conference – Taking Stock of Efforts to Prevent and Counter Terrorism as well as Violent Extremism and Radicalization that lead to Terrorism in the OSCE area is being held these last two days in Bratislava, Slovakia. ICSVE was invited to participate and made the following intervention regarding the issue of children of foreign fighters concerning return to their home countries.  

I am Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) a US-based action based think tank in which our researchers have interviewed at this point over 140 ISIS and 16 al Shabaab defectors, returnees and prisoners from around the world.  At ICSVE, we would like to ask what are governments doing and what is the political will to bring ISIS children home, particularly those held in detention camps in Kurdish controlled Syria? At ICSVE we keep going into Kurdish held Syria and seeing children under the age of 10 that were either brought or born into ISIS by their parents. Many have been detained or even born into camps with no vaccinations, little to no medical care, where diseases such as Typhus have resulted in the deaths of mothers and children, camp fires that recently killed two children under the age of five in Camp Roj, bad food, no toys, uninhabitable conditions, no schools etc. 

It appears that Western governments and populations appear to fear these very young children as national security threats yet our international and national laws dictate that we protect our youngest citizens. 

Recently a UK citizen Shamima Begum was stripped of her citizenship although her parents country of origin denied her a passport and there are issues in cases like this of is it disproportionate to punish with citizen revockation, and furthermore illegal if the person subject to it will end in a country that tortures?  And when it comes to the children of such ISIS members, it’s unclear if revocation also applies to them?  For instance  when Shamima’s citizenship was revoked did that also apply to her newborn, who anyway died with weeks of his birth. Many said he was a terrorist spawn but we question that, as he could also have grown up to be a Nobel Prize winner if rescued from Syria and put into the hands of loving caretakers. UK officials said it was unsafe to go and rescue this fragile newborn, yet he was in an area of Syria ICSVE staff have traveled to numerous times now. Even I would have carried that baby home to safety.

At ICSVE we also have the question of is it collective punishment to hold innocent children whose parents, not themselves, committed terrorist crimes and are being held at least in Syria without any charges or evidence brought against them?  Why is the fate of ISIS children tied to their mothers? 

At ICSVE we know terrorists quite well—their evil minds and evil deeds.  We know how to recognize a terrorist.  Yet we also know that children are simply children. We presently have a video that we are happy to share with any of you of a 9 year old Belgian passport holding girl who was taken into ISIS at no fault of her own, sweetly telling us she wants to come home.  Paul I hope you can make that happen.  We applaud the work of the U.S. government, your government and others in working—sometimes in the face of difficult political pressures—to bring these children home—but it needs to speed up.

We hear a lot of discussion from Western and OSCE nations, that children’s rights should be protected, that children of ISIS under six should be reintegrated and resocialized, but our question is why is it taking so long while our children of ISIS mothers and fathers are literally dying in the camps?

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.orgFollow @AnneSpeckhard
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