Future Fighters of the Islamic State are Adolescents Being Smuggled out of Al-Hol by their Mothers and ISIS Aligned Financial Networks
Mona Thakkar & Anne Speckhard Despite notable repatriation progress in early 2023, involving 14 countries…
As published in The Daily Beast
“We are being forced to have sex with the ISIS women, to impregnate them,” Ahmet, 13, and Hamid, 14, told a guard at Camp al Hol in northeast Syria, according to Syrian Defense Force officials. “Can you get us out of here?”
Camp al Hol is one of the detention centers housing approximately 8,000 foreign ISIS-affiliated women and children who surrendered or were captured as a result of the 2019 territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State.
While some of these women want nothing more to do with ISIS, others continue in their violent dedication to the Caliphate—insisting on carrying on ISIS’s distorted Islamic dictates, punishing women who renounce ISIS—and working hard to indoctrinate children whose countries continue to refuse to repatriate them. Some of these ISIS diehard women have refused voluntary repatriation, with their countries of origin allowing them to also refuse repatriation for their children.
Housing boys who reach puberty can be difficult in the camps, and some were being transferred to detention facilities. Under a new policy, the boys will now be transferred to rehabilitation centers.
Now that rehabilitation centers have been established for ISIS boys, their pro-ISIS mothers beg and successfully raise money over apps like Telegram to preemptively smuggle their sons out of the camp and into the hands of terrorists.
Ahmet and Hamid told the staff at the newly opened Orkesh rehab center that they were subject to sexual exploitation by a group of ISIS women. Center staff told The Daily Beast that one of the boys said he was forced to have sex with eight ISIS women in just a few days.
Officials said the ISIS women in Camp al Hol told the teens they wanted to get pregnant to increase the population of the Islamic State, which they believe is going to be reinstated when fighters come and break them out of the camps. A camp guard said at least 10 boys at al Hol were involved, some only located and rescued when the SDF went into the camp and found them hidden by the women in underground tunnels.
No one knows the exact number of pregnancies in the camps but the SDF intelligence who monitor the camps say there are many. These should not be possible given that the ISIS men are held separately. Some pregnancies may have been the result of illicit relationships with guards, despite safeguards in place to make sure that doesn’t happen, but officials say the boys are clearly being exploited by ISIS women.
Some of the ISIS women in Camp al Hol hide this practice by giving birth without the help of the camp’s official doctors, aided by detainees who are also doctors and nurses.
Security forces and camp authorities in al Roj camp also confirmed to The Daily Beast that the same issue has occurred in their camp, although fewer pregnancies resulted there. One boy in Camp al Roj subjected to such exploitation ended up in the hospital collapsing after being given a Viagra-like substance to make him perform. Some mothers in the Roj camp, wanting to protect their sons from these women, begged the camp authorities to take their sons to rehabilitation centers.
So far, the SDF and Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES) has worked hard to keep surrendered and captured ISIS-affiliated families together. But as these boys age into puberty and beyond, the AANES and SDF are taking steps to protect them from sexual predation and abuse. They also hope to disrupt the gangs of violent boys who are organized by their pro-ISIS mothers to burn tents, patrol, harass women in the camps, and keep them from disrupting NGO efforts to de-radicalize the others.
“The boys are definitely not for sale.”
Ahmet and Hamid were transferred to Orkesh, the new rehabilitation center where I am a consultant. The boys there on my visit could be seen playing football under sunny skies, taking lessons and participating in group counseling sessions. They are all housed in clean rooms with bunk beds which compare favorably to the crowded and unhealthy prisons or camps they came from.
They can relax in a games room filled with four foosball tables and are offered educational lessons. They also undergo counseling aimed at teaching them how to deal with their traumatic pasts and emotional distress in prosocial ways—while redirecting them to futures that no longer include ISIS’s virulent ideology, activities all aimed at eventual repatriation and reintegration into society.
“We don’t dig deep in the beginning. We want to give them time and not get in over our heads in dealing with such traumas,” Ahmet’s and Hamid’s counselor said.
These are difficult issues, and moving the boys to safe, predictable and nurturing routines—coupled with the opportunity to work through their traumatic pasts—is intended to help them heal.
All of the adolescent boys who end up in these rehabilitation centers were taken from their ISIS mothers in order to protect them. Yet a recent UN report severely criticizes the AANES and SDF for their actions, stating, “We are extremely concerned that serious harm may befall these boys and fear they may be forcibly disappeared and subject to sale, exploitation and abuse, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.” The camp director said the boys were, in every case, officially transferred from the camp authority to the justice and reforming authorities of the AANES. They were then to be moved into the rehabilitation center, according to the director, adding that “the boys are definitely not for sale.”
Supporters of the removal policy say sexual exploitation, abuse, radicalization, and disappearance is exactly what has been happening to some of these boys in the camps when their ISIS mothers successfully smuggle them out to terrorist groups eager to receive them.
The UN report also complained that the SDF removed these boys at night from their mothers, although Western police sometimes do the same when removing children from dangerous family situations. Police typically arrive with social workers and removals occur with no advance notice given and at night, if necessary, because advance notice only places the child in further danger, sometimes even of being killed.
In the camp, authorities state that the women were told ahead of time why and to where their sons would be taken and were asked to voluntarily surrender them. Only four complied. The rest were taken forcibly, although all the mothers were able to say goodbye and have had supervised telephone contact with their sons since removal.
In the United States, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) sets out the legal framework for the protection of children from abuse and neglect, requiring states to have laws in place that allow for the removal of children from their homes. Similarly, the EU has adopted a number of directives and regulations that address the protection of children, including the EU directive on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, and the EU directive on the rights of the child. Syria also has laws allowing for removal of children from abusive and criminal home environments as does the AANES.
Likewise, UNHCR guidelines emphasize the importance of family unity and the best interests of the child. However, there are certainly situations in which it is deemed necessary to separate a child from their mother—for instance if she is suspected of having committed serious crimes or is a threat to the child’s safety. In such cases, the UNHCR recommends that authorities should take steps to ensure that the child is placed in a safe and appropriate environment, and that their rights and well-being are protected.
While the UN report roundly criticized the SDF for removing these boys from their mothers in the camps, the AANES authorities state that they are doing their best to protect everyone. “The doors are wide open to all countries who wish to come and take their youth,” an official said.
The al Roj administration also points to the rape of a girl in the camp by one of the youths, and other evidence that these pubescent males are acting as predators on younger boys, as well as their own exploitation by the ISIS women. While Western statutes and policies restrict the imprisonment of minors—and it is generally recognized that the detention of children with their parents can have negative impacts on the physical, mental, and social well-being of the children—the SDF and AANES are facing this impossible situation of housing ISIS-affiliated children with their mothers. Likewise, despite UN criticisms, most UN member states have offered no alternative to consigning these children to the camps run by the AANES, which struggles to make the best resolutions under these extremely difficult circumstances.
The UN report warns that, if they are removed, the boys “are likely to be placed in male prisons or other detention facilities,” but there is no basis for that claim. The reality is that the boys are being housed in a rehabilitation center where they will be protected from the dangerous conditions in the camp, to receive psychotherapy and support in a secure environment until their countries decide to repatriate them. If their home countries do not act, these adolescents could in fact age into adult detention centers, something the AANES wishes to avoid.
The UN report correctly points out, “Most of these boys have been detained since they were seven years old. They are victims of terrorism and deserve the protection of international human rights and humanitarian law.”
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne (February 23, 2023). ISIS Women Accused of Turning Teen Boys Into Human Stud Farm in Syria. The Daily Beast.
About the Author:
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She serves as Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and an Affiliate in the Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University.
She has interviewed over 800 terrorists, violent extremists, their family members and supporters around the world, including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. Over the past five years, she has conducted in-depth psychological interviews with 273 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (as well as family members and ideologues,) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, and their experiences inside ISIS and al Shabaab.
Speckhard developed the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project from these interviews, which includes over 250 short counter narrative videos that mimic ISIS recruitment videos but contain actual terrorists strongly denouncing ISIS as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal. These videos have been utilized in over 200 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. Beginning in 2020, she launched the ICSVE Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project, interviewing dozens of white supremacists and members of hate groups, developing counternarratives from their interviews, and creating anti-recruitment videos. She has also conducted rare interviews with five Antifa activists (Antifa protestors rarely grant interviews.)
Dr. Speckhard is also an expert in rehabilitation and repatriation of terrorists and their families. In 2007, she designed the psychological and Islamic aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000+ detainees and 800 juveniles. This work led to consulting with foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention, interventions and repatriation; and the rehabilitation and reintegration of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. She has worked with NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), UN Women, United Nations Countering Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED), United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC), the EU Commission and EU Parliament, and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, and the FBI.
Today Dr. Speckhard actively trains key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, elite hostage negotiation teams, educators, and other professionals in countering violent extremism, locally and internationally. Her focus is on the psychology of terrorism, the effective use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE, as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS. Her consultations and trainings include U.S., Canadian, German, British, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others.
Dr. Speckhard is the author of five books: Homegrown Hate, Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi, and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. She has appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC, and in the New York Times, Washington Post, London Times, TIME Magazine, Newsweek, Daily Beast and more. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today. Her research has been published in Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of African Security, Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, Journal for Deradicalization, Perspectives on Terrorismand the International Studies Journal. Her academic publications are found at https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and www.icsve.org.
ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand and Escape Hate Counternarrative videos and training seminars can be watched on ICSVE’s YouTube channel.
ICSVE’s research has been funded by the EU Commission; U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, Defense and Justice; UN Women; and the Embassy of Qatar.