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Repatriating the ISIS Children with Ambassador Galbraith

ICSVE Panel Discussion featuring

Retired Ambassador Peter Galbraith

Anne Speckhard, Director ICSVE

September 14, 2021  

This event was held live via Zoom

Ambassador Peter Galbraith made headlines last month when Buzzfeed broke the news that a young American girl, brought to ISIS by her now deceased mother as a toddler, had been rescued from Camp Roj, in Northeast Syria, where she was being hidden by her stepfather’s wife, a Somali woman still deeply committed to ISIS. The little girl was located with the help of an unnamed Canadian woman who was in frequent contact with Ambassador Galbraith. This wasn’t the only innocent child whom Ambassador Galbraith has helped rescue from the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF]-run camps, where children lack education, healthcare, and safety. He was also involved in the repatriation of a four-year-old Canadian girl, whose mother let her return home without her, and of a number of European children, as well as in the release of the children of Yazidi women who had been forced by ISIS into sexual slavery.

What does it take to arrange the rescue and repatriation of the children of ISIS members? What are the next steps for Ambassador Galbraith and for the children themselves? For the children whose parents are still alive, will they ever be reunited? What is it like for the women who let their children go home without them?

On September 14, 2021, Ambassador Galbraith joined ICSVE director Dr. Anne Speckhard to answer all of these questions and more, to discuss the ethical and moral concerns of repatriating ISIS children and their parents, and explored what happens next for the over ten thousand foreign men, women, and children currently held in SDF prisons and camps.

Ambassador Peter Galbraith is an author, academic, commentator, politician, policy advisor, and former United States diplomat. From 1993 to 1998, he served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, where he was co-mediator of the 1995 Erdut Agreement that ended the Croatian War of Independence. He was a cabinet member in East Timor’s first transitional government, successfully negotiating the Timor Sea Treaty. In 2009, Ambassador Galbraith was an Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations serving as Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan. Ambassador Galbraith served two terms as a Vermont State Senator from Windham County from 2011 to 2015, and was a candidate for Governor of Vermont in 2016. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books on the Iraq War, including the bestselling The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. Ambassador Galbraith argues that Iraq has broken up into three parts, allowing for Kurdistan’s independence. In the 1980s, Galbraith uncovered the beginnings of the Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds and, in 1988, documented the use of chemical weapons, leading the US Senate to pass comprehensive sanctions legislation (“The Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988”) authored by Galbraith. He was in Kurdistan during the 1991 uprising and his reports–including video footage of the uprising’s collapse – contributed to the US decision to create a safe area. Beginning in 2003, Ambassador Galbraith was an informal advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, supporting the Kurdistan delegation in the drafting process of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. He is on the Board of Directors of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the research arm of the Council for a Livable World.

Dr. Anne Speckhard 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 700 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 five years years, she has in-depth psychologically interviewed over 250 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (and also interviewed their family members as well as ideologues) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 250 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally.  Since 2020 she has also launched the ICSVE Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project interviewing 25 white supremacists and members of hate groups developing counternarratives from their interviews as well. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the 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.  Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. 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, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to TerroristsBride of ISISUndercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her research has also been published in Global Security: Health, Science and PolicyBehavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political AggressionJournal of African Security, Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human SecurityBidhaan: An International Journal of Somali StudiesJournal for Deradicalization, Perspectives on Terrorism and the International Studies Journal to name a few.  Her academic publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website Follow @AnneSpeckhard

This is the twenty-first discussion in this series of panels discussing ISIS Foreign Fighters and terrorist rehabilitation. The previous panels can be found at the following links:

Issues of ISIS Prisoners & Repatriations in a Time of COVID

Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?

Can We Repatriate the ISIS Children?

Terrorist Rehabilitation in the Dutch Prison System

Into and Back Out of ISIS: An ISIS Defector Speaks Out

Fighting ISIS Online: An Introduction to Breaking the ISIS Brand

Talking Terrorist Propaganda with a Pro

Terrorism Prevention, Intervention, and Rehabilitation with Juveniles

Community-Focused Interventions Against Terrorism

Are We Losing a Valuable Feminist Project in the Middle East?

Rescue Me: A Conversation with the Yamout Sisters re Prison Rehabilitation

ICSVE and Parallel Networks Team Up to Fight Violent Extremism

The Journey Back – Turning Away from Extremism and the Road to Hope and Healing

Asking Incels: An Insiders Account of the Involuntary Celibate Community

Understanding Q-Anon

Professor Arie Kruglanski and the Three Pillars of Radicalization

Childhood Abuse, Military Service, and White Supremacism

Interventions for White Supremacists

White Supremacists Speak: ICSVE’s Latest Research Report

ISIS Repatriations in North Macedonia

Chat log:

Anne Speckhard (After the event):  Welcome to all!

10:55:12 From ADAMS (UNODC) to Everyone : Good morning/afternoon dear Ladies and Gentlemen.

10:58:19 From Harjit Sandhu to Everyone : Greetings to all. This is Harjit Sandhu from Brussels.

11:02:33 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg to Everyone : You can watch the previous zoom conference events here:

11:03:03 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg to Everyone : for our Breaking the ISIS Brand and Escape Hate Counter Narrative Videos please see ICSVE’s YouTube channel:

11:04:30 From Emmanuel Didier to Everyone : I am a member of the Board of Project Abraham, a charitable organization in Toronto which supports Yazidi refugees in Ontario, and an advisor with Yazidi Legal Network.. We have prepared a Bibliography (more than 3000 items) and History of the Yazidis in support of organizations or individuals who wish to support Yazidis in Iraq and elsewhere. If you are interested, contact me at

11:06:10 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg to Everyone : ICSVE’s research reports, including those about our Facebook campaigns, can be found here:

11:12:24 From Emmanuel Didier to Everyone : The situation of the >Cubs of the caliphate> is extremely worrying: like young Nazis or Maoists, they have been thoroughly brainwashed and are extremely dangerous. Their rehabilitation will take a LOT of time, resources and coordination, which may not be existent now because of covid. So, what would be the best and worst solutions?

11:16:49 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard to Everyone : thank you Emmanuel, my view is the Yazidi boys who saw their family members taken to slaughter and were put in the Cubs were so indoctrinated and despairing that they are the most dangerous and need the most help, so pitiful

11:24:45 From Emmanuel Didier to Everyone : We have attempted to get a Yazidi woman out of al-Hol, but although she is treated there as a slave, she wants to stay with her child because the ISIS women told her that she could leave but would have to leave her child there.

11:25:38 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard to Everyone : thank you Emmanuel for bringing that up, we have a similar story from these enforcers

11:26:36 From Emmanuel Didier to Everyone : Thanks Anne, I agree entirely. A situation very close to that of the Janissaries under the Ottoman empire: male children taken by force from Christian families to be trained as “special force” of the Otttomans.

11:31:28 From Victoria Gurevich to Everyone : I heard that the Kurds are reluctant to allow the repatriation of children without their parents because without children, the chances of adult repatriation are slim (very few organizations are advocating for adult repatriation as actively as children’s rights groups are). Is this the case?

11:32:51 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard to Everyone : thank you Victoria yes that is an issue. and EU allows for family reunification so if the children come home that opens the door for the  adult parents, male and female, to also have rights to eventually get home 

11:35:01 From Thomas M. to Everyone : What do the demographics of the active camps look like, relating to children? Have any attempts been made, that are open source, to census the populations? 

With the recent repatriation of Aminah, how many more Aminah’s might there be in the camps?

11:35:44 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard to Everyone : yes there are good data sources, SDF did biometrics on the camp inhabitants last year, you can see our papers and those put out by various organizations working on these issues including UNHCR etc.

11:36:05 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard to Everyone : As far as other American children, you heard Peter say that other Americans were spirited out, where are they now???  Horrible

11:40:30 From Thomas M. to Everyone : It is reassuring to hear that we likely know of their location, at least. Thank you for asking about this.

11:44:54 From Thomas M. to Everyone : What different policy decisions have the current US administration made compared to the previous administration, regarding SDF camps?

Anne Speckhard (After the event):  As Ambassador Galbraith stated, the Biden administration has made its long term friendship to the Kurds known, whereas former President Trump greenlighted the Turkish invasion of the Northern parts of NE Syria causing devastation and the ongoing issues with the Turkish back militants now controlling those areas.

11:50:56 From Emmanuel Didier to Everyone : Another essential issue is the fate of young fighters from other organizations, such as Hezbollah, Assad’s Baath, etc. They share the same challenges as the Cubs.

11:58:45 From Jorge Bento Silva to Everyone : To Ambassador Galbraith: What would in your view be the most effective avenue for change: 1) forcing the issue through the court systems to establish jurisprudence on “the best interest of the child”; 2) leading media campaigns e.g. with names and faces of kids to move public opinion; 3) mobilise leaders of opinion, including religious leaders, to engage pressure on Parliaments and governments? 4) combination of the above? Other? thx in advance

Anne Speckhard (After the event):  Great question Jorge, as Ambassador Galbraith said, they are all needed!

12:01:35 From Brian Gran to Everyone : Thank you for this event. Greatly appreciated. I have another meeting.

12:02:16 From Victoria Gurevich to Everyone : If you say the adults will never be repatriated, what do their home countries think will happen to them? If France, for example, unequivocally will not return their citizens, what does France think will happen to them?

Anne Speckhard (After the event):  As Ambassador Galbraith pointed out male adolescents who are sent to the Khoury centers for deradicalization age into becoming male adult prisoners, children who have never committed crimes are currently in prison camps where they could conceivably be serving life sentences, there is no release plan even for those adults who might be convicted and serve their sentences in NE Syria.

12:03:29 From Thomas M. to Everyone : The past few weeks has seen an uptick in attacks targeting Turkish troops in Syria (IEDs/Artillery [al-Yashli and al-Hamran]) as well as more positive relations between Russia/Turkey in August.

What does the prospective situation look like regarding Turkey’s continued activity targeting Kurdish territory and the Kurd’s ability to maintain their own security, as well as the security of the camps. (I.e. resources, strategy, manpower, allies, etc.)

12:21:47 From Victoria Gurevich to Everyone : Thank you for this great discussion! I am writing my dissertation on state decisions to repatriate, looking at countries that are not repatriating, repatriating, and then repatriating AND sponsoring large scale rehabilitation programs, considering how these different approaches are considered and developed in different countries. These conversations have been very insightful and informative.

12:21:54 From Ali to Everyone : What about indoctrination which ISIS members were exposed to? Aren’t they going to impose certain dangers on the society? Are there any programs to disintegrate and to correct the ideology they hold? Bearing in mind that some ideologies allow lying and deception for greater good, which is to save themselves.

Anne Speckhard (After the event):  Please see our paper on spontaneous deradicalization and our other relevant research reports.

12:24:50 From Navaid Aziz to Everyone : This is a document put together by the Organization for the Prevention of Violence for community driven reintegration. While written for the Canadian context some points can be implemented trans-nationally.

12:24:59 From Mira to Everyone : Will you continue your repatriation efforts of  US/Canadian children/women or help them out of the camp?

12:28:44 From Harjit Sandhu to Everyone : Thank you Ambassador Galbraith and Anne for this session. I stand educated.

12:29:08 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard to Everyone : thank you to everyone for attending and for the lively discussion!

12:29:28 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard to Everyone : We will try to have Feriha join us soon too!

12:29:46 From Aqsa Isa (UM) to Everyone : Thank you for organizing this very insightful discussion!

12:30:59 From Mira to Everyone : Thank-you Ambassador Galbraith and Anne.

12:31:00 From Aarti to Everyone : Thank you Ambassador Galbraith, Anne and ICSVE team for the insight full session

Anne Speckhard (After the event):  Thank you to everyone for participating!

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