They learn to count by attending public lashings. By the age of 9, they know how to use a gun, make a bomb, and torture prisoners. They have been raised to know that Allah hates the infidel, and rewards those who kill unbelievers, the men and women living in the West. They are the children of ISIS. And now Europe prepares for their arrival.
With the fall of the Islamic State, countries across the globe anticipate the return of so-called "foreign fighters," those who joined ISIS and its jihad from outside its strongholds in Syria and Iraq – about 6,000 of them from Europe, America, Australia, and elsewhere in the West, according to 2015 figures. And among them are an unknown number of young children, some of whom traveled there with their parents, others who were born there.
Because the Islamic State prohibits birth control, and because birth certificates issued there are not recognized in the rest of the world, it is impossible to know how many children might now try to enter European and other countries, and whether they are legitimate citizens by birth. The first task, then, will be for governments to do DNA testing to ensure that these children are in fact the progeny of the men and women who travel with them. Only then will the children be allowed entry.
This, however, is the easy part. The bigger question is, what happens next?
No one seems to know. Across Europe, officials and child care workers debate the best options for handling children who have been traumatized by war, children who may have committed acts of war themselves. Should they be punished as hardened terrorists, or counseled, as the victims of trauma? These are children who have witnessed beheadings, and have even taken part in them. They have watched men and women die, and they have killed them. Their friends may have blown themselves up, child suicide bombers for Allah. Girls may have been raped; in the Caliphate, 9-year-old girls are considered ready to marry, and can therefore be forced into marriages to much older men.
How difficult their transition will be can be found even in their drawings and their dreams, as reporters for RTL France discovered. One child RTL interviewed described one of his drawings: "someone who slaughters a Daesh [Islamic State] man, but also an Islamic State fighter who beheads someone and then crucifies him. A helicopter with the Syrian flag flies over the war scene." The boy then added, "I dream of decapitated people."
Hence many Europeans argue that most, if not all, of these young children are terrorists. Others insist they are merely victims. In truth, like other child soldiers, they essentially are both. But unlike other child soldiers, they enter a world that they have been trained to see as not as home, but as their enemy. They are the injured animals in the wild, needing care and nurturing, but dangerous and capable of attack.
Most of the adults returning from the Islamic State to Western countries are arrested at the border, leaving many of the children without a parent who can provide the nurturing or discipline they need. Government officials hope extended family members will take in these children.
But what if nobody is willing? Already, they have been taught that Westerners are the embodiment of evil. Now Western adults have taken away their mothers, their fathers, leaving them abandoned.
Psychiatrists generally agree that the sense of rejection this induces can increase a child's likelihood of aggression. Moreover, according to a Dutch government report "these minors have undergone a program of deliberate desensitization to atrocities.... As a result, [they] may be more willing to engage in violence."
One Belgian mother who returned from Syria with her child told RTL France: "These children are no longer children. They have lost their innocence. In their eyes, they have only hate."
Yet Omar Ramadan, director of the Dutch Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), and a consultant to the European Commission, cautioned in a recent e-mail, "There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this complex issue. We have to be flexible and adapt our approach depending on the situation." While some of these children may have committed terrorist acts, others simply were born to parents who were members of ISIS themselves. In those cases, he said, "we must acknowledge that children cannot be held accountable for the crimes of their parents."
While some, like Daniel Koehler, a family counselor in Stuttgart who serves on the George Washington University Program on Extremism, call for gentle treatment of these youth through social work interventions and deradicalization programs, others, such as Belgian Minister of Justice Koen Geens, view them as a danger to be dealt with forcefully by law. "Minors who decided on their own to fight in Syria and Iraq will be treated as terror suspects on their return," he told the Belgian press. "Children who went with their mothers and are not radicalized will be seen as minors in danger." But 60 percent of the Belgian children in the Caliphate were born there. And these, he said, represent a danger to the state, "for they have been indoctrinated with the ISIS doctrine."
But the parents, Ramadan told Dutch NOS TV, are not capable of properly raising these children. That means the Dutch government should intervene, even if the parents are not imprisoned. Children should then be placed in therapy and deradicalization programs as needed, thereby potentially heading off their further radicalization. Such a solution, he warned, would neither be easy nor foolproof. "But is there an alternative?" he said. "Not really."
Some question whether it will succeed at all. A recent report from the Soufan Center, which advises governments on intelligence and security issues, suggests serious challenges, particularly in the case of "rehabilitation and reintegration" programs, since "most returnees were never integrated in the first place... and the majority of early efforts have stuttered or come to a halt." Working with these children is likely to run into similar, if not more difficult challenges: many do not speak the language of their parents' home countries. According to the values with which they have been raised, women walking the streets without a full veil must face beatings.
Moreover, none of this addresses the future potential threat of children who do not return (or enter) through official channels, or who may try to reach Europe later, once the focus has waned and governments are no longer as attentive. "Not arranging the return and re-socialization of [these] kids now may mean that they return unnoticed in due time," Ramadan warned. He fears that there will be no way to monitor and deradicalize them once they do. They ultimately could forge the greatest terror threat Europe has ever faced.
Consequently, "this is something that needs to be addressed now, immediately," Ramadan said. But the West seems only to be stumbling through the dark. It is, after all, a situation we have never seen before. There are no templates. There is no history. We can only search for answers somewhere in a place between compassion and fear, lost in the haze of all we do not know. And time is running out.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Follow her at @radicalstates.