From Daesh to 'Diaspora' II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate.

AuthorCook, Joana

In March 2019, the Islamic State lost the final territorial remnant of its 'caliphate' in Baghouz. Yet its demise has left the international community with a myriad of complex and difficult challenges, including how to deal with the many women and minors from across the globe recruited by, taken by, or born into the group. In July 2018, a dataset compiled by the authors revealed that of 80 countries beyond Syria and Iraq, women accounted for up to 13 percent (4,761) (1) (a) and minors 12 percent (4,640) of the total 41,490 foreign persons who were recorded to have traveled to, or were born inside, Islamic State territory. (2) (b) These figures were unprecedented and the direct result of the territorial and governance ambitions of the Islamic State, which drew 'citizens' from around the world. Yet, at that time (July 2018), only 26 states had published reliable information for both of these two interrelated, though distinct populations, raising the likelihood of significant underestimation.

Beyond the fall of the caliphate, three trends have prompted a reexamination of the status of Islamic State-affiliated women and minors. First, due to the group's duration of occupation, an increasing number of Islamic State-affiliated women have borne children. Of the 10 countries with strong data on minors, 44-60 percent have been reported as infants born in theater, highlighting the potential scale and long-term implications of this matter. (c) Second, a significant number of women remained with the Islamic State until its final stand in Baghouz and now require varied responses. Some are devout, battle-hardened members, while others may seek to leave this chapter of their life behind them. Third, due to the tens of thousands of adult males killed in counter-Islamic State and Islamic State operations, (d) the proportion of women and minors present in the remaining Islamic State population in Syria and Iraq is higher than ever and therefore must be reflected in all responses to the group. (e)

This article reexamines the status of Islamic State-affiliated women and minors, and the present challenges posed by these two distinct populations. Updating the authors' dataset from July 2018, (3) this article compiles the most recent figures for Islamic State-affiliated travelers, returnees, and detainees, and for the first time includes distinct figures for Islamic State-born infants. It considers how states have been responding to returnees and the long-term inter-generational concerns associated with these diverse populations, and it also provides considerations for international actors going forward.


Obtaining precise figures for foreigners affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria remains a challenging task. The methodology for the original dataset in 2018 has been repeated. (4) Figures have been updated based on information released between July 2018 and July 2019, cross-referenced with the previous dataset, and where possible verified by regional experts. Several challenges remain. Many countries continue to not publish figures; others have only acknowledged 'foreign terrorist fighters' (FTFs) (f) or do not distinguish women and minors. (g) Others may not have the means to track the movement of all their citizens. Some states have increasingly released figures, while others' data proves contradictory and diverse, which is reflected in the dataset, particularly seen in the ranges included.

Updated Global Figures

Two developments impact the issue of returnees: more countries have clarified figures for women and minors who became affiliated with the Islamic State, (h) and there are an increasing number of recorded foreign Islamic State-born infants. This has raised not only the authors' global estimates of all foreign Islamic State affiliated persons (men, women, and minors), including those now deceased to 44,279-52,808, but specifically women to 6,797-6,902 and minors to 6,173-6,577. (i) Increasing numbers of women and minors have also returned to their countries of origin.


A number of observations emerge. First is the important distinction between state-managed repatriation initiatives and independent return. Where governments control the flow and return of persons back to their country, they are better able to manage them, while those who return independently may be unmonitored or unaccounted for.j Second, the post-return realities of Islamic State affiliates vary by country. Some face immediate arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. Others receive deradicalization and rehabilitation services or differing extents of physical, economic, or psycho-social support and return to normal life. Almost all, including women and minors, face social stigma for their time with the Islamic State.

Yet, many countries do not publicly acknowledge their citizens' return. (k) Women and minors may also be excluded or undistinguished in returnee figures or may return undetected. However, total confirmed returnees have increased in the authors' updated dataset, albeit minimally since June 2018--from 7,145-7,366 (5) to 7,712-8,202--with the greatest proportion found in the Southeast Asia region (up to 33 percent of those who traveled to, or were born within, the Islamic State) and Western Europe (28-29 percent).


In 2018, only 256 women (five percent of total returnees) who had traveled to join the Islamic State had been recorded as returned to their country of departure. (l) By July 2019, up to 609 women of those who traveled had been recorded as returned, comprising up to eight percent of all returnees, or nine percent of women who traveled. However, these figures may not accurately capture the true picture. Statements from the United Kingdomm and European Union (n) have suggested that women and minors have been returning more frequently than men over the past two years, even if these were not acknowledged or distinguished at the country level.

Media portrayals of Islamic State-affiliated women have generally oscillated between victims taken or duped by their husbands, naive 'jihadi brides,' or active security concerns. Where framed in security terms, there appears to be less political will or public acceptance to return women. In contrast, where viewed more in terms of victimhood or naivete, prospects for redemption and rehabilitation may appear more in public discourses.

Russia had been actively repatriating women up to November 2017, whereafter only minors were accepted due to women being perceived as security risks. (o) Kazakhstan has taken a proactive approach, repatriating 137-139 women through its three-part 'Operation Zhusan' between January and May 2019. Upon arrival, women are isolated at a rehabilitation and reintegration center and face questioning by security services. While many return home and continue to be monitored, at least five women have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. (6) Indonesia, with 54 confirmed female returnees, has also managed a large-scale rehabilitation and reintegration program. (7) At least one woman went on to attempt an explosive attack and now faces the death penalty. (8) Here, reintegration at the community level has been specifically tailored to women, including economic empowerment programs. (9) With such programming, public safety must remain a paramount concern. Adequate planning, resources, and gendered considerations must be integrated at every step, together with the active participation and support of community organizations and families. (10) Yet, such tailored programs remain rare.

Some women have been prosecuted upon return, including British woman Tareena Shakil. (11) 'Jennifer W,' a 27-year old German returnee, was charged with the murder of an enslaved Yazidi child, war crimes, membership in a foreign terror organization, and weapons violations. (12) Sabine S. also became the first woman convicted in Germany of belonging to a foreign terrorist organization. (13) Yet, this route remains challenging as the type of evidence obtained against men, such as recordings of their direct involvement in Islamic State activities, is more limited for women who rarely appeared in propaganda. (p) However, women within the Islamic State may also have been privy to information that may help facilitate the prosecution of other members.

There has also been increased focus on the gender dimensions of criminal justice responses to counterterrorism (14) and evidence that women may be arrested, charged, and sentenced differently (often more leniently) than men. (15) Countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States have opted to strip or deny citizenship, as demonstrated in the cases of Shamima Begum or Hoda Muthana, (16) raising broader questions about rights and identity of first- and second-generation immigrants in these countries. Though many trajectories remain possible for Islamic State-affiliated women, repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration (as appropriate) remain the most feasible for their successful long-term monitoring.


By July 2018, 411-1,180 minors were recorded as confirmed and in-process returnees. A constant trend from 2018 is the international community's prioritization of repatriation of minors. In total, 1,460-1,525 minors (22-25 percent) have now returned to their country of departure (or the country of their parents), representing up to 20 percent of total returnees. For some states, such as Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia, this is the result of proactive collaboration with local authorities to identify and return their underage nationals. (17) Yet, these efforts are predominantly framed as 'rescue' missions to recover young children whose Islamic State affiliation was not through their own volition. This was epitomized by the reunion of a Trinidadian mother and her two sons, which was facilitated by Pink Floyd's Roger Waters. (18) This framing of the issue has put mounting pressure on hitherto...

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