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How ISIS women and their children are being left stranded in the desert

Dec 24. 2019
Bint Fatma in her tent with her infant son in al-Hol on Dec. 5. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Alice Martins for The Washington Post.
Bint Fatma in her tent with her infant son in al-Hol on Dec. 5. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Alice Martins for The Washington Post.
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By The Washington Post · Louisa Loveluck, Souad Mekhennet, Loveday Morris, Alice Martins 

AL-HOL, Syria - Heavily pregnant and a continent from home, 21-year-old Bint Fatma could find no doctors in her corner of the internment camp.

She waited hours in the October sun, fearing she was about to lose her baby, before guards agreed to take her to a clinic. There were no doctors there either, she said, and so it was decided: She would go back to her tent and await whatever God intended.

Outside, the nights were getting cold, she recounted earlier this month; sickness was spreading like wildfire. Beyond the chain-link fences, a war was brewing.

As with thousands of women from around the world, Bint Fatma's journey from the Netherlands to this camp in the desert had taken her through the Islamic State's rise and fall and into the heart of a global debate. Governments worldwide have been wrestling with the question of whether women like Bint Fatma are conspirators or victims - and whether bringing them home is a moral imperative or a security risk. At stake, too, is the future of thousands of children born into the caliphate through no fault of their own.

Women contributed to the Islamic State's propaganda and often became complicit in its crimes. Bint Fatma was among some 20,000 women who would stick it out to the end, when the last redoubt of the caliphate was overrun by U.S.-backed forces early this year and its final denizens were trucked to these tents in a dust bowl.

The Washington Post first met the young woman in late July near the entrance to the sprawling al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, home to about 70,000 women and children. Wearing a black burqa that concealed her growing belly, Bint Fatma removed her face covering for much of the interview, revealing brown eyes and slim features. She was garrulous, sometimes wary, and kept her eyes on her 3-year-old son throughout, soothing him gently as he scrambled around. The Washington Post has agreed to identify her by a family nickname only, out of concerns for her safety if it became widely known among camp residents she was speaking to the media.

With conditions deteriorating and radicals cementing control inside the camp, Bint Fatma described al-Hol as a "different world." She wanted to go home to the Netherlands but knew the government was leery.

"I don't know what my ending is," she said.

As summer slipped into fall and debate raged back home, the need for that ending would become urgent. Her neighbors were trying to re-create their lost caliphate, enforcing its strictures with fear and violence. Then Turkey's invasion of northern Syria placed the camp in peril and put her baby's life in the balance.

The story of how her government - and others around the world - would decide the fate of the Islamic State women and children was fast becoming a historic test of what countries in the West and beyond were made of: Could they remain true to the principles they vaunted and still uphold the duty to safeguard their people?

- - -

Two weeks after her 16th birthday, Bint Fatma set off in 2014 for the caliphate, disguising her journey as a school trip, according to an account from her eldest sister, Meriam. Bint Fatma's class was going to Belgium, she told her family, and they had no reason to be suspicious. She'd been to Berlin the year before, sending her family photographs of her wearing the Muslim veil, covering her head and shoulders, that she had recently adopted.

Her mother, a Moroccan immigrant, called Bint Fatma's cellphone several times to check on her school trip. When there was no answer, it didn't immediately ring alarm bells. But when she didn't return home on the Friday, the family's unease deepened with every passing hour. Meriam recalled in an interview that she had a bad feeling and had called their middle sister, asking her to search Bint Fatma's bedroom.

"I have a ticket," she reported over the phone.

"What ticket?"

It had taken Bint Fatma to Istanbul, and then, they knew, beyond. In some communities, unannounced trips to the Turkish city had become a shorthand for travels to the caliphate. "At that moment, everything comes together. All the signs you never saw - maybe saw but [didn't] believe," her eldest sister recalled.

The family had thought of itself as quite normal. Her sister said they celebrated Muslim holidays and her mother wore a traditional headscarf, but the three daughters were not overtly religious. Bint Fatma could barely speak Arabic and struggled to read the Koran. Teachers said they had noticed a change in her behavior but saw little cause for concern.

When Bint Fatma first wore a Muslim head covering out on a summer day in their hometown, Meriam had asked, "What are you wearing? It's hot." Bint Fatma hadn't answered, her sister recalled.

Online, she lived in another world. Her social media feeds seemed to speak in unison, exhorting her to join their caliphate. "She was really fully convinced," said a Dutch intelligence official tracking Bint Fatma's case.

In an interview, Bint Fatma said she had seen the caliphate as a religious utopia. "I really came for Islamic laws, that's it," she said. The intelligence official said she had also traveled to Syria, probably aware that she would soon marry a radicalized Dutchman whom she had been speaking to online.

The Sunday after Bint Fatma left the Netherlands, she called her mother from the Turkish-Syrian border, according to Meriam's account.

"Where are you?" the mother asked.

"Home," said Bint Fatma.

Within a year, she was telling her family that they were betraying their religion and living in a land of apostates. When Islamic State suicide bombs ripped through a Brussels airport or a packed Parisian theater, Bint Fatma told her sister that the victims had been "unbelievers."

By the end of 2016, the Dutch government had officially labeled her a terrorist.

- - -

Only a few countries have repatriated large numbers of women affiliated with the Islamic State. Kazakhstan and Indonesia, for example, have sought to rehabilitate their nationals and then reintegrate them into society. Far more countries have become embroiled in harsh public debates about whether their women - and even their children - deserve to be taken back and the threat they could pose if they are.

In Rotterdam on a recent day, Andre Seebregts, one of the most prominent advocates for bringing home women detained in Syria, leafed through printouts of some of his recent emails and social media messages.

"This is just a couple from last week," he shared in his legal office. "You are not human. You are a rat," he read from one expletive-laden missive. Another calls him a cancer and a tumor. "This was after I was on a talk show with another lawyer," he explained.

"And then there's this, what do you call it? A noose?" he said, putting down a picture of hangman's rope received on Twitter.

Seebregts represents Bint Fatma and 17 other women detained in Syria in a high-profile court case, out of 22 who are fighting to return to the Netherlands along with their 56 children.

Dutch intelligence officials have warned that the role of women in the Islamic State should not be underestimated and those who chose to remain in the caliphate the longest could be the most dangerous. "These women have been exposed to jihadist ideology and violence for a longer time, and they have built an international jihadist network," a 2017 report said. "It is probable that many of them will retain their jihadist ideas and connections after their return to the Netherlands."

For politicians weighing the potential for political blowback and security officials weighing risks, the challenges are many.

With foreign security officials often unable or unwilling to visit northeast Syria's displacement camps, there has been little chance for them to investigate whether women remain committed to the Islamic State's extremist mission or are repentant or perhaps victims themselves. It is also not entirely clear who's in the camps, run by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces - for instance, how many Dutch women are being held or even who counts as Dutch. Although Bint Fatma was born and raised in the Netherlands, she is not officially a Dutch national because she left the country before she had a chance to claim her citizenship. But her first son, who is now 4 and whose late father was Dutch, is a Dutch citizen.

The children pose an even more daunting issue. More than two-thirds of the 70,000 people held in al-Hol are minors, the vast majority younger than 12. Many are dual nationals, born to parents of different origins.

The Brussels-based Egmont Institute recently estimated that there are at least 90 Dutch children in Syria and Iraq. Intelligence officials put the number with a "Dutch link" at 175.

Dutch advocates for bringing them home point to a May 2018 "long-term safety analysis" by the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security. It noted that half of the children are younger than 4 and failing to retrieve them would pose more of a threat to national security.

"These toddlers and young children are of such a young age that indoctrination has not yet been able to have occurred," said a redacted copy of the analysis seen by The Washington Post. "If a return does not take place, these children may pose a risk later in life."

- - -

By February, the caliphate had withered from a land mass the size of Britain to a hamlet of hastily pitched tents. The U.S.-backed SDF had the place surrounded. Bint Fatma was among the last to leave.

Inside the Syrian village of Baghouz, the fight seemed almost apocalyptic. Explosions shook the earth. Bodies lay where they fell. Across the Euphrates River, Iraqi border guards shot men who tried to escape, and the water ran red with blood.

Bint Fatma said she walked out of the caliphate on Feb. 28, 4 1/2 years after her arrival and the mother of a dead fighter's son. (She would soon learn she was also pregnant with the child of a Syrian fighter, whom she married after her first husband died.) Thousands of women and children had already departed.

Suspected fighters were carted off to prison as their families were trucked to al-Hol 200 miles to the north. By the time Bint Fatma and her young son arrived there, the camp's population had swelled from 10,000 to 55,000, and a humanitarian disaster was brewing. Tents filled up. Aid workers were overwhelmed. Hundreds of infants had died on the nighttime drive to the camp, aid groups said.

By April, more than 9,000 foreign women and children had been segregated behind chain-link fences in a closely guarded patch known as the "annex." Its inhabitants were among the most radical in the camp, officials and the women inside told reporters.

This was Bint Fatma's new home.

As spring ended and summer scorched in, the camp was reaching a boiling point. She spent hours a day crouching in whatever shade she could find, moving with the shrinking shadows as the sun rose high in the sky. Boredom set in, with prayer times the only marker to divide the longest days.

And with the rising heat came anger, then fear. The camp's most hard-line women started policing the behavior of others. Faces must be covered, they said. Gloves worn at all times. Repeat offenders were punished in the nighttime. Tents were burned. An Azerbaijani teenager was strangled by her grandmother for trying to abandon her niqab head covering. There were rumors about a Russian woman last seen when the camp's new enforcers appeared at the door of her tent.

"They left with her," Bint Fatma recalled during the July interview. "Nobody knew where she went."

Back home, public debate over the future of women like her was escalating, yet no Dutch officials visited her, she said. But her lawyer, Seebregts, did. She implored him for help when he came to find her amid the sprawl: "Because I'm so young, I came so young," she recalled telling him.

Acknowledging that she would probably be jailed upon returning to the Netherlands, she saw the prospect of being abandoned in Syria as worse, especially because of her son. "He finds it normal to see weapons, to hear shots in the morning," she said, as the anxious boy tried to wrap himself inside the folds of her robe.

"What are they going to do with us?"

- - -

Turkey's invasion of northern Syria in early October, targeting rival Kurdish forces, sent sudden shudders through the camp. As Turkish-backed militias advanced, foreign aid groups pulled out of al-Hol and other camps, fearing for their safety. Soldiers from the Kurdish-led SDF abandoned nearby checkpoints to fight on the battlefront.

Inside al-Hol, the rumor mill was going crazy. Some women told Bint Fatma that their food market was about to close, she said. Others spoke of new advances by Syrian government forces, which were seeking to recapture territory lost during the country's long civil war, and warned anyone who would listen that imprisoned husbands would be killed and women probably raped.

"I am very scared," Bint Fatma said in an interview last month. She added, "If our country doesn't take us back, we will try to do everything to escape from this camp, even if we need to walk through the desert."

Attempts to break out of the detention camps had soared, guards said, with an increasing number of women slipping out through the flimsy wire fences when night fell. Two Dutch women held in the nearby Ain Issa camp managed to flee, crossing into Turkey and making their way to the Dutch Embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, in hopes of being taken back.

In the Netherlands, the government cabinet and security services were resisting efforts to repatriate anyone with suspected Islamic State links or their children. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who said in 2015 that he would prefer Dutch Islamic State members "die in the desert" rather than return, remained adamantly opposed. There was more sympathy in the parliament and public, but opponents were still the majority. A poll showed that 60% of Dutch citizens rejected bringing back even children under 6.

"It's an emotional debate," said Marion van San, a researcher at Rotterdam's Erasmus University who wrote a book on Dutch and Belgian Islamic State families. From her contact with women in the camps, she estimated that only about 10% have shunned the Islamic State's ideology.

"But even then, you cannot punish a child when the mother is still supporting ISIS," she said. "You cannot say you're not allowed to come back to Holland. Then you punish them again for what their mothers do or what their mothers think."

Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a parliamentarian from the Democrats 66 party, acknowledged that people like Bint Fatma had rejected much of what the Netherlands believes it stands for.

"These are people who committed horrible, perhaps the worst crimes you can commit as a human being," he said in an interview. But he continued, "There's another scenario that will be deeply, deeply unpopular in the Netherlands. And that is these people returning under the radar to Europe and to the Netherlands and committing terrorist acts on our soil."

The case against women and children would be stronger if women weren't slipping back anyway, he said. "There's a clear need for us to take these people back here to at least know where they are, to have them in detention and to get them tried," he said.

- - -

In mid-November, a Dutch judge ruled in the case brought by Bint Fatma's lawyer that the Netherlands had to do everything it could to bring the children home. That meant repatriating the women, too, if that's what it took to bring back the children.

"The children cannot be held responsible for the actions of their parents, however serious these may be," the court said. "The children are victims of their parents."

The statement added that the women "were aware of the crimes being committed by [the Islamic State] and must be tried."

The victory was short-lived. The Dutch government appealed, and within weeks, the decision was overturned. The higher court accepted the government's argument that the decision about whether to repatriate the women and children should be a political one and that judges should not make foreign or diplomatic policy.

For Seebregts, it was an unexpected reversal.

"What our argument boils down to is that if there is a threat of serious harm to fundamental human rights of Dutch citizens, then the Dutch government is obligated to do everything it can to stop that," he said. "The Dutch authorities in this case can do that relatively easily. And it can only be done one way: by taking the women and the children out of that situation that they are in."

Seebregts is now mounting an appeal to the Dutch supreme court. He has asked for the decision to be expedited given the urgent situation in the camps, and he said he hopes for a ruling by next month.

In his hate mail is a note that reads: "If there is an attack in the Netherlands by that scum that you're trying to get here and the blood is on your hands. Remember that."

He says his conscience is clear.

"I really hope it doesn't happen, but the way I feel is that from a national security perspective, this is the safest thing we can do," he said. "This is not just the opinion of some fringe lawyers."

- - -

In al-Hol, Bint Fatma's contractions had started. The pain shook her body in bursts; she was terrified. During the birth of her first child, she had lost a lot of blood, and in this small tent in the desert, a repeat experience could mean losing the new one - or worse.

There was no medication, she said. A friend covered her mattress with a plastic sheet. If the tent had been larger, Bint Fatma would have walked up and down, she recounted during an interview earlier this month. Instead, she gripped one of the poles so tightly that she almost brought the whole structure down on their heads. Her infant son was born after six hours.

Bint Fatma was exhausted; the 4-year-old couldn't wait to tell people. Once the baby was washed and wrapped up tight, his brother came in to kiss him, a tender moment as the family's situation seemed worse than ever.

Clutching the newborn tight during the interview, Bint Fatma was exhausted. "I just hope that Holland takes us back, I'm so done," she said. "I'm so finished."

She has started to explain to her older son that their homecoming might result in her arrest. He understands, she says, but also wants to meet his grandmother and to jump in the hometown swimming pool that his mother has described in bedtime stories.

With winter setting in, Bint Fatma can sometimes see their breath rising in the night. The infant is sick. The older boy speaks little and is only now learning Quranic Arabic in another woman's tent.

In the words he can manage, he tells her: "Mama, I want to go to Grandma. I want to go now.

"Let the airplane come?"



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