It Ain’t Over Til’ it’s Over–Key States Must Implement Rehabilitation Policy on for Third Party Refugees of the Islamic State Now
Kimberly Imri Metcalf
US backed forces announced victory over the Islamic State after defeating the extremist organization and once self-proclaimed caliphate in the Eastern Syrian city of Baghouz. The BBC reported this weekend that the final battle is won and the Islamic State no longer holds any remaining territory in Syria. This news comes four years after the Islamic State seized control of massive swaths of land across Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014. By limited resources and policy that was constructed as it was being implemented, the US supported a coalition of Syrian forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF and their anti-Islamic State coalition liberated Kobane and Manbij in 2016, and then moved onto to Raqqa in 2017, and finally Baghouz in 2019 beating the Islamic State into a corner of Syria. Despite this massive military accomplishment and territorial success, the heartbeat behind the ideology isn’t dead, in fact it might be growing stronger.
In a sense, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is not dead - he is only 4-years-old. In this life, he was born in Raqqa; the son of a French mother and dead Tunisian father, he is surrounded with hundreds of children suffering from the same stateless, malnourished, and hopeless fate. Just as old fortress of al-Jafr was the place troublesome Jordanian men, to include Zarqawi, went to be forgotten, the camps of Northeast Syria are the place where their sons aren’t ever given a chance.
It does not require a PhD or independent research by a third-party to reach a conclusion that the IDP camps of Northeast Syria are an underserviced incubator for future jihadists. With no mechanism for reform or reintegration, this as become a serious counterterrorism issue that demands the consideration of legislatures and policy-makers alike.
On March 13th, BBC reporter Jewan Abdi released a report on the defiant faces of women of the caliphate and his observations in the last remaining stronghold of Baghuz. Jewan reported that women and children were hungry - and angry - as they evacuated from Baghuz and he added “the final territory under IS's control may be on its last legs in Syria, but the ideology remains strong among those who have left.”
In addition to ideology which remains fervent and committed, the conditions of the IDPs (Islamic State associated or not) are deplorable. The Al Hol camp has reached capacity, Jewan shared that the UN released a statement that the camp was designed to “accommodate 20,000 people but the UN says conditions there are dire as the numbers have risen to more than 66,000.”
While the UN’s third Brussels Conference fostered a pledge of $6.97 billion, the reality is that money is targeted at the larger IDP camps in Jordan and Turkey. Further, because of pressure from the Syrian Regime, provision of aid to the northeast section of the country is extremely difficult.
There is no comprehensive plan to justly deal with third state refugees in Syria. Some of these people are women who could be rehabilitated, and some are children who were born into the Islamic State without a choice, too young to keep detained forever and who eventually will become young adults.
There are a multitude of countries that these people would perhaps return to, but the policies or lack of policies waiting for them are not inviting. The idea of rehabilitation and strong counter violent extremism (CVE) policy is a rarity. If refugees, especially third country refugees from the Islamic State, don’t receive proper psychological and social support the positive and vicious cycle of extremism will grow as the mistreatment of third country refugees will ferment in their minds. Not only will the refugees from Al Hol be affected, but also in the potential refugees returning to Europe and other countries accessible from Syria through Turkey - and other vulnerable populations who hear the stories of separation of families and harsh punitive responses.
The better option is rehabilitation through comprehensive domestic CVE programming - (1) Take the fighters and the families back, (2) Place the adults on trial for their alleged activities (3) Discern guilt or innocence (4) Develop and implement appropriate rehabilitation for those who demonstrate remorse and who’s activities do not warrant incarceration. Repatriation and rehabilitation would be strategic demonstrations of positive alternatives to violent extremism (the beheadings, the burning people alive, the rapes) that the Islamic State committed for years. A life within the fold of their home countries would be the greatest strategic communications victory against Islamic extremism the world as ever seen. There is still hope for integrating the wives and children of the Islamic State back into society, there is still an opportunity to provide them with an education and resources with benefits that outweigh a life of extremism.
I don’t want to live in a world full of suicide bombers and civilian casualties from air strikes forever. I call upon European, Middle Eastern, Central Asian states and the US to create a comprehensive policy and strategy that brings people home and give them access to rehabilitation programming.
Let’s not allow extremism to be the norm. Let us take our citizens back from the Islamic State and provide them with alternatives - and if we do this correctly – the provision of inclusive governance will be the only CVE policy we need.
I know we physically broke the Islamic State and demolished their physical state. I lived in Kobane for three months and I worked in Manbij following the liberation. I know what territorial defeat looks like and this has been accomplished. Unfortunately, defeating the ideology will be much harder and defeating the ideology without a comprehensive policy for third party refugees will be impossible.