Children of 'Islamic State' struggle to integrate in Germany

With the "Islamic State" on the verge of total defeat in Syria and Iraq, authorities in Germany are debating how to deal with returnees from the terrorist militia. Many of them are children who know nothing but war.

Many women who left Germany to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) married fighters from the terrorist militia and had children. Some were pregnant when they traveled to Iraq or Syria or brought older children along with them.

Now the German public has urged that those who return have their children taken away. But it's not that simple, according to Nora Fritzsche, who specializes in preventing radicalization at the Working Group for the Protection of Children and Youths (AJS) in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "There must be a concrete threat to the child," she said, adding that it's not enough to say the parents are Islamists. "We look at the best interests of the child, not at the parents' beliefs."

Youth aid is in a bind, said Fritzsche. Youth workers often see children grow up in poor conditions, but "state institutions don't have the right to guarantee the best sponsorship of every child, nor even simply a good upbringing." Before youth welfare services remove a child from a family, they explore other options like family counseling and assistance — and only if the families agree.

Youth welfare criteria

Parental delinquency doesn't necessarily mean the child's well-being is endangered. Currently, German courts seem to believe that women who lived with IS cannot necessarily be charged with membership in a terrorist group. Unlike the men, they do not make a pledge of allegiance.

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Focus on Europe | 23.11.2017

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The Federal Prosecutor's office, however, would like to take a tougher stance on these women, arguing they strengthen the terrorist militia from within as wives of IS militants and mothers who raise their kids in line with the group's ideology. The Federal Prosecutor failed once with this position at the Federal Supreme Court. Should that change, it would significantly influence the assessment of a child's well-being.

How many children?

More than 960 people, about 200 of them women, have left Germany since 2012 to join IS in Iraq and Syria, according to the German government. A third have returned, the government says, and that includes about 50 women.

Experts believe that almost every female returnee has at least one child. In response to a parliamentary request, the government says it expects "a low three-digit number of child returnees, most of them babies and toddlers." The actual actual number is not known because Germany's domestic security agency, The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), is prohibited from collecting data on children under 14 years old, and it is unclear how many children the women had during their stay abroad.

Children never had a choice

Just last month, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the BfV, warned of children and adolescents who were socialized and indoctrinated by radical terrorist groups and are returning to Germany from war zones. Some of them, Maassen said, were "brainwashed" in IS schools and are highly radicalized. IS propaganda promotes children as "a new generation of IS fighters, portrayed as ruthless and violent," he said, adding they might be dangerous upon their return and grow up as second-generation jihadists.

Maassen said IS propaganda depicts children as the ruthless and violent new generation of fighters

Thomas Mücke, of the Violence Prevention Network (VPN), disagrees, at least where children are concerned. "I don't think children are really radicalized," he said. "They can accept an ideology but they can't internalize it as it is superimposed."

The children are victims, Mücke argued, adding what is most important is that they can grow up in a healthy environment and have fixtures like their German family and their kindergarten or school. They stand a better chance of leaving their past behind them to a certain point if they grow up in a social environment that doesn't work along an ideology, Mücke said. He also believes it is important the children see a therapist because as a rule they are traumatized by what they experienced.

Society plays a role in how these children develop, Mücke said. "It's certainly not helpful to portray these kids as monsters" with the potential of starting new radical group, he warned. After all, the children never had a choice.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where did it come from?

The "Islamic State" (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh — is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their goal is to create a worldwide "caliphate." It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it operate?

IS is believed to be operational in more than a dozen countries across the world. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its expansion in 2014.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Who is fighting back?

The US leads an international coalition of more than 50 countries, including several Arab nations. Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which all support the Syrian government, also fight IS. Regional forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga (above) and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, fight IS on the ground. The Iraqi army and militia have pushed IS from large parts of the country.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How does it fund itself?

One of IS' main sources of income has been oil and gas. At one point, it controlled an estimated one-third of Syria's oil production. However, US-led airstrikes deliberately targeted oil resources and the Syrian government as well as US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have retaken most oil wells. Other means of income include taxes, ransom, selling looted antiquities and extortion.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it carry out attacks?

IS has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. The militant group has targeted capitals across the EU, including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. IS leaders have encouraged so-called "lone wolf" attacks, whereby individuals who support IS carry out terrorist acts without the direct involvement of the group.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

What other tactics does it use?

The group uses various tactics to expand its power. IS fighters have looted and destroyed historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq in an attempt at "cultural cleansing." The group has also enslaved thousands of women from religious minority groups, including Yazidis. IS also uses a sophisticated social network to distribute propaganda and recruit sympathizers.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How has it impacted the region?

IS has further exacerbated the ongoing Syrian conflict. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled their homes, many traveling to Europe in pursuit of refuge. Although it has lost all of its strongholds, the militant group has left extraordinary destruction in its wake. Areas affected by the militant group's rule will likely take years to rebuild.