“We are being forced to have sex with the ISIS women, to impregnate them,” Ahmet, 13, and Hamid, 14, told a guard at Camp al Hol in northeast Syria, according to Syrian Defense Force officials. “Can you get us out of here?”
Camp al Hol is one of the detention centers housing approximately 8,000 foreign ISIS-affiliated women and children who surrendered or were captured as a result of the 2019 territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State.
While some of these women want nothing more to do with ISIS, others continue in their violent dedication to the Caliphate—insisting on carrying on ISIS’s distorted Islamic dictates, punishing women who renounce ISIS—and working hard to indoctrinate children whose countries continue to refuse to repatriate them. Some of these ISIS diehard women have refused voluntary repatriation, with their countries of origin allowing them to also refuse repatriation for their children.
Housing boys who reach puberty can be difficult in the camps, and some were being transferred to detention facilities. Under a new policy, the boys will now be transferred to rehabilitation centers.
Now that rehabilitation centers have been established for ISIS boys, their pro-ISIS mothers beg and successfully raise money over apps like Telegram to preemptively smuggle their sons out of the camp and into the hands of terrorists.
Ahmet and Hamid told the staff at the newly opened Orkesh rehab center that they were subject to sexual exploitation by a group of ISIS women. Center staff told The Daily Beast that one of the boys said he was forced to have sex with eight ISIS women in just a few days.
Officials said the ISIS women in Camp al Hol told the teens they wanted to get pregnant to increase the population of the Islamic State, which they believe is going to be reinstated when fighters come and break them out of the camps. A camp guard said at least 10 boys at al Hol were involved, some only located and rescued when the SDF went into the camp and found them hidden by the women in underground tunnels.
No one knows the exact number of pregnancies in the camps but the SDF intelligence who monitor the camps say there are many. These should not be possible given that the ISIS men are held separately. Some pregnancies may have been the result of illicit relationships with guards, despite safeguards in place to make sure that doesn’t happen, but officials say the boys are clearly being exploited by ISIS women.
Some of the ISIS women in Camp al Hol hide this practice by giving birth without the help of the camp’s official doctors, aided by detainees who are also doctors and nurses.
Security forces and camp authorities in al Roj camp also confirmed to The Daily Beast that the same issue has occurred in their camp, although fewer pregnancies resulted there. One boy in Camp al Roj subjected to such exploitation ended up in the hospital collapsing after being given a Viagra-like substance to make him perform. Some mothers in the Roj camp, wanting to protect their sons from these women, begged the camp authorities to take their sons to rehabilitation centers.
So far, the SDF and Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES) has worked hard to keep surrendered and captured ISIS-affiliated families together. But as these boys age into puberty and beyond, the AANES and SDF are taking steps to protect them from sexual predation and abuse. They also hope to disrupt the gangs of violent boys who are organized by their pro-ISIS mothers to burn tents, patrol, harass women in the camps, and keep them from disrupting NGO efforts to de-radicalize the others.
“The boys are definitely not for sale.”
Ahmet and Hamid were transferred to Orkesh, the new rehabilitation center where I am a consultant. The boys there on my visit could be seen playing football under sunny skies, taking lessons and participating in group counseling sessions. They are all housed in clean rooms with bunk beds which compare favorably to the crowded and unhealthy prisons or camps they came from.
They can relax in a games room filled with four foosball tables and are offered educational lessons. They also undergo counseling aimed at teaching them how to deal with their traumatic pasts and emotional distress in prosocial ways—while redirecting them to futures that no longer include ISIS’s virulent ideology, activities all aimed at eventual repatriation and reintegration into society.
“We don’t dig deep in the beginning. We want to give them time and not get in over our heads in dealing with such traumas,” Ahmet’s and Hamid’s counselor said.
These are difficult issues, and moving the boys to safe, predictable and nurturing routines—coupled with the opportunity to work through their traumatic pasts—is intended to help them heal.
All of the adolescent boys who end up in these rehabilitation centers were taken from their ISIS mothers in order to protect them. Yet a recent UN report severely criticizes the AANES and SDF for their actions, stating, “We are extremely concerned that serious harm may befall these boys and fear they may be forcibly disappeared and subject to sale, exploitation and abuse, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.” The camp director said the boys were, in every case, officially transferred from the camp authority to the justice and reforming authorities of the AANES. They were then to be moved into the rehabilitation center, according to the director, adding that “the boys are definitely not for sale.”
Supporters of the removal policy say sexual exploitation, abuse, radicalization, and disappearance is exactly what has been happening to some of these boys in the camps when their ISIS mothers successfully smuggle them out to terrorist groups eager to receive them.
The UN report also complained that the SDF removed these boys at night from their mothers, although Western police sometimes do the same when removing children from dangerous family situations. Police typically arrive with social workers and removals occur with no advance notice given and at night, if necessary, because advance notice only places the child in further danger, sometimes even of being killed.
In the camp, authorities state that the women were told ahead of time why and to where their sons would be taken and were asked to voluntarily surrender them. Only four complied. The rest were taken forcibly, although all the mothers were able to say goodbye and have had supervised telephone contact with their sons since removal.
“Victims of terrorism”
In the United States, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) sets out the legal framework for the protection of children from abuse and neglect, requiring states to have laws in place that allow for the removal of children from their homes. Similarly, the EU has adopted a number of directives and regulations that address the protection of children, including the EU directive on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, and the EU directive on the rights of the child. Syria also has laws allowing for removal of children from abusive and criminal home environments as does the AANES.
Likewise, UNHCR guidelines emphasize the importance of family unity and the best interests of the child. However, there are certainly situations in which it is deemed necessary to separate a child from their mother—for instance if she is suspected of having committed serious crimes or is a threat to the child’s safety. In such cases, the UNHCR recommends that authorities should take steps to ensure that the child is placed in a safe and appropriate environment, and that their rights and well-being are protected.
While the UN report roundly criticized the SDF for removing these boys from their mothers in the camps, the AANES authorities state that they are doing their best to protect everyone. “The doors are wide open to all countries who wish to come and take their youth,” an official said.
The al Roj administration also points to the rape of a girl in the camp by one of the youths, and other evidence that these pubescent males are acting as predators on younger boys, as well as their own exploitation by the ISIS women. While Western statutes and policies restrict the imprisonment of minors—and it is generally recognized that the detention of children with their parents can have negative impacts on the physical, mental, and social well-being of the children—the SDF and AANES are facing this impossible situation of housing ISIS-affiliated children with their mothers. Likewise, despite UN criticisms, most UN member states have offered no alternative to consigning these children to the camps run by the AANES, which struggles to make the best resolutions under these extremely difficult circumstances.
The UN report warns that, if they are removed, the boys “are likely to be placed in male prisons or other detention facilities,” but there is no basis for that claim. The reality is that the boys are being housed in a rehabilitation center where they will be protected from the dangerous conditions in the camp, to receive psychotherapy and support in a secure environment until their countries decide to repatriate them. If their home countries do not act, these adolescents could in fact age into adult detention centers, something the AANES wishes to avoid.
The UN report correctly points out, “Most of these boys have been detained since they were seven years old. They are victims of terrorism and deserve the protection of international human rights and humanitarian law.”