This article was first published in the CTC Sentinel, July 2019, Volume 12, Issue 6.
The Islamic State has lost its final territory in Syria, but the international community now faces an array of complex and difficult challenges, in particular those related to the up to 52,808 foreigners now recorded by the authors with the group including up to 6,902 foreign women and up to 6,577 foreign minors. Of unique concern are the minors born to parents in the ‘caliphate’ established by the Islamic State who represent up to 60 percent of total minors currently accounted for in countries with strong data on this issue. Returning home to varied state responses, up to eight percent of the up to 8,202 returnees are now recorded as women, and up to 20 percent minors. Thousands more remain in limbo in the region, however, and significant gaps in the data leave this picture incomplete.
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) and minors 12 percent (4,640) of the total 41,490 foreign persons who were recorded to have travelled to, or were born inside, Islamic State territory. 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 theatre, highlighting the potential scale and long‑term implications of this matter. 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, 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.
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, this article compiles the most recent figures for Islamic State‑affiliated travellers, 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.
This feature was written by Joana Cook and Gina Vale.