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IS women 'potential threat' to home countries, report warns

Soufan group says a third of people who joined IS were women and children, and their return to home presents security risks
An IS video of children from its 'young lions' division (screengrab)

Countries across the world are struggling to cope as an influx of women and children from Islamic State territory return to their country of origin, a new report says, and warns that some among them present a security risk.

Beyond the Caliphate: The threat from returnees by the New York-based Soufan group estimates that 5,600 citizens or residents from 33 countries have returned home, where they present a challenge to security and law enforcement.

For some countries, a third of those who returned were women and children. While the central role of women members of IS has been domestic, some have been deployed on the battlefield, the report says.

The report warns that governments should be aware that women have been used as suicide attackers - and refers to a July film showing a woman killing herself and her child in a suicide attack in Mosul.

Women have also acted as recruiters, the report says, and urges governments to be aware that female involvement in IS-related plots across Europe is on the rise.

However, the report acknowledges that some women may have been tricked or coerced by their husbands into travelling to Syria, but that most will have gone there willingly.

Governments will need to assess returning women on a case-by-case basis, said Richard Barrett, the report author and a former director of global counter-terrorism operations at MI6.

“Some will be committed members of IS and quite possibly potential terrorists in their own countries while others will not.

“Some will be committed members of IS and quite possibly potential terrorists in their own countries while others will not.”

Richard Barrett, report author

“The authorities in the countries they end up in will therefore have to make a careful assessment on a case by case basis to assess the risk that each one represents.

“I would hope that security and law enforcement agencies will get better and better at doing this, but it will take time, and mistakes may be made along the way.”

The report comes a day after a British government minister who suggested that British IS fighters could be killed by British forces on the battlefield, found support from the former head of a British intelligence agency.

Anyone over 15 is an adult

The report estimates that of the 1,910 French citizens that travelled to join IS, 320 were women and 179 were children, while of the 850 British citizens who travelled to Syria, 100 were women and 50 were children.

In Kazakhstan, more than 200 women and children travelled to Syria out of a total of 500.

IS regarded anyone over 15 as an adult, and according to reports boys as young as nine have been given weapons training and taught to kill.

According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council at the beginning of 2016 in Mosul, IS abducted between 800 and 900 children in Mosul, with those over 10 undergoing military training, and those younger being indoctrinated.

The report suggests that returning children could be put through rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, though it concedes that such programs are hard to design and run.

“Proper mental health and social support mechanisms will be especially relevant in the case of children,” the report says.

The report suggests a rehabilitation centre for children recruited by the Taliban located deep in the Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan, as a model that governments could follow and there is a growing body of research on treating both adults and children returnees from the Caliphate which would make it easier to design programmes.

A “whole of society” response to IS is needed because of the extent that IS challenges society as a whole, the report says.

“It has managed to shake the concepts of immutable borders and national sovereignty on which the international order is founded in a more dramatic and successful way than any preceding insurgent or separatist group.”

“The questions of identity, and the widespread mistrust of government institutions and mainstream politics that IS has managed to exploit are unlikely to go away.”

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