Saskatoon

Sask. expert urges Canada to bring the women and children of ISIS home

Joana Cook, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in U.K., argues for a case-by-case approach to dealing with women and children who want to flee the Islamic State and return to Canada.

'Each of their stories and situations is unique,' says Joana Cook

Conflict between between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS militants has prompted civilizans to flee. Some women and children of ISIS are now asking to return to their home nations. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

In this era of unforgiving political and public discourse, an expert who studied at the University of Regina is calling for a measured, case-by-case approach to dealing with women and children who want to flee the now-crumbling Islamic State and return home to Canada.

We don't necessarily know if these women may pose a threat.- Joana Cook

"Each of their stories and situations is unique," said Joana Cook.

An expert in women and counter-terrorism, Cook began her academic career in Regina and is now a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, U.K.

Cook told CBC Saskatchewan that some 4,700 women from 80 countries, including Canada, have been estimated to have joined ISIS, representing 10 per cent of all people who have travelled there to join the group.

"We think this is a vast underestimation because half the countries in the world haven't even accounted for women who traveled over there," she said.

Joana Cook, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, joins host Stefani Langenegger to talk about the women who joined ISIS from Canada. 8:20

Escape from ISIS

At its height, the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate took large swaths of land by force across two countries, becoming a de facto government to millions of people. Now ISIS has lost that power and people are desperately fleeing its final enclave in eastern Syria.

Western nations are now faced with the very complex question of whether citizens who left to join the Islamic State should now be welcomed home.

Cook said that would include more than a dozen Canadian women.  

"We know that for a number of women that went out some of them may still be ideologically motivated and supportive of ISIS," she said.

Joana Cook is a senior research fellow with the International Centre for Radicalization. (Ivan Seifert/Submitted)

But Cook argues that is not the case for all of them. Many, she said, have become disillusioned after years of living in a harsh, dangerous war zone under the control of the strict patriarchy of ISIS. It's why she is urging Western nations to avoid a blanket response and carefully review each case.   

"So we really have to be clear about what motivated them to go over there, what their roles were over there, and what motivation they have to come back," Cook said.

"We don't necessarily know if these women may pose a threat. We haven't yet seen any cases around the world where women have been involved in attacks, or have tried to perpetrate attacks, who have been returning from Iraq and Syria." 

A man loyal to ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. ISIS no longer controls vast regions and is devolving from de facto state to insurgency. (Reuters)

Jihadist cubs

Further complicating the issue for Cook, and for countries who must now decide whether repatriation is possible, is that many women who joined ISIS either took young children with them or gave birth while there.

We really have to prioritize bringing them back rehabilitating them and giving them a real shot at life.- Joana Cook 

"We did see many of them with this perceived role of raising the next generation of jihadist cubs, this is how they referred to children," Cook said.

As alarming as that might sound, Cook said that the public and governments should not forget these are children who made no conscious choice.

"These children are all victims, you know a lot of them had no say in being born into this organization or being exposed to this kind of violence. And we really have to prioritize bringing them back rehabilitating them and giving them a real shot at life," she said.

Cook is now watching closely as ISIS crumbles and transforms from its former status as a powerful yet illegitimate state to a smaller yet highly-motivated insurgency. She argued that citizens now looking to return to home nations like Canada might best be allowed to return, not only for their sake, but for the safety of all.   

"From a pragmatic perspective, by bringing them back, we are better able to do things like investigate them, prosecute them, de-radicalize them, and potentially even reintegrate [them]," she said.

"When we leave them over there what happens next to them is very unclear."

Cook's worst-case scenario is that the women and children of ISIS are left to fend for themselves and serve as the foundation for future terrorism and global security challenges.    

Corrections

  • This article originally stated some 40,000 women from 80 countries, including Canada, had joined ISIS. The researcher in fact said the estimate is 4,700 women.
    Mar 08, 2019 6:33 AM CT

with files from The Morning Edition and Saskatoon Morning

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