Babies of ISIS languish in limbo, prison

Hundreds of children fathered by ISIS foreign fighters or brought to the self-proclaimed caliphate by their parents are now imprisoned or in limbo with nowhere to go, collateral victims as the militant group retreats and home countries hesitate to take them back.

Hundreds of children fathered by ISIS foreign fighters are stuck between worlds

Faouzi Trabelsi shows a photo of himself posing with his grandson, Tamim Jaboudi, who has been trapped in a prison in Libya since his parents died in an American airstrike in February 2016. (Ons Abid/Associated Press)

He is an orphan of ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate, a Tunisian toddler who is now caught in diplomatic limbo and has been stuck in a Libyan prison for a year.

Tamim Jaboudi's grandfather has managed to visit the child twice in the prison in Tripoli, delivering a winter jacket and as much familial warmth as he can manage in the brief meetings.

But Tamim barely knows him, and by now can hardly remember his parents — a Tunisian couple who left their homeland to join ISIS and were killed last year in an American airstrike, according to the grandfather, Faouzi Trabelsi.

In Tripoli, Libya, on Wednesday, two-year-old Tamim Jaboudi awaits a Tunisian government delegation that was turned away after trying to bring him home from a Libyan prison. (Special Deterrent Force via The Associated Press)

Living among a group of around two dozen Tunisian women and their young children imprisoned in Tripoli's Mitiga prison, Tamim is being raised by a woman who herself willingly joined ISIS, according to his grandfather and human rights groups.

"What is this young child's sin that he is in jail with criminals?" asked Trabelsi, who has now twice returned home to Tunisia without his grandson. "If he grows up there, what kind of attitude will he have toward his homeland?"

European governments and experts have documented at least 600 foreign children of fighters who live in or have returned from ISIS territory in Syria, Iraq or Libya. But the numbers are likely far higher.

Chaos in Libya

In Libya, the fate of 44 Tunisian children is particularly uncertain. The North African nation descended into chaos after the 2011 civil war and has been split into competing governments with numerous militias, tribes and political factions.

In December, militias captured the main ISIS stronghold in Libya, Sirte.

Both Tunisia and Libya say they want the return of the women and children, but for months any effort to hand them over has fallen apart with little explanation. That has raised complaints in Tunisia that the government does not want them back over security concerns.

But while it says it want to hand over the families, the militia running Mitiga prison has tightly controlled access to them, saying the Tunisians need permissions from the office of Tripoli's top prosecutor.

There is no wrong in being born in a conflict zone.- Chafik Hajji, Tunisian diplomat

Part of the problem also appears to be that Tunisian officials are reluctant to deal directly with the militia, since it isn't a government body.

On Wednesday, a Tunisia delegation was in Tripoli and was supposed to come to the prison, but the visit was cancelled at the last minute, and the delegation returned home empty-handed.

Tunisia is willing to take them, said Chafik Hajji, a Tunisian diplomat who handles the cases of Tunisians who have joined the extremists.

"There is no wrong in being born in a conflict zone," he said. "Once their Tunisian citizenship is confirmed, they will have an individual treatment."

Tamim's grandfather Trabelsi spoke with The Associated Press in his spotlessly clean living room in Tunis.

Outside, the neighbourhood was rough at the edges, its streets pitted with neglect. Around the corner, adolescent boys brawled as a crowd circled around to watch.

Both of Tamim's parents were Tunisians who left home to join ISIS. The boy is among hundreds of children of ISIS foreign fighters in limbo, despite his grandfather's efforts to free him. (Ons Abid/Associated Press)

He said his daughter Samah married a young man from the neighbourhood after a quick courtship, and then the newlyweds left for Turkey, a common jumping-off point for Europeans and North Africans joining extremist groups.

Tamim was born there in April 2014. The couple returned to Tunisia briefly, then went to neighbouring Libya, where they remained for two years, he said.

If we don't save them, they will be a new generation of terrorism.- Mohammed Iqbel, Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad

ISIS paid particular attention to recruiting families, boasting it would build a society to endure for generations.

"In the long term, there is the new generation of ISIS," said Mohammed Iqbel, whose Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad advocates for the families of those who have left. "And if we don't save them, they will be a new generation of terrorism."

Researcher Nikita Malik, of London-based think-tank Quilliam, said 80 British children were inside Islamic State territory. France estimated 450 children are within ISIS territory, including around 60 who were born there; Dutch and Belgian intelligence each offered an estimate of 80 of their own children.

Training begins at 9

In the Netherlands, anyone older than nine is labelled a "jihadi traveller" and considered a potential security threat — nine is the age at which ISIS extremists formally begin teaching boys to kill.

Tamim's mother made it out once, Trabelsi said, but she was demoralized by what he described as harassment from Tunisian intelligence agents.

She left the second time without warning, Trabelsi said, taking all her documents and nearly all the family photos. He scrounged up a photocopy of her ID card, which shows a veiled young woman gazing directly at the camera.

"When she called me she didn't give me any information, neither where they were living nor what they were doing," Trabelsi said. "Her husband told her to be quiet and not to tell us anything."

The couple was among at least 40 dead in a U.S. airstrike on an ISIS training camp in the city of Sabratha in February 2016.

The Pentagon at the time said the target was Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian who was suspected of involvement in the 2015 attack on Tunis' Bardo Museum in which 22 people died.

Tamim survived and was taken with the group of Tunisian women and children, including Chouchane's wife, to the airbase prison. Word filtered back to his grandfather, who began pressing for the child's return.

They told me they bring him out to play and see other children. But he should be allowed back. He is in a prison.-Faouzi Trabelsi, grandfather of imprisoned boy

A low point came when Trabelsi was permitted to take Tamim outside the prison and sit with him in a car. He wondered, he said, if he should just drive away with the child, who by now was closer to the prison warden than to his own grandfather.

Despite daily commercial round-trip flights from Tunis, the boy has not been allowed to return to his family.

"He is clean, he is in good shape. They told me they bring him out to play and see other children," Trabelsi said. "But he should be allowed back. He is in a prison."