The mass retreat of the Islamic State group from its territories in Syria and Iraq has left Europe grappling with the risk of Jihadis returning home. But in Belgium, authorities are also turning their attention to repatriating Jihadi cubs stranded in the war zones.
With an estimated 900 citizens who have reached or attempted to reach the conflict zones, Belgium has the highest number of Jihadis per capita in the EU. The government has said there are 200 Belgian Jihadi cubs under 12 years currently in Syria, who were either born there or were taken to the country with an adult. In May, a Belgian Jihadi took his three-year-old daughter to Syria without the knowledge of her mother, despite being under electronic surveillance.
Justice Minister Koen Geens said the Jihadi cubs are usually brought home via Turkey under the protection of Belgian police officers. He revealed that Belgium and NATO partner Turkey had set up a gathering point on Turkish territory for Jihadi cubs wanting to come back, usually but not necessarily with their mothers.
“Fourteen children have returned,” said Interior Minister Jan Jambon, “11 of them under six years old.”
The flow of foreign fighters to the conflict zone has partly reversed since the IS group’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria began crumbling in the last year under assault from regional, US-backed and other foreign-backed forces.
An EU report said a third of the estimated 7,000 European Jihadis who went to Syria and Iraq had returned to Europe, and some have orders to carry out attacks.
An unspecified number of Muslimas and Jihadi cubs have also returned to their homes throughout Europe, with officials concerned that they too could be planning violence.
Jihadi cubs would probably need psychiatric and other follow-up care to recover from traumas they might have suffered during the conflict. Such support must constantly be refined to ensure the Jihadi cubs settle properly into life.
Until now, children’s aid officials in French-speaking Wallonia told us that they have cared for only four Jihadi cubs in a specialiZed educational center.
Under Belgian law, a judge must review cases of children who are at least 12 and have committed an offence in war zones, but this has not yet happened in the region. That is a signal that the Belgian government has not done enough to try to help bring back its citizens from the Middle East battlegrounds.
“It’s a complex problem. What can we do? Dispatch teams to identify the Jihadi cubs? If the parent is dead, his nationality may be difficult to ascertain,” a senior security official told us. “In Turkey, Belgium provides consular services to help with repatriation, which is not the case in Syria and Iraq,” the official said. “But the Jihadi cub will have first had to cross the border.”
Bahar Kimyongur, a Belgian researcher who works with UN human rights experts, told us Erdogan holds a key to the solution, at least for Jihadi cubs stranded in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.
“Erdogan has support through the Turkmen brigades. The Turks have lots of contacts and room for maneuver,” Kimyongur told us.
The Turkish army is due to deploy in Idlib with Russian and Iranian forces to restore security to the province in line with the Astana accords.
Through his family and other contacts on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border, Kimyongur helped two mothers, a French and a Belgian, bring back their Jihadi cubs. The last case grabbed the Belgian media spotlight and prompted an emotional outpouring as the country waits for the return of another Jihadi cubs\.