A Belgian judge has issued an order for the repatriation of half a dozen children and their Belgian mothers from a Kurdish-controlled camp in northeast Syria.
The children are all under the age of 6. They and their mothers, Tatiana Wielandt and Bouchra Abouallal, both in their mid-twenties, have been held in the al-Hol camp, one of several housing about 584 jihadi brides and 1,250 children, the offspring of Islamic State fathers, most of them foreign fighters.
Like other European countries, Belgium has been reluctant to take back foreign fighters or their captured wives and children. A small number have been repatriated to their countries of origin, but hundreds are awaiting political or legal resolution of their cases as their appeals for repatriation have been ignored. There's little sympathy for the plight of the women and their children back in their home countries, where governments fear the women and their offspring could become security risks.
The ruling Wednesday is restricted only to the two mothers and their children, but it is likely to trigger more cases both in Belgium and in the courts in other European states, say legal analysts. An estimated 160 children of Belgian origin are currently in Kurdish-controlled camps.
The decision overturned the ruling of a lower court rejecting a repatriation plea lodged by the two women. The Flemish-speaking Court of First Instance in Brussels ordered Belgium's government to take "all necessary and possible measures" to return them. The order gave the state 40 days to comply or face fines of $5,715 per day per child.
"They have no freedom of movement," Anouk Devenyns, a court spokeswoman and magistrate, told AFP. Belgian officials say they are considering an appeal. As a proportion of its population, Belgium was one of the main sources of Europeans traveling to fight for Islamist militant groups in Syria and Iraq.
At least 400 Belgian adults have left to join Islamic State or al-Qaida since 2013.
Rights groups say most of the women who left Europe to join the militant groups should be seen as victims rather than criminals, arguing that many were misguided or manipulated by men or recruiters. Some were teenagers when they traveled to Syria.
Belgian national Kasandra Bodagh moved to Syria to live under Islamic State. Bodagh told a Kurdish news outlet in September that she made a mistake joining her Belgian husband in Syria. She soon wanted to leave the caliphate, she claimed, but her husband, who was a bomb maker, wouldn't let her go. In quick succession, she married three IS fighters, all of whom died on the battlefield.
"I have left IS now and demand my country come and take me," she told the Rudaw news outlet. "I want to tell my country that I have made a mistake. I want my country to help me and come to take me [home]. I do not want my country to do nothing. I want my country to come and take me."
Using an Arab acronym for IS, she added, "We escaped from Daesh so that countries would take us. Previously, the coalition would drop papers [from the air] in Daesh territories, telling people, 'If you escape Daesh, we will help you.' Now we have escaped Daesh for about a year, but we are still staying here. A promise has to be kept."
U.S. troop withdrawal
U.S. President Donald Trump's abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of American ground troops from northern Syria has focused increased attention on what will happen to an estimated 800 captured IS foreign fighters and to the hundreds of wives and children.
A critical question is whether Kurdish forces will be able to keep control of them. Kurdish officials have warned French President Emmanuel Macron's representative to Syria, Francois Senemand, that if Turkey attacks them, as it has pledged, it would create a chaotic situation in which they might not be able to spare the guards to make sure IS detainees are secure.
The IS prisoners include two Britons accused of being members of the so-called "Beatles" murder cell, responsible for the torture and beheading of Western journalists and aid workers, including American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
'Ticking time bombs'
French and other European officials have said for more than a year that they won't accept the repatriation of IS foreign fighters or their wives, despite appeals by the Kurds and the Trump administration. European officials say they represent security risks and that there would be technical and legal difficulties in prosecuting them. Repatriated foreign fighters and their wives would try to use the courts for propaganda purposes, if prosecutions were mounted, they fear.
"Prosecutions are going to be difficult because the collection of evidence may well be impossible to secure on the battlefields," said a French diplomat, who has been involved in high-level discussions on the issue with U.S. and European counterparts.
French citizens are estimated to be among the biggest contingent of overseas fighters who joined the Islamic State terror group and other jihadist factions in the Levant. More than 300 French jihadists are thought to have died fighting in Syria or Iraq, leaving an estimated 500 to 600 unaccounted for or detained mainly in Syria by the Kurds.
Earlier this year, the then-head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency warned the country is facing grave risks from "kindergarten jihadists." In a media interview, Hans-Georg Maassen said he was alarmed at the risks posed by returning IS women and their children, whom he claimed posed a "massive danger" to the country.
He described the children of jihadist parents as "ticking time bombs." An estimated 1,000 German recruits joined IS. Only a handful of the 290 children and toddlers who left Germany with IS parents — or who were born in Syria or Iraq — have returned to Germany.