ISIS widows and orphans − an existence without a future

In the past few months the Islamic State lost its last territories in Iraq and Syria. Several small enclaves of remaining Jihadi fighters are still there, as well as the Salafi-Jihadi ideology that gave legitimacy to the organization’s existence. And there are also ISIS fighters’ wives and children who have nowhere to go.

Most of the IS fighters are either dead or jailed. Many of them are missing or have moved to other locations in the world, in order to continue the fight against the West or other enemies that pose a threat to the Islamic society according to the laws of Sharia. IS enclaves are thriving in Afghanistan, Africa, Chechnya and even the Philippines. Others went back to their homelands, sometimes crossing borders with fake passports. But the women and children were mostly left behind.

The case of Shamima Begum, a British Muslim, who ran away from her home in London to join the IS in Syria, became widely known a couple of months ago, after Shamima filed a request for her lost British citizenship. She explained that she was pregnant and wished to give birth to her child in Britain rather than in a refugee camp in Syria. Begum claimed that her other babies died a couple of days after their births, due to the horrific hygienic conditions in the camp, where she was detained as an ISIS affiliated individual.

The UK authorities denied Shamima Begum’s request, because Shamima had the right to obtain Bangladeshi citizenship − as her family had immigrated to the UK from Bangladesh. Begum gave birth to a baby who died several days later in the camp. This case has affected the worldwide discourse regarding European and American individuals whose citizenships were revoked after they joined the ranks of ISIS.

 Aside from the ethical aspects of babies born in terrorists’ enclaves lacking nationality of any kind, the questions surrounding these babies’ mothers also constitute a sensitive matter. What was the role of these women who joined ISIS, sometimes in their teen years? Were they Jihadi fighters like their husbands? After all, Salafi societies seldom let women play social roles other than those of wives and mothers within their own families.

In 2013, two years after the Arab Spring ignited the war in Syria, and as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria defined itself as a Jihadist organization − along with news about new Salafi opposition to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Jihadi media platforms were swamped with rumors about women who came to Syria to support the fighters of Jihad.

Jihad has many meanings and many forms. The definition of Jihad does not necessarily include waging warfare. Moreover, even if one stays within the warlike framework of the definition of Jihad, there are many ways to wage war. Jihad bi-l-sayf is jihad by sword; Jihad al-mal means waging Jihad by contributing money; Jihad bi-l-Lisan means waging psychological Jihad by using words − this could be done by spreading ideas in favor of Jihad or even blogging about it on social media, which would help to recruit more fighters.

According to the laws of Jihad, there are many ways to be engaged in Jihad without carrying a weapon and waging actual war. One of these ways is a form of sexual Jihad that is meant to support the fighters − Jihad al-Nikah. This form of support is a limited juridical marriage contract between two parties, much like the Shi’ite Zawaj al-mut’a– temporary marriage, or the Sunni equivalent, Zawaj al misyar. The first wave of “brides” arrived in Syria even before 2013, and was mostly comprised of Tunisian women,[1] because the first Jihadis that joined the ranks of ISIS from outside of Syria and Iraq were men of Tunisian origin.

After a while the word about jihad al-nikah spread, and many Muslim scholars spoke against it. Others, like the Salafi Sheikh Muhammad al-Arifi, promoted the idea and encouraged it. In 2013, al-Arifi issued a fatwa allowing jihad al-nikah. Later, in 2017, after being severely criticized for his fatwa, al-Arifi tried to deny having issued it, and claimed on TV that he was misunderstood and that his fatwa about temporary marriages was misused and fabricated by the Syrian, Mukhabarat.[2] However, even while refuting his own fatwa, al-Arifi claimed that “this is a known phenomenon in all religions. If a woman wants to join a war, she follows the men to the battlefield, and whatever she does there counts as a jihadi action for her.”

Al-Arifi’s fatwa was widely spread on all Jihadi forums up until 2017; it was this fatwa that gave religious legitimacy to girls even as young as 14 joining ISIS − and Jihad via nika.[3]

After 2013 European women started joining ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Unlike citizens of Tunisian nationality, they could not return to their homes, as they were deprived of their citizenships.

As of now, there are about 39,000 women and children detained in a refugee camp in Syria. Most of them are widows and orphans of ISIS fighters − Spanish, French, British, Swedish, German, Russian, and Uzbek women. Gradually, they have been moved across the Iraqi border to Baghdad where they face trials and are charged with crimes of various severity. According to Pary Ibrahim, the head of the “Free Yezidi Foundation,” many of these women were involved in the torture and murder of Yezidi women, while the latter were captured and enslaved in the Islamic State.[4]

While the future of many of these 39,000 women and children remains unclear, their husbands and fathers who fled Syria are engaged in planning new Jihadi activities around the world, as was promised by their leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in his last video from March 2019.[5]