While the battle against ISIS in Iraq is largely over, the legacy of the brutal group endures with families of militants incarcerated in camps and subject to rape, beatings and murder. If Iraq is to escape the consequences of ISIS’ brutal caliphate, these families need to be safely reintegrated into their communities, argue Elie Abouaoun and Molly Gallagher
Pastel ribbons and balloons tied to armored military vehicles danced in the dusty breeze at checkpoints across Baghdad on December 10, as part of a national holiday to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Iraq’s victory over the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Children offered paper flowers to Iraqi soldiers to thank them for their service, and rightfully so. There are reasons to celebrate the military and security gains that Iraq has made in the fight against ISIS, but these can be quickly undermined and reversed if the government does not confront, amongst other significant challenges, the awkward question of how to deal with the families of ISIS fighters.
With the liberation of formerly ISIS-held areas, many camps originally constructed to house internally displaced persons (IDPs) are either closing or consolidating with other camps due to reduced population. Many families are returning to their homes and to their former lives, relieved to close a chapter that was the horror of ISIS and turning the page towards newfound hope and possibilities.
There are some camps, though, that will not close. They will remain fully operational and, although they are referred to “Daesh camps”, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, the term “camp” is hardly applicable.
In total, there are 94 of these camps across the country, with thousands of people being detained against their will, denied basic services, education and legal documentation needed for employment, marriage, property inheritance, even simply passing through checkpoints.
“Anyone somehow related to someone who took up arms with the terror group is detained here, punished for the crimes of their brothers, fathers, and husbands”
And who inhabits these camps? The coldest of villains? The most extreme, irredeemable terrorists? No. Infants, children and their mothers, elderly people in need of medical care. Anyone somehow related to someone who took up arms with the terror group is detained here, punished for the crimes of their brothers, fathers, and husbands. The camps consist of anyone who is suspected or reported of having even loose ties to ISIS fighters, regardless of whether or not they condoned the group’s activity and these people are finding themselves in detention at the hands of both state and non-state security actors through an alarmingly arbitrary vetting system. The diverse security actors at play apparently do not cross-check information to ensure that someone who has already been deemed innocent by one group will not be later picked up and held by another. There seems to be no unified, publicly-established criteria by which an individual’s innocence or guilt is determined. For this reason, entire families are being held inside the camps with no prospect of leaving.
But it is not just ISIS families. It has been reported that some influential community members began using these camps as a way to gain revenge on neighbors with whom they have property disputes or local shop owners with whom they have business competition.
Young men with either the same or similar names to those on some haphazard list are detained here. The camps host ordinary citizens who continued to simply live in an ISIS-held area, or to show up to work, either in schools, hospitals, offices or other service providing institutions, when ISIS took over. No consideration is given to the fact that ISIS threatened to, and in many cases did, kill those who fled the areas under their control.
The scheme is eerily reminiscent of the way the de-Baathification campaign was carried out indiscriminately, without a proper vetting of individual behavior. Because of this, many innocent people were swept up in the campaign and their lives totally crumbled. Little attention was given to how this policy would alter the social fabric of the country in the long-term, inspiring severe, deep grievances of those affected by this policy. Those grievances were later capitalized on by leaders of radical groups such as Al-Qaeda, seeking legitimacy and influence in the chaotic post-Saddam security vacuum. In hindsight, we see how vilifying an entire group collectively proved to be gravely destabilizing.
When challenged on the legality and effectiveness of rounding up families into camps because of suspected ISIS ties, the policy’s proponents say it is simply a protective measure for the families. They paint the policy as something altruistic, citing accounts of individuals who were victims of revenge attacks in their former communities from those who suffered under ISIS.
Another argument in favor of the policy is that it matches existing tribal law in these areas. When an individual is convicted of a crime, under tribal law he is offered the option of moving elsewhere, along with his family, in order to prevent vengeance against them. But wherever the family is relocated, they retain their freedom of movement, their right to work and their access to education.
The official stance is that families are being incarcerated for their own protection. Nevertheless, innocent people in the camps being are subjected to ISIS-like injustice and violations. Women and children are being raped, some are being trafficked or beaten and in some cases murdered at the hands of camp security who either take their own revenge or accept bribes from outsiders to exact their own blood-thirsty definitions of justice. The obvious and disturbing contrast between the official narrative and what is actually happening on the ground suggests attempts at deception or outright ignorance.
“To force innocent people to live in these conditions, to be collectively punished and to turn a blind eye to the injustices being carried out against them is to perpetuate the cycle of violence that has afflicted the country for decades”
The problem is more than just a matter of innocence and guilt. It is a matter of national security. To force innocent people to live in these conditions, to be collectively punished and to turn a blind eye to the injustices being carried out against them is to perpetuate the cycle of violence that has afflicted the country for decades.
The children and relatives of ISIS fighters are seen as unclean, dangerous and unwanted and these children will grow up on the margins of society. Iraq’s history speaks for itself when it comes to creating generations of vulnerable, marginalized youth.
Now more than ever, the country is in dire need of a unified, coherent national reconciliation strategy, one that reintegrates innocent people back into communities which should be prepared to accept them and acknowledge that they too have suffered at the hands of ISIS. Otherwise, Iraq risks losing another generation of youth to extremist ideology and action.
However, there are measures that can be taken to facilitate the reintegration of innocent families and to prepare certain communities to accept them, but these require the buy-in of the authorities. Several international and local non-governmental organizations are specially mandated to do such work, and would happily engage with a willing Iraqi government in trust-building measures, reparations, opening channels of dialogue and other local transitional justice mechanisms. Under such a framework, there is hope that Iraq’s social fabric can be salvaged and healed in the long term.
In fact, this has been done by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and its strategic implementing partner Sanad for Peacebuilding, in Hawija. Here, local reconciliation agreements were reached between tribal leaders who committed to respect the rule of law and not resort to violence when dealing with the return to the community of family members of suspected terrorists. The two organizations were able to win the buy-in of both the local and central government. This prevented what many assumed would be inevitable bloodshed in a post-conflict setting.
It is clear by the bulldozers, fresh paint and newly planted trees lining the streets of Mosul and other territories liberated from ISIS that the government is keen on showing off palpable reconstruction progress. But who among them is serious about rebuilding any kind of habitable, cohesive society in these areas? Those in power now have an opportunity to either perpetuate or outlive the country’s violent pathology. If the intent is the latter, handling the process of justice with dignity and humanity is the first step.
Elie Abouaoun is the Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, based in Tunis, Tunisia. He specializes in Conflict Analysis & Prevention, Democracy and Governance, Global Policy and Violent Extremism in the MENA Region.
Molly Gallagher is the Executive Assistant for Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, based in Tunis, Tunisia. She is a recent graduate of the American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC, where she focused on Global Security, Conflict Resolution and Peace.