Victim or threat? Iraq has plan for ISIS fighters' wives, children

Their fathers and husbands belonged to one of the most brutal militant forces on the planet, yet they have committed no known crime.

After months of debate, Iraqi authorities have assembled a plan to deal with captured foreign ISIS wives and children of the crumbled caliphate, in what they hope balances security concerns with international law and due process.

“We are holding 500 wives of ISIS – all foreigners – and their children, which makes 1,500 total,” Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, the Iraqi Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, who presides over childcare issues, told Fox News. “And some of the ISIS wives are pregnant.”

Sudani said there have been “many communications through our ministry and the court system” over what to do with the children since the collapse of Mosul in July. That was followed by the fall of other major ISIS strongholds across the country.


FILE - In this file picture taken on Friday, July 21, 2017, Kurdish soldiers from the Anti-Terrorism Units, carry a blindfolded an Indonesian man suspected of Islamic State membership, at a security center, in Kobani, Syria. Western governments have tacitly handed down guidance to the forces uprooting the remnants of Islamic State in Raqqa and beyond on how to handle their citizens who joined the extremist group by the thousands. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Debate continues over what to do with the hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters in Iraq, while their wives are waiting to face trial.  (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Iraqi authorities now mandate that children ages 3 and under will remain with their mothers in detention facilities, while those 4-14 will be in state-run orphanages until agreements with embassies have been established in which case they can be “handed off” to their home countries.

This required a hasty amendment to Iraq’s legal code as a Saddam-era 1980 law dictated only minors of Iraqi or Palestinian origin were accepted into the country’s orphanages. Authorities are now contending with children of more than 20 different nationalities.

“We deal with the kids as victims. They had no fault in what happened,” Sudani insisted. “They will be taken care of and not blamed. And we have prepared an integrated program to de-radicalize the kids away from the extremist mindset and ideology.”

But the foreign wives of ISIS fighters will be tried in Iraq, and not in their country of citizenship, to determine what if any level of involvment they had in the fighting. 

“They will be given a fair trial in the court system,” Sudani affirmed.

Human rights groups are also concerned over the fate of adolescent males over the age of 14, who are being held separately from their mothers in multiple facilities across the country. Iraqi officials have insisted they are complying scrupulously within international guidelines on the detainments. 

“We are concerned that torture may be utilized in coercing confessions from these adolescents,” said Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at the Physicians for Human Rights. “Captured children forced into fighting with ISIS are also victims of human rights violations, including physical and mental trauma and should be treated as such.”


The majority of the foreign wives and children are documented to be from Turkey and Russia – with significant numbers from the Caucasus region. There are smaller percentages of fighters from numerous other nations, including many in Europe.


Since the fall of Mosul in July 2017, some 1500 ISIS wives and children have been brought to specialized camps operated by Iraqi authorities.  (Hollie McKay/Fox News)

Sudani also noted Iraqis are still in the process of trying to determine the nationality of many detainees, who are without proper documentation.

One Baghdad-based official, who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media, told Fox News the problem with the children is being complicated by the fact that, in many cases, the identity of the father is unknown.

And for those whose nationalities have been verified, there are still unsolved diplomatic snags.

“Baghdad is in the process of negotiating with their countries of origin to have most of them repatriated, but there is a lot of resistance,” said the source. “Most of these countries simply don’t want them back.”

The wives and babies are being held in a camp in al-Rusafa in the Baghdad region, Sudani said, separate from other non-ISIS families. Aid workers and officials have routinely expressed concern the ISIS families may be subject to retaliation from those who have been deeply afflicted by the barbaric insurgent group.

At the request of the government, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been providing these mothers and children in camps and orphanages with baby formula and hygiene items, as well as helping to “restore the links” with relatives in their country of origin, mostly by facilitating the exchange of Red Cross messages.

In addition to the 1500 ISIS wives and families, more than 7000 foreign ISIS males are being detained across the country waiting to stand trial. More than 90 have already been executed for their terrorist membership.

“It is critical to remember that, even when someone is proven to be a member of a terrorist organization, their family members are not guilty by association,” added Tuva Raanes Bogsnes, a spokesperson for The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

Hollie McKay has been a staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay