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What should happen to the foreign women and children who joined Isis?

As many as a hundred women are believed to have left Britain for Isis territory since 2013.

In the aftermath of the battle for Mosul last month, pictures emerged of a terrified and dust-covered 16-year-old Caucasian girl being led away by the jubilant Iraqi forces who had captured her. German authorities subsequently confirmed that the girl was Linda Wenzel, from Pulsnitz, near Dresden, who had been radicalised online before travelling to Syria to join Islamic State (IS) in July 2016. She was found in a tunnel system with four other German women and a badly malnourished baby, before being transferred to a jail in Baghdad.

The capture of Wenzel has highlighted the role of foreign women and their children in IS’s conflicts. As many as a hundred women are believed to have left Britain for IS territory since 2013, and more than 500 from Europe as a whole.

Until now, much of the media focus has been on the male members of IS. They travelled in the greatest numbers and were responsible for the terror group’s most heinous crimes. But as the IS project crumbles in Syria and Iraq, it is the fate of the women and children that presents one of the biggest challenges to local authorities – and Western governments.

Several complex legal questions must be resolved. For example, the 16-year-old British schoolgirl Amira Abase, who travelled to Syria along with two friends from Bethnal Green in 2015, married an Australian fighter called Abdullah Elmir. They had a baby before Elmir was killed in battle.

Where does this leave the child if Abase is now killed or captured? Since neither the British nor Australian governments recognise the child as their citizen, it is, in effect, stateless and condemned to life in the lawlessness of a state – Syria – that is unable to ensure its well-being.

This is not an exceptional case. Hundreds of children have been taken from Europe to IS territory by their parents, while scores of others have been born there to foreign extremists. What happens to these children will be an important marker for the long-term disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of vulnerable people caught up in the brutal wars in Syria and Iraq.

IS will not give them up easily. What makes the terror group unique in its use of child soldiers is its brazenness. When children were used in other conflicts – such as in Cambodia or Sierra Leone – their commanders sought to downplay or even conceal their role. Not so for IS. Fighters have regularly given children star roles in their propaganda.

British children have featured in at least two execution films. The son of Sally Jones was 11 years old when he appeared in an IS video dressed in camouflage alongside several other children. Grown men kneeled before them, wearing orange overalls, accused of being spies. They were then executed with a shot to the back of the head. Jones is a convert to Islam who took her son to Syria in 2014 and married a British fighter from Birmingham called Junaid Hussain, who was later killed in a drone strike.

Another British woman, Khadija Dare, from south London, also converted and travelled to Syria, where she married a Swedish fighter. The couple had a son called Isa, who appeared in an execution video, pushing a button that detonated a car full of explosives. Inside were Kurdish fighters accused of fighting against IS. Dare has expressed her desire to be the first female IS executioner. That moment may be fast approaching.

Until recently, women had largely been tasked with working in schools or hospitals, indoctrinating children or helping wounded soldiers recover. But when the situation in Mosul became increasingly desperate this year, IS launched a wave of female suicide bombers against the Iraqi army.

Omar Hussain, a fighter who uses the nom de guerre Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, wrote on the semi-encrypted Telegram messaging service that the same will happen in Syria. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing to push into Raqqa, the main IS stronghold in the country.

British women are not yet thought to have become suicide bombers, but it is only a matter of time until they do. Our research at King’s College London shows that women are often more ideologically motivated as IS recruits than their male counterparts.

Appeals to men are often based around simplistic and emotive binary choices. The focus on masculinity and camaraderie is coupled with stories of martyrdom and its virtues. In 2015, the average British male fighter in IS lived for just nine months before being killed.

By contrast, only a handful of Western women are confirmed to have died with IS, killed in drone strikes that targeted their husbands. The absence from combat suggests that women’s motivations for joining IS are different to men’s and involve a much more considered understanding of its ideology.

This goes against much of the popular narrative framing the women as passive and unsuspecting victims of IS propaganda. In the majority of cases, these women have demonstrated a zealous commitment to the ideology of the terror group. They are among the so-called caliphate’s truest believers.

Iraqi authorities believe that Wenzel, the 16-year-old German girl, was a member of the Khansaa brigade, a brutal wing of IS responsible for ensuring that “morality” codes are imposed on women.

What will happen to Wenzel and the other foreign women of IS – who, unlike the men, are more likely to be captured than killed – is uncertain. Some European governments have been reluctant to prosecute female returnees. Others, including Britain, have opted for prosecutions. What is clear is that the women’s problems – and, more importantly, those of their children – will not go away when IS does.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.