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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 Deputy Director 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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Alex Jones spread lies about the Sandy Hook massacre – grieving parents may see he pays for it

A lawsuit filed by parents of those killed in the 2012 massacre means the Infowars host might finally have to face the consequences of his actions.

It can be easy to think of conspiracy theories and those who spread them as crazy but essentially harmless. Mad ideas, repeated by kooks who are so far removed from reality that their impact on society is minimal.

The experiences of the parents of the 20 six- and seven-year-olds killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre should serve as a reminder that they are anything but.

Following the mass shooting, one of the US’s most deadly, rumours spread online that the whole thing had been staged. As now happens with almost every mass school shooting, social media and forums like 4chan filled with claims that the news footage was faked, that the grieving parents were in fact actors, that their grief was not real.

One of the chief enablers and amplifiers of these theories around Sandy Hook has been Alex Jones, the puffed-up, red-faced ball of rage that runs and hosts the Infowars radio show and web TV channel.

Jones was initially cautious in his approach to Sandy Hook, despite being a regular promoter of other conspiracy theories including 9/11 being an inside job, and more recently the now infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which led to a man discharging an assault rifle in a restaurant that he had become convinced was a cover for a Democrat-linked paedophile ring.

However, in the months and years after the shooting Jones became less and less cautious, raising doubts about the stories told by parents about cradling their dead children, implying and sometimes outright stating that the massacre had never happened and that the parents and authorities were lying.

As an outlet with millions of viewers and listeners, ones already susceptible to conspiracy theorising, his statements can only have encouraged those who harried Sandy Hook parents like Lenny Pozner, who lost his six-year-old son Noah in the shooting.

As Pozner told the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman last year, when he finally began emerging from the “catatonic” state he was left in after the shooting and began posting picture of his son on social media , he was deluged with comments such as “Fake kid”, “Didn’t die” and “Fucking liar”. He has received death threats, and moved many times, not just because it helps him cope with his loss, but because pictures of his home were regularly posted online.

He told Freeman of the inadequacy of government response that “lawmakers don’t know how to deal with this. Police don’t know how to police the internet, they haven’t been trained, they just tell you to turn off the computer. And people who do police the internet, they are looking for credit card scams worth millions of dollars. For 4chan trolls, this is their playground.”

But while the many lone trolls are difficult to pin down, Jones is a public face with a broadcasting infrastructure, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Pozner, along with two other parents of Sandy Hook victims, is suing Jones for defamation, seeking at least $1m in damages.

The bar for defamation in the US is (rightly) high, certainly higher than it is in the UK, because what is defined as “political speech” is protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Pozner and his fellow plaintiffs must prove not only that Jones was not telling the truth, but that he did so either knowing it was false or with a “reckless disregard” for the truth. So while Jones patently spread falsehoods on his shows – and continues to do so – it is far from guaranteed that they will win. Jones, for example, has said he was playing devil’s advocate.

Nevertheless, the case raises a number of intriguing prospects, such as what happens when the claimants ask for disclosure of how Jones verified his wild claims in a bid to prove he took a reckless disregard for the truth. What will Jones do when asked in court to provide evidence of his sources?

There is also the question of how his previous submissions, during a court battle with his ex-wife for custody of their children (a fight Jones lost), that his show was “performance art”. On the one hand, it might provide him with a way of claiming that he was never making any statement designed to be interpreted as fact. On the other, it makes it difficult to argue that he truly believes what he says, which would make it hard to claim he was making his statements in good faith. 

This is not even the first time Jones has been sued over his penchant for spreading untruths. He is facing a number of other defamation suits, including one from a man who Jones claimed had organised protests against white nationalists in Charlottesville.

But the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorising is the most heartbreakingly cruel. The victims are people who lost children in the most horrific way, and who have had their grieving interrupted constantly by strangers on the internet telling them they are making it up.

And there is another aspect to Jones that makes his theorising even more deplorable. As numerous articles and a segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have explored, Jones makes money selling products that appear to offer solutions to the terrors he conjures up. From water-filters that Jones claims will cut out the kind of pollutants that, he says, turn frogs gay, to the much ridiculed Brain Force dietary supplements, Infowars operates like a crazies-only version of Amazon, slinging products on the back of the fears and anxieties he’s spent the show stoking.

These products are by and large over-priced, and of highly dubious effectiveness. Jones claims that the money is all ploughed back into his own show, which he says costs $45m to $50m a year. But as Oliver pointed out, he’s at least making enough to afford more than a couple of Rolexes.

So whether Jones truly believes the deranged theories he parrots, or is simply using their mass appeal to make a fast buck, he is still making money by preying on the easily persuadable and paranoid, and aggravating the pain suffered by those they target.

If Jones is found guilty, one of the considerations used to decide the scale of damages awarded against him is likely to be the emotional harm caused by his actions. Whatever Jones’s personal relationship with the truth, the pain he has caused to parents is undeniable. By that measure, I hope a judge decides to bankrupt him. I hope Posner and the other parents succeed in suing him into oblivion.

There would be little more fitting, or just, than if it were these bereaved parents who finally put Jones and Infowars out of business.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.