TUNIS, Tunisia – Hundreds of children fathered by the Islamic State’s foreign fighters or brought to the self-proclaimed caliphate by their parents are now imprisoned or in limbo with nowhere to go, collateral victims as the militant group retreats and home countries hesitate to take them back.
One young Tunisian orphan, Tamim Jaboudi, has been in a prison in Tripoli, Libya, for well over a year. He passed his second birthday behind bars and is nearing another, turning 3 on April 30. His parents, both Tunisians who left home to join the Islamic State group, died in American airstrikes in Libya in February 2016, according to the child’s grandfather, who is trying to win the child’s return.
Tamim now lives among two dozen Tunisian women and their children in Tripoli’s Mitiga prison, raised by a woman who herself willingly joined the Islamic State group. The captives are under guard by a militia that tightly controls access to the group despite repeatedly claiming they have no interest in preventing their return home.
“What is this young child’s sin that he is in jail with criminals?” asked Faouzi Trabelsi, the boy’s grandfather who has traveled twice to Libya to see the boy and twice returned home emptyhanded. “If he grows up there, what kind of attitude will he have toward his homeland?”
European governments and experts have documented at least 600 foreign children of fighters who live in or have returned from IS territory in Syria, Iraq or Libya. But the numbers are likely far higher.
The children and families often find it impossible to escape IS-held areas. And even if they do, their native countries are deeply suspicious and fearful of returnees — sometimes even children. Tunisia, France and Belgium have all suffered major attacks from trained IS fighters, and Western intelligence officials have said the group is deploying cells of attackers in Europe.
Although the Islamic State group says women have no role as fighters, France in particular has detained women returnees and some adolescent boys who it believes pose a danger. Young children often go into foster care or end up with extended family. In the Netherlands, anyone over nine is considered a potential security threat, since that is said to be the age IS extremists begin teaching boys to kill.
In Libya, their fate is particularly uncertain. The North African nation descended into chaos after the 2011 civil war, which ended with the killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country has…