UK security officials are working on plans to integrate the children of Isis fighters known as “cubs of the Caliphate” back into Britain should they decide to return home once the conflict has ended, a Home Office minister has revealed.
It is estimated that about 850 Britons travelled to support Isis in Iraq and Syria, and of these, about half are now back in the country. However, some of those who remain abroad are known to have either taken children with them, or started new families while out of the country.
Children as young as ten are thought to have been trained by Isis to use weapons and sent out in combat. Counter-terror experts are concerned about the risks posed by such vulnerable children, who have been born to British parents and have the legal right to return.
Ben Wallace, security minister, said that he has commissioned an NHS Trust to develop an action plan on how to deal with the complex health and social care needs of these child soldiers if they end up back in the UK.
“We are going to see . . . young children who have been born in the Caliphate coming here who have been subject to proper violence or been involved in proper violence, but, they’re still technically children,” Mr Wallace said. “Some were made to shoot prisoners aged nine and ten . . . they border between victim and brainwashed.”
The security minister, who was speaking about the Home Office’s counter-extremism programme, known as Prevent, said these youngsters presented new difficulties for those trying to guard against terrorist attacks on UK soil.
“Some will come back and we will have to deal with some very challenging children,” he said. “Depending how old they are — it’s been going on now for six, seven, eight years, if not longer — some of them will now be young adolescents and may actually be beyond help. In other words, they’re true believers, and they’re not intending to come back. They’re going to fight to the end. But I suspect one or two will come back and we’ll have to help them.”
Mr Wallace suggested that the returnees would need intensive mental health support, as well as help from clinicians and specialist social workers. He would not reveal which NHS trust had been commissioned to do the work, but said it would be focused on safeguarding.
It is not known exactly how many British children are currently living in Iraq and Syria, but academics at King’s College London warned last year that the threat from women and minors linked to Isis had been significantly underestimated.
A report by the university’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation suggested that of the 850 Britons affiliated with the group in the Middle East, 145 were women and 50 were minors.
The researchers suggested that foreign minors “possess the ideological commitment and practical skills to pose a potential threat upon return to their home countries”.
Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights lawyer who has just returned from a trip to Camp Roj, a detention facility in north-eastern Syria where the wives and children of Isis fighters are being held, was sceptical about the Home Office plan.
“They’re not doing anything for the children where they are now,” he said. “They’re in tents in the middle of winter and they’ve got kerosene burners as the only source of heat. If the British government were serious about these children, they would begin by being serious about them in Camp Roj, which is easy.”
The lawyer, who founded the charity Reprieve, raised concerns that “populist politicians” might be tempted to “criminalise” returning children, and suggested that they could be looked after by normal state services, rather than under the umbrella of a counter-radicalisation initiative.
“I don’t think it’s rocket science,” he said. “Britain has a great set-up of practical support. We have a health service unlike America, we have social services . . . what we don’t need is a group like Prevent who are alienating the very group of people we would like to integrate into society.
“What we need is to encourage people about the positive reasons why they should support a liberal democracy rather than scaring them and doing the opposite,” he added.
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