People in Mosul are divided about what to do with the families of ISIS fighters now that the battle to retake the city is over.
“The families of ISIS fighters are more dangerous than the members of ISIS themselves,” says Basma Basim, the head of the Mosul district council. “They are the soil in which the seeds of ISIS have been planted and allowing them to stay in the city will mean a repeat of the bloody scenario that has taken place here.”
Basim thinks the families associated with ISIS should leave the city on their own. That’s what happened in the nearby town of Qayyarah, home to the ISIS treasury for more than two years, where locals got together to push ISIS families out of their town, without any need for intervention from local security forces.
Public anger about the situation has influenced the Mosul district council. On June 10, they issued a decision stating that ISIS families should not be allowed to return. However, Basim says no action has been taken to enforce the decision.
Punishing or isolating innocent people will just mean that we are creating schools for terror.
“The ISIS families are not worth more than the families of those people who were killed or dishonoured or displaced, or who lost their livelihood,” Basim argues. “If the ISIS families had any sense of responsibility, they would leave without being forced. They would do it to honour the martyrs, or out of their own shame.”
This opinion is one of the many being debated by locals in Mosul today. The question of what to do with the families whose children joined ISIS, or worked for ISIS, in the past three years has yet to be resolved. Whatever solution is eventually agreed upon, it will affect hundreds of Mosul families.
And there are plenty of opinions.
“The ISIS families who are not convicted of any wrong doing should be allowed to stay in Mosul but their movements should be restricted,” suggests well-known Mosul novelist, Ghada Siddiq Rasool, who left for Baghdad in 2015. “They should be carefully monitored,” Rasoul says: “They need psychological rehabilitation, their place of work should be recorded and observed, and they should be obliged to volunteer for community work. If the families are expelled, they will pose even more danger in the future.”
Under ISIS rule, local engineer Salam Saeed lost many members of his family when their house collapsed while they were hiding in the basement. Saeed also lost his own house and the business he started 20 years ago. He believes ISIS families must pay in some way—it would only be fair, Saeed says.
Despite the videos that have been appearing online, showing suspected members of ISIS being interrogated, beaten and even executed by the Iraqi pro-government forces, Saeed is critical of the way ISIS families have been being treated by the pro-government forces.
“Many [ISIS members] escaped from Mosul through the humanitarian corridors that the military tried to open up during the fighting,” Saeed points out. “They just mixed with innocent civilians: We even saw some of them on the news. That’s not justice. They should suffer the way that we have suffered.”
A journalist working for the Al Mosuliya satellite TV channel, which broadcasts out of Istanbul, identified several members of ISIS infiltrating the displaced locals who were fleeing the fighting. The pictures of those ISIS members were published on Facebook and there was a lot of anger directed at security forces for allowing the perpetrators to escape. Iraqis also voiced fears on social media that this meant that ISIS sleeper cells were already being assembled.
Saeed believes that while the Iraqi military doesn’t have a proper overview of who was, and who was not, involved with ISIS, locals such as himself do. “They should get help from the people who lived under ISIS for three years,” Saeed argued. “Because we saw everything with our own eyes.”
“The members of ISIS and their families have committed ugly crimes against us,” says Othman Qassim, a social activist, who is critical of those advocating a more tolerant approach. “They should be punished. We will only accept an eye for an eye.”
Qassim believes that ISIS families should be transferred to special camps outside Mosul where they can be closely supervised by security forces. He also believes that ISIS families should have to complete courses in rehabilitation before they are allowed to return back to society. As for those locals that actually joined ISIS, Qassim argues that they should be imprisoned and stripped of their Iraqi nationality.
Local writer Ali al-Jumrad has a different idea. He thinks that isolating all the ISIS families in one place creates a whole new danger and that it will eventually result in “an angry and vengeful generation that believes only in ISIS ideology. Those children will grow up believing their fathers were martyrs,” al-Jumrad warns.
And what sin did that father commit, that he and his family now have to pay for the crimes of the son?
Al-Jumrad thinks that ISIS families from outside Mosul should be handed over to their original tribes for safekeeping. “Each tribe should protect the families and observe their behaviours at the same time,” the writer notes. “Tribal leaders should take responsibility for their members before the state. This could happen together with government-sponsored guidance—especially for the children—so that the influence ISIS had on them is diminished.”
As for ISIS families originally from Mosul, once again al-Jumrad believes community is the answer. He proposes that community leaders in the different neighbourhoods should liaise with security forces to report any suspicious activity. But that needs to be done carefully, al-Jumrad adds. “It should not undermine the dignity of innocent people or create enemies in the society.”
Other locals are committed to a more moderate path when it comes to the families of ISIS, saying that they want the real criminals punished but that it would not be right to also punish the criminals’ families.
“Women, children and the elderly did not commit any crimes so there is no reason to punish them,” argues Mohammed al-Obaidi, a Mosul lawyer. “I am for punishing those who are convicted, according to the law, but I am against punishing their relatives, by expelling or arresting them. This is an unacceptable form of collective punishment.”
“Punishing or isolating innocent people will just mean that we are creating schools for terror, that only extremists, who want to destroy our society, will graduate from,” he continued. “They will always feel oppressed and they will want revenge upon those who they believe oppressed them. I am not ready to let my sons pay that price in the future, for my mistakes.”
To prove his point, al-Obaidi pointed to the collective punishment of tens of thousands of members of the now-outlawed Baath party, once headed by Saddam Hussein. Former members of the party and the Iraqi army were prosecuted, deprived of job opportunities and otherwise punished. And because of the way they were treated, “most of the leaders of ISIS are former members of Saddam Hussein’s security forces,” he said.
Mosul professor, Ibrahim al-Allaf, former director of the Regional Studies Centre at the University of Mosul, says that he knows of one man whose son joined ISIS. The son was eventually killed in the fighting. But the father, who once held a senior role in a local government institution, is a peaceful man who loves his country. He had no idea where his son ended up until recently.
“And what sin did that father commit, that he and his family now have to pay for the crimes of the son?” al-Allaf argued. “Only those who actually committed the crimes should be punished.”
“We must work to bring unity back to Mosul,” al-Allaf argues. “We shouldn’t be dragged into this plan to expel families from Mosul because that will just perpetuate the cycles of hatred, and will eventually create organizations far bloodier than ISIS. It’s important to let the families stay and for the government to keep an eye on them.”
Local journalist and columnist Marwan Yassin al-Dulaimi believes that it would be unwise to get too emotional about this question. He points out that some politicians are already using too much emotional rhetoric around the issue in order to encourage division and consolidate their power. According to al-Dulaimi, the only real solution should be provided by the Iraqi legal system.
“We need to treat people as individuals rather than as herds, the way ISIS treated them,” al-Dulaimi argues. “Let’s look at other examples. Look at the Kurds and how they reconciled with those who carried arms against them. And look at the experience in South Africa.”
For the time being, as Mosul strains to recover and the remaining ISIS fighters make their last, suicidal stand in certain parts of the city, nobody seems to have come up with any real conclusions as to what to do with ISIS families.
Local rumour has it that regardless of what decisions are being made, the process of pushing ISIS families out of Mosul has already begun. On condition of anonymity, a local police officer said that the Iraqi army has already detained approximately 170 ISIS families in Bartala, a formerly-Christian-majority town east of Mosul. And nobody has been allowed to leave the camp.
Basim of the Mosul district council says that they have not moved any families to Bartala.
Other information also suggests that the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration has transferred around 100 families from Bartala to another camp, south of Mosul.
The authorities will not acknowledge that these are families with a connection to ISIS. But locals say it is an open secret. Just like camps in other parts of Iraq, like Tikrit, where there is already a special camp where ISIS families are kept separate from other displaced Iraqis, and who may not enter or leave the camp without permission.
Their punishment has already begun.