KAIROUAN, Tunisia — When the leaders of the Islamic State declared their caliphate in Iraq and Syria, no nationality from outside those countries heeded the call to come fight for it like the Tunisians did.
Now, weeks after the caliphate’s defeat, Tunisia is confronting that legacy. Thousands of Tunisian fighters and their family members are believed held in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Libya. Their status represents part of the unfinished business of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State and a daunting challenge for this small North African country.
As their relatives try to bring them back to Tunisia, government authorities here are resistant, fearing that even the tiniest offspring of Islamic State militants could plant the seeds for future radicalism.
Tunisian officials say they are hampered in bringing home the detainees by a weak diplomatic presence in Syria and Libya and are overwhelmed by the logistics of repatriation amid the ongoing unrest there. But with Tunisia grappling with its own social turmoil and militant groups on its own soil, there is little political will to bring families back, according to relatives, officials, activists and counterterrorism experts.
For the past 16 months, Tahiya Sboui has struggled to be united with her young grandchildren, whom she has never met. She says Tunisian authorities have stonewalled her efforts. The children’s only crime, it seems, is that their late father joined the Islamic State.
Three of the children are stranded in an overburdened refugee camp in northern Syria without adequate food and medical care. Two others have died of illness since she began her campaign, says the soft-spoken grandmother.
“I don’t understand why they don’t want us to get back our grandkids,” said Sboui, her voice cracking on a recent day inside her modest, low-slung home. “They will not pose any danger if they come to Tunisia.”
In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, at least 5,000 Tunisians traveled to Syria, Iraq and Libya to fight, more than any other nationality from outside those countries, according to the United Nations. Tunisian authorities claim the figure is lower, around 3,000, though still the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in the world. Many ended up joining the Islamic State and started families.
The wives and children of Tunisian fighters have now poured into Syria’s overcrowded refugee camps, their fathers and husbands dead, missing or imprisoned. Others are themselves detained in prisons in Syria, Iraq and Libya, often mother and child together in a cell. In most cases, the children are under the age of 6, and many were born inside Islamic State territory, so they now lack internationally recognized passports and birth certificates.
Even as authorities acknowledge they cannot legally prevent any Tunisian who can prove their citizenship from coming home, lawmakers remain suspicious of the children from Islamic State families.
“How do we know these kids are Tunisian?” asked Oussama Sghaier, an influential parliamentarian from the ruling Ennahda Party. “They were born outside the law in a country where there is no registration of birth. If they can prove they are Tunisian, we’re going to do what we can to bring them back.”
Many countries share the same concerns as Tunisia about repatriating the children of citizens who fought for the Islamic State. To date, more than 30 countries have balked at doing so.
But some nations, including France, Russia and Indonesia, have brought back offspring, suggesting that diplomatic, logistical and security concerns can be overcome, say aid workers and human rights activists.
“Legitimate security concerns are no license for governments to abandon young children and other nationals held without charge in squalid camps and prisons abroad,” said Letta Tayler, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch focused on terrorism issues. “Tunisian children are stuck in these camps with no education, no future, and no way out while their government seems to barely lift a finger to help them.”
There are no reliable figures for the number of Tunisian children in refugee camps and prisons. Tunisia’s Ministry of Women and Children has identified about 200 children and 100 women held abroad in Syria, Libya and Iraq without any charges against them, according to Human Rights Watch.
Sghaier has suggested using DNA and fingerprint tests to identify Tunisian children who are being held.
But Sboui and other relatives said the children and their mothers have no way of leaving heavily guarded refugee camps and detention facilities to reach Tunisian embassies, which are often hundreds of miles away, without their government’s assistance.
So far, only three Tunisian children of Islamic State families have been repatriated by the Tunisian government. All were from Libya.
Islamic State’s reach
Tunisia emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings as a functioning democracy. But the new freedoms also opened the door to religious extremists who convinced disaffected youth to defend Islam and denounce the West.
Sboui’s son listened too well. At 28, he left this placid North African town for Syria in 2012 to join Islamist groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. By 2014, he had joined the Islamic State and married a Syrian woman. They had two boys and girl. A year later, he married a second wife, a Tunisian. They had a girl and then a boy.
(The Washington Post is withholding Sboui’s son’s name because of concerns the Islamic State might track down his family members. “I am concerned ISIS fighters will go to the camps and kill my grandchildren,” said Sboui.)
But by 2016, he had gotten disillusioned with the Islamic State and its brutality, he wrote in a text message to his brother Mohammed, who shared it with The Washington Post. He left the group and went to another area of Syria, where he started a restaurant and bought and sold cars, according to his brother. But the Islamic State fighters tracked him down.
“ISIS didn’t want to let me go. They always said, ‘If you are not with us, you are against us,’ ” he wrote in another text message. “They put me in prison for two months.”
In October 2017, he moved his family to a refugee camp in northern Syria. The Islamic State remained suspicious of him, believing he was a spy.
Then, in June, Islamic State fighters assassinated him and his second wife, who by then was pregnant again, Mohammed said.
The plight of children
Sboui, a short woman with thick rectangular glasses, said she has sent registered letters to the foreign and interior ministries pleading for help in getting her grandchildren out of Syria. She has joined protest marches with other Tunisian families in similar situations. In May 2018, she said she received a phone call from government investigators. They asked her if she could afford to take care of her grandchildren if they return. She said yes and signed an agreement.
“But they never called me back,” said Sboui. “Everything has been in vain.”
With Tunisians focused on the country’s economic troubles, repatriation is not a priority. There have also been protests against allowing Tunisian fighters to return. Many here fear they could radicalize the youth. In 2015, Tunisian gunmen believed to have trained in Libya attacked the resort town of Sousse and the Bardo Museum in Tunis, killing scores, mostly foreign tourists.
Tunisian authorities view Islamic State wives and mothers as incubators of the group’s extremist ideology whose main duty is to transmit that ideology to their children, said Moez Ali, an activist who leads a nongovernmental organization that seeks to curb violent extremism. Ali, who has worked with the government on counterterrorism policies, said a strategy is needed, including possibly separating mothers from their children if they return.
“The kids, whatever is their age, I consider them a threat,” said Ali, noting that some Islamic State children were ordered to execute prisoners. “How can we reprogram them? That is the big question.”
In January 2018, Sboui’s Syrian daughter-in-law tried to take all five children to Turkey. Sboui had opened a file in the Tunisian consulate in Istanbul, seeking to get them passports, and provided DNA samples to match with those of her grandchildren. But when her daughter-in-law informed the Turkish authorities at the border that she was Syrian, they sent them back to the refugee camp, Sboui said.
A month later, one of Sboui’s granddaughters — from the Tunisian mother — died of the flu, according to the medical report. She was 2 years old. “In the afternoon she was speaking to me on the phone,” recalled Sboui. “At night she died. Then in October, her grandson — also from the Tunisian mother — died of an unknown virus. He was 1-year-old.
“All this would not have happened if the government had worked to get the kids back,” Sboui said.
After the death of her grandson, Sboui said she sent $3,500 to her Syrian daughter-in-law through a hawala, a money trader who uses an informal network to make international transfers. She didn’t want her remaining grandchildren to follow their half-siblings’ fate. In December, she sent another $5,000.
But in early January, her daughter-in-law stopped replying to Sboui’s text messages.
“Why are you preventing me from seeing my grandkids? Are you sick?” Sboui wrote.
Finally, the next month, the daughter-in-law sent a video of the grandchildren. But when Sboui tried calling her several times after that, she didn’t pick up. Sboui now suspects that her daughter-in-law may have remarried — or despaired of ever making it to Tunisia.
“She has lost hope of coming here,” she said, sobbing.
In her cellphone is the final video. It is a minute long and shows the children playing and smiling into the camera.
It’s the only way Sboui keeps her hopes alive.
“I watch it everyday,” she said, wiping away her tears.