The conclusion of PREPARE – insights from the PREPARE final conference

On June 13 2023, the PREPARE project presented its final key insights and findings from its research. There was frontline testament from an award-winning journalist who worked directly with children whose families are affiliated with violent extremism (VE). A panel discussion was facilitated among experts in the fields of human rights, child development, and social services to discuss necessary policy changes needed to preserve the safety and rights of children whose families are affiliated with VE.

It is worth delving deep into the takeaways from PREPARE’s final conference to understand how this cutting-edge project addresses a severe gap in current counterterrorism literature and policy-making.

Children From VE-Affiliated Families Are Still Children

Keynote speaker Joshua Baker provided first-hand accounts of his experiences with families affiliated with VE. Baker recalled observing young children living in ISIS territory who knew what a “coalition” was, associating Baker with the “coalition” that killed their parents. Another child was fascinated by Baker’s recording gear but simultaneously felt the urge to stab Baker, who could visibly see the child struggling to reconcile their curiosity with their desire to eliminate the “infidel” in front of them.  

The panel discussion highlighted that some EU countries have a thorough infrastructure to address the needs of children from VE-affiliated families. However, what seems to still be lacking is the contextual understanding of the children’s experience in developing within a VE environment and how each child was individually affected. There is a lack of understanding on how the traumas of children from VE-affiliated families are affected by the children’s age, gender, and race. Additionally, most EU countries do not have a national approach to repatriation – municipalities or states control this process, further complicating efforts to implement comprehensive systemic changes. European governments also continue to hesitate repatriation operations due to their suspicion of these children from a security-oriented perspective. Rather than seeing children, they see future potential terrorists.

PREPARE panel discussion: Panellists Beatrice Eriksson, Yanthe Gunther, Vebi Mujku & Katherine Brown

Children developing within VE environments have decreasing capabilities to connect with society outside of their environment’s extremist ideology, which poses a long-term threat to their overall development. There is a clear difference between these children and the ideological choices of their parents. However, a security-oriented approach simply lumps everyone together, preventing children from being seen as what they are: children.

A Systemic Repatriation Overhaul: Moving Forward

The media itself is lacking a clear practical mandate on how to execute stories involving minors from families affiliated with VE. Cultural sensitivity and language choice are powerful tools that can strongly affect how these stories are absorbed and interpreted by the public. This mandate needs to be implemented across all media spaces (television, radio, journalism, etc.) to ensure these children’s privacy and rights are respected, regardless of family affiliation.

On the policy front, there is a deficiency in decision-making on uniform repatriation efforts across the EU. While maintaining security is an integral part of the repatriation process, it should not be ignored that individuals (especially children) left in VE environments are more likely to pose a threat in the future. Consistency and timeliness across all EU member states in repatriation efforts will ensure fair and equal treatment to all children throughout the process. Rather than viewing all affiliated individuals as one indistinguishable group, there needs to be uniform a scale that policy-makers use when pursuing repatriation options. This scale separates those who used their agency to join extremist groups (such as adults who sought out ISIS) and those who did not choose for themselves (such as young children taken to ISIS-controlled territory by their parents).

Matthew el Hassani, from the I’m Not a Monster podcast, proves that with the proper repatriation support (such as therapeutic resources), children from families associated with VE can thrive and develop normally once resettled and separated from extremist ideology. While security cannot be ignored, emphasis must be on the development and rights of the child. While their families may be affiliated with VE, this affiliation is not the child’s choice, and this perspective should guide both practical policy-making and responsible media coverage.

Joshua Baker in discussion with project coordinator Joana Cook regarding the lives of children who became affiliated with ISIS

Every Child is Unique

A family member’s involvement in VE uniquely impacts children based on a multitude of factors. How children are affected depends on the child’s unique risk and resilience factors, and its multi-level environment (based on the Bronfenbrenner model). Therefore, a one-fits-all approach to intervention and support is inappropriate. Great care must be taken to understand children’s unique characteristics, family life, community and neighborhood, and cultural values to ensure that a suitable strategy is developed by the practitioner(s).

There is no direct correlation between VE-affiliated families and children’s outcomes, but there are risk factors and adverse experiences that are more prevalent in these families. These include sexual violence, attachment issues, gendered norms, and ideological propaganda throughout everyday life. Several adverse childhood experiences are emphasized when children are taking to conflict zones, including neglect and social isolation. Their education and peer interactions may be affected by their family’s affiliation with VE. However, these adverse experiences do not characterize the lives of all children equally.

The tool and training guides created for PREPARE assist with the need for nuanced and individual recommendations for each child. Understanding that a one-fits-all approach does not work, the tool and guide help frontline practitioners assess each individual child’s experiences, needs, and personal characteristics to determine what is best for the practitioner and the child.

The Less Obvious Aspect: Practitioners Themselves

Supporting and educating frontline practitioners is necessary to ensure that children from VE-affiliated families are being provided with the best level of care. These practitioners can be (but are not limited to) teachers, social workers, healthcare professionals, and law enforcement. Educating practitioners about overcoming existing societal stigmas (and any personal opinions) is integral to ensuring that VE-affiliated children are respected. Building trust with the children and their families should also be a priority for frontline actors, even though this often proves especially difficult. PREPARE’s training guide provides nuanced situations and guidance on how best to handle these complex scenarios while avoiding re-traumatization of the children.

However, it should be noted that current societal and governmental infrastructures often do not support these important frontline practitioners with assisting children from VE-affiliated families, whether it be knowledge, funding, or time with the child. This is a systemic problem that needs urgent fixing, for without support themselves, practitioners cannot provide these children with the support they need. 

De-Securitization and Human Rights is Key

The security-oriented approach has not worked. Children from VE-affiliated families are consistently villainized by the media and governments for the choices of their family members. This is especially true for children manipulated by VE groups for propaganda, such as Matthew el Hassani.

The first step, which PREPARE has addressed, is identifying where our current society and governments fall short in the protection and respect of children from VE-affiliated families. Seeing these children as children, rather than mini-terrorists, is the underlying foundation for all other systemic changes. Recognizing the rights of the children, and their need for protection, is paramount to ensuring that they receive the necessary support upon repatriation. Understanding the nuances of each individual child is the second step toward ensuring that each child receives the support and respect they are entitled to. Understanding how their age, gender, culture, family structure, community, and education have shaped their personalities and traumas is vital to ensuring a tailor-made solution is created for them to recover and heal. Third, ensuring that frontline practitioners are supported themselves is vital to maintain the integrity of the repatriation system. Without assistance, these practitioners are at risk of re-traumatizing these children during their development, leading to future problems that could have been avoided.

PREPARE’s research, training guide, and tool provide a new perspective in the field of counter-terrorism, prioritizing a de-securitization and human rights approach that seeks to understand how children from VE-affiliated groups can be best supported and re-integrated into society, with their rights as children respected and their traumas properly understood and addressed.

The morning sessions of the PREPARE final conference are available to watch on our YouTube channel:

Author: Breanna Cross – Leiden University