Conundrum: What to do with The Real Wives of ISIS?

It may sound like the world’s worst reality show, but it could present an acute security challenge for Western nations — or a humanitarian crisis for brainwashed teens. Propagandists for ISIS succeeded in recruiting hundreds of female teens and young women from the West to come to Raqqa and Mosul to serve as wives to terrorist marauders. Now that the Iraqi army has all but liberated Mosul from ISIS, these women face the prospect of imprisonment or death if their home countries refuse to take them back — and may face prosecution even if they do.

The Associated Press covers the plight of 16-year-old Linda W from Pulsnitz. The teen ran away from home last year, and now wants nothing more than to be able to run back:

“I just want to go back home to my family,” said 16-year-old Linda W., whose last name was not given in line with German privacy laws. “I want to get away from the war, away from all the weapons, away from the noise.”

German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and public broadcaster ARD said their reporter interviewed the girl in Baghdad after she was found earlier this month as Iraqi forces liberated the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State group.

Linda W. ran away from her home in the small eastern German town of Pulsnitz last summer, shortly after converting to Islam. She had been in touch with IS members and was married to one of their fighters after arriving in the group’s territory.

It’s not a small problem, and it will only get larger. Linda W is one of four German women captured by Iraqi soldiers over the past couple of weeks. Iraqi officials say they have sixteen women and eight children so far from the fall of Mosul, from France, Belgium, Iran, and Russia as well as Germany. One of the other German women has a child from her ISIS marriage, but has two others missing from the battle of Mosul. They face grim prospects if they remain in Iraq, and presumably Syria once Raqqa gets liberated as well. For their support to ISIS, these teenagers could face the death penalty, even if the execution gets delayed:

Linda W. could theoretically face the death sentence, according to Iraqi’s counter-terrorism law. However, even if she is sentenced to death in Iraq, she would not be executed before the age of 22. …

Haase, the German prosecutor, told the AP that his office had “not applied for an arrest warrant and will therefore not be able to request extradition.”

“There is the possibility that Linda might be put on trial in Iraq,” Haase added last week. “She might be expelled for being a foreigner or, because she is a minor reported missing in Germany, she could be handed over to Germany.”

Needless to say, their native countries are not eager to readmit radicalized teenagers, even those who did not take part in terror/combat such as these women. Efforts from moderate rebel groups in Syria, where the problem will likely be much larger, to work with Western governments to repatriate women left behind by ISIS have gone unanswered. CBS News’ Holly Williams took a look at the complicated issues surrounding this earlier in May, when ISIS began losing significant ground in the Mosul offensive. One activist insists that leaving them in the Middle East makes these women a greater danger than if they are allowed to return home:

Their families will want them to return home, of course. Linda W’s father broke down in tears after learning that she was still alive, and said that she “will come home healthy again,” a wish shared no doubt by all families who had their young daughters run away after being beguiled by radical Islamist propagandists. The question will be whether their home countries want to take the risks associated with their return, and how to treat them if and when they come back.

Do they get prosecuted for providing material support to an enemy? We prosecute those who fail at getting out of the country for just the attempt. A failure to prosecute those who succeeded and now regret their crimes would not seem just or equitable. On the other hand, these young women are likely to have been victimized themselves — first by propagandists, and then by their experiences that led to their regrets. Those who left as minors might be due some consideration for those mitigating circumstances, but the others should get the same treatment as the men for whom they acted as enticements for suicidal jihad.