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Terror charges follow Islamic State woman repatriated to Italy

An Italian woman and her four children have been repatriated to Italy, where she was arrested on terror-related charges for having gone to Syria with her husband to join the Islamic State.
Italian police displayed a confiscated Islamic State (IS) during a press conference on anti-terrorism operation at the police headquarters in Rome.
Hmidi Saber, a suspected member of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan group linked to al-Qaeda, was arrested on January 10, 2017 in an anti-terrorism operation called 'Black Flag'. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI        (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

Italy arrested a woman who joined the Islamic State on Tuesday after she and her four children were returned to the country from a displaced person’s camp in Syria, according to the Italian authorities.

The repatriation follows a debate that has steadily fallen from the global radar as to whether individuals who joined the Islamic State and other armed groups should return to their countries of origin. And now, as the four children sit in foster care pending a decision by an Italian juvenile court, there is also the mounting challenge of how to reverse indoctrination among minors.

“Nobody has the right solution in how to do this,” said Lorenzo Vidino, the director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It’s one of the reasons why countries are reluctant [to repatriate]. But there is, generally speaking, a consensus on the moral duty to repatriate the children irrespective of the difficulties that come with that.”

Alice Brignoli, her Moroccan-born husband and their three children traveled from the north of Milan to Islamic State-controlled territory in 2015. Alice later gave birth to a fourth child in Syria.

Brignoli and her family were captured by Kurdish forces and brought to Syria’s Al-Hol displacement camp. Located in northern Syria close to the Syria-Iraq border, Al-Hol houses displaced individuals from former Islamic State-held territory. As of March 2019 and in the course of only a few months, the camp swelled to 74,000 people, many of which were women and children. As of May 2020, the number lingered at 68,000, including 10,000 foreigners from over 50 countries.

Abandoned by their governments and under the care of the Kurdish-led force that had recently defeated IS, some residents still fly the Islamic State flag and impose their own disciplinary measures.

Authorities confirmed that Brignoli’s husband died this month at the camp from an intestinal infection. She returned to Italy willingly, Italian Carabinieri Lt. Col. Andrea Leo told the Associated Press, after she was convinced it was her best choice considering the conditions she has lived in over the last five years. Upon returning to Italy, Brignoli was hit with terror-related charges and will face trial.

“I didn’t think Italy would make the effort to come here and take me away,” Brignoli told Italian newspaper The Sheet.

Italian authorities told the Associated Press they hope Brignoli will help them find additional Italian families that joined the radical group.

Italy’s contingent of foreign fighters that joined the Islamic State and other armed groups is relatively small compared to other Western European countries, but the repatriation debate still rages in national security discussions. Foreign fighters linked to Italy in various forms totaled 135 as of July 2018, according to a study by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. That number is dwarfed by the some 1,900 foreign fighters that traveled from France and almost a thousand from Germany and the United Kingdom. Over 90% of Italy's foreign fighters were male and, bucking trends in other European countries, a majority were born abroad.

Italian authorities accused Brignoli of assisting in the radicalization of her children against the West and “embracing the cause of global jihadism.” The children are in foster care pending a decision by an Italian juvenile court.

Many countries refuse to take their citizens back, citing national security concerns, while some accept returnees on the condition they face terrorism-related charges. But states are far less equipped to deal with the thousands of children that lived or were born in territory held by IS. A PBS Frontline documentary uncovered that alongside witnessing atrocities and being subjected to radical militarized training, children were being taught to conduct suicide attacks against Western targets. 

“There’s a more proactive approach [in Italy] when it comes to children and the idea is to make an effort to bring them back,” Vidino told Al-Monitor, “but a lot of European countries are really struggling with this.”

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