She has no future. She lives in a world full of poverty while her family is hounded by social stigma. Shaima, a 4-year-old girl, is just like her; as is Mohammed, a young boy who has just turned eight and knows nothing about his deceased father. The story is the same for hundreds of others; they are the children of Arab fighters in al-Qaeda, which controlled large parts of Anbar, Diyala, Ninevah and Salahuddin provinces between 2004 and 2009. These fighters established an “Islamic state,” which imposed its laws through sharia courts and a military arm comprising thousands of fighters who have since been killed, arrested or deported, leaving behind children with no identity, and desperate women with no breadwinners.
Huda's mother spoke to us, trying to hide the tears in her brown eyes, as she watched Huda from a window covered with a nylon curtain in the only room in their small home in one of Diyala's slums. She said, “We inherited nothing but poverty, social exclusion and harassment by the security services. I've spent the past few years fleeing with my daughter from hunger, angry looks and embarrassing questions.”
She added, trying to cover her face with the edge of her long black cloak, “I have endured things that human beings should not endure. I have often wished for death, but I've remained steadfast and faced everything so that my daughter will not be oppressed like the others.”
A "legitimate" forced marriage
Before she was even 18, Huda's mother was told by her brothers that she would be married to an Arab fighter. She is unable to describe her feelings toward her husband. “I was young when they married me off. They said he was in his forties and that he was a religious man. This was enough for me to accept him as my husband. I had always respected al-Qaeda members; they carried the banner of Islam and were fighting the Americans.”
Regarding marriage arrangements, she said, “Everything happened quickly and without preparations. I couldn't object. Life was hard and people were fleeing from poverty and death. The marriage was finalized when we read the first chapter of the Quran together in the presence of an al-Qaeda sheikh.”
Just six months after the marriage, during one of the “conquests against the American occupation,” Huda's father was killed. He was buried along with the secrets of his previous life. “He was killed before I even knew his real name and nationality. They called him Abu Bakr; I never saw any of his official papers and he never spoke about his past. He would always avoid the subject, replying, ‘Thank God that we repented and were blessed with jihad.’”
Condescending looks and a child without an identity
Following the government's attempts to gradually take control of Diyala province in 2007, Huda's mother's older brother was killed and they never heard from her other brother again. She found herself alone to face “poverty, questions from the security forces and people's condescending looks.” Her “suffering was completed” with the birth of a child from an unknown father. She was forced to face life alone and had to work collecting empty soda cans from the streets and landfills to make enough money for basic necessities.
Shaima's mother was 15 when she was married to a member of al-Qaeda. Shaima, a young girl whose father was killed in one of the many explosions in Diyala, found herself alone with her mother with no breadwinner. They lived in an area filled with al-Qaeda members who illegally entered Iraq from other Arab states and gave themselves symbolic names with religious meanings. They lived in an area devoid of any government authority, and were later killed or disappeared with the return of government control.
Shaima's mother had been forced to marry an al-Qaeda member, like many others who lost their husbands in battles against government forces and American troops in 2007. This wedding meant that her family had entered into al-Qaeda's culture, bringing with it the group's “rules and traditions,” including marrying girls off at a young age. Shaima's mother was opposed to this, but had no way to escape.
Shaima's mother recalled, “One night a group of masked men entered our house. They told my father: ‘We need her for something very important.’ They took me to an abandoned house, three bearded men entered and said we want you to marry one of the mujahedeen. When I asked who I was to marry, a young man in his twenties entered and, speaking in a Gulf accent, said: ‘I am the one who wants to marry you.’”
She continued, “I had no choice but to comply.” Shaima's mother, wearing a black abaya that exposed only her face, said, “Had I refused, it would have meant that I was a rebellious girl. I went through with the marriage and we said our vows. I didn't know him well. I knew nothing about his character or what he liked or hated. He, like all other al-Qaeda members, would disappear for periods of time only to suddenly reappear.”
The wife of Abu Zakaria
Thus, Shaima's mother became the wife of an “Arab fighter” called Abu Zakaria. The marriage, however, only lasted eight months. She was informed that her husband had been “martyred during an operation.”
Shaima was born six months after her father's death — without a guardian or an official family name — in a house that was still under construction. She has no civil rights, including the right to obtain a food subsidy card. Shaima is now 4, living on charity. Her mother notes, “We live like servants, without any glimmer of hope. Despite this, we have no salvation from people's condescending looks and unforgiving questions.”
Young Mohammed shares the same woes as Huda and Shaima. He knows nothing about the fate of his father, who disappeared several years ago. Mohammed's mother said, “We haven't heard from him for five years, following clashes that occurred east of the city of Baquba. Since that day, we haven't received any news of his death or arrest.”
There are hundreds of similar children, the offspring of al-Qaeda fighters in the provinces of Diyala, Ninevah, Anbar and Salahuddin, and in the north of the Babil province and south of Baghdad. They “face an unknown fate that threatens to turn them into extremists,” according to civil rights activist Jamil Ibrahim.
520 registered cases, and many others which are unreported
According to statistics provided by the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, there are more than 520 cases of “non-nationalized” children, born to unknown militants. Many of these families hide the existence of their children for security and social concerns.
Ibrahim warns of the emergence of a new, more extremist generation of al-Qaeda fighters, which he refers to as the “third generation.” The first generation fought under the emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in June 2006. The second generation followed Zarqawi and was made up of Iraqi field leaders and their brothers and sons, who were seeking revenge.
“The children of these militants will be ostracized within Iraqi society. They will be a more extremist generation if we do not support their families,” Ibrahim said. He stressed that the issue involves more than just the fact that these children are deprived of rights, nationality, education, health care and food; it also involves a very sensitive topic, the fact that these children are viewed as illegitimate. “This is a very serious issue,” he said.
Many regions of Diyala province have witnessed nearly two years of armed struggle, an absence of government and a security vacuum. This region is made up of diverse nationalist and sectarian groups, and was subject to the control of militants who had declared an Islamic state. This resulted in “dozens of cases of marriages between Iraqi girls and foreign fighters, in the absence of civilian courts, given that they didn't recognize the state.”
The director of the Al-Noor University Foundation in Diyala, Ahmed Jassam, explained the dimensions of the problem that emerged when the government regained control of Diyala province. He said, “Most of these militants fled or were arrested or killed during armed operations, leaving behind their wives and young children. These women had no paperwork to document the marriage or show the father's name.”
Marriage as an organizational strategy
Those who are familiar with al-Qaeda's activities note that these marriages were not only aimed at satisfying instinctive needs, building families or fulfilling a legal duty, but also had an organizational goal that involved recruiting women to participate in acts of violence. They exploited these women to use them to deliver messages and explosives, and at times the women even participated in suicide attacks. Women carried out 37 suicide attacks in Diyala between 2007 and 2009, targeting leaders in the Sahwa forces and security centers.
Jamil Suleiman, a lawyer in Anbar province who has dealt with many cases related to the children of al-Qaeda fighters who were either killed or went missing in Fallujah, said this issue involves many “humanitarian and legal complexities. These children have been deprived of their rights; many of them come from broken families where their relatives have abandoned them. Here is where moral issues show up that complicate the matter. All of these factors make them atypical people.”
Suleiman called for the state to take action to seriously address the problem before it escalates. He said, “These children are ticking time bombs, and their current situation will make them a source of violence and serious societal problems.”
Zainab Hasoufi, the head of the Committee on Women and Children in Diyala province, said there are 53 recorded cases of children of al-Qaeda fighters in the province. He said that the majority of these cases are concentrated in the regions east of Baquba (al-Kiba, al-Mukhaisa, Abu Karma and Zaghniya) and most of these children have no official documents. “Legal controls hamper their registration, since they do not take into account the unique nature of their situation.”
This figure is considered to be a modest estimate, given that many families fear the idea of registering their children. This issue is the same in Anbar province, which was an al-Qaeda stronghold from 2004 to 2007, and likewise in the provinces of Ninevah, Salahuddin and some areas south of Baghdad.
However, the formal registration of children of al-Qaeda fighters — which, according to those concerned, is the first step in solving this problem — is impossible under the current laws of the state courts. There is no legal procedure that allows this; the issue requires special legislation.
Um Omar, who married an al-Qaeda militant — something she herself wanted in order to avenge the death of her brother, who was killed by American forces — tried many times to register her 5-year-old son following the death of his father. However, she was unable to do so. She said, “They told me: ‘Without any paperwork proving the identity of his father, we can't register your child.’ I only want to ensure that he has access to an education, and that I can provide him answers when he grows up and asks about his father.”
Like Um Omar, Um Hassan has failed to register her son, despite trying for more than a year. Um Hassan said, “I tried to establish proof of my son's lineage before he reached the age for compulsory education; however, each time they made requests that I could not meet. They requested an official identity card proving the full name of my husband and his place of residence, and also asked that I publish this information in the newspapers.”
Um Hassan now bakes bread for families in the area in which she lives, to make enough to live on, after her relatives abandoned her and refused to acknowledge her son. She spoke to us as she struggled to carry a bag of flour into the unfinished house she rents. “I've stopped trying to register my son. I'm no longer able to travel to Baquba, to persuade witnesses to appear or get an attorney. Moreover, there is no point in doing all of this if the government isn't going to change the laws.”
According to Samira al-Mansouri, a lawyer who works on related cases, there is no legal solution to cases where the husband is absent and the wife has no official papers. Such is the case with Um Hassan, who married “Abu Qatiba,” a man whose real name she does not know. Mansouri noted, “While the law covers natural cases where the marriage contract was not registered, the state needs to add a special exception for these cases of marriage where the husband's name is unknown.”
Harassment and exploitation
Mansouri cautions that “even when officials documents and witnesses to the marriage are available, many women face annoyance — or even harassment — from some government employees. They try to exploit the social situation of these women, and give them condescending looks.”
Um Azhar noted, “I was harassed by a government employee who was reviewing the documents to verify my marriage and my son's lineage. He implied that I was a prostitute, so I challenged him. He then complicated the procedures and demanded that I provide him with things that were impossible, such as my husband's address so that he could inform him of the registration, and a copy of a second form of his ID.”
The social stigma, poverty and deprivation of civil rights faced by children of al-Qaeda fighters make them targets for social exploitation. According to sociologist Mohammed Abdul Hassan, this then creates cases where these children rebel and feel animosity toward the state. Hassan said, “Those who have no group with which to identify, and no family to take care of them, will become social exiles. The truth is that today there are some who view them as illegitimate children; they have become social outcasts. This means that they are likely to join terrorist or criminal groups, and thus transform from victims to criminals.”
Um Khaled, whose husband disappeared in 2009, said that her 5-year-old son has been beaten by children in the neighborhood. “They cursed him and called him a bastard,” she said. This fight among children transformed into a larger problem, “the family of one of the children that was beaten by my son began cursing me and called me a prostitute. I had no way to respond; I have nothing to prove that I was married. I know nothing about my husband except that he was Moroccan and named Abu Obedia.”
An unknown fate
Until parliamentarians are persuaded to pass legislation that restores the rights of these individuals — who were born amid war, poverty and ignorance — this issue will remain open to a number of horrific possibilities. Will these individuals, some of whom may make up the third generation of al-Qaeda fighters, turn into fuel for other conflicts? Or will they be a rich resource for members of criminal groups? Will they carry the burdens of their fathers, and against their will enter into the cycle of reprisals and tribal feuds?
Young Huda, whose home I visited four months later, likely will remain ostracized from her friends, without being able to enter their school's doors or achieve a better life. Meanwhile, Huda's mother — who has become more emaciated and less hopeful, given the severe inflammation affecting one of her hands — wonders about her fate, “I do not know what awaits us. Every night I wonder what I'll do tomorrow. My daughter remains without lineage, rights or a breadwinner. People look at us with condescending looks, and they are right. I'm the widow of an unknown man; I don't know his name or even the location of his grave.” She said this as she closed a small box in which she had placed everything her husband left her.
Waiting for the state
Ibtihal Zubaidi, the Iraqi minister of women, has requested that the state register the children of al-Qaeda fighters. She said, “We met with members of provincial councils who are concerned with this issue, as well as with civil society activists. We have coordinated with the Ministry of Human Rights, which will undertake a study to determine the appropriate procedures that must be taken to solve the problem. The children are not guilty and the mothers are the victims of difficult circumstances. The state must issue them official papers and provide for them.”
Walid Abboud, a member of the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, said the solution to the problem requires the “legislation of a special law.” Nahida al-Daini, an MP from Diyala province, expressed the same view. She emphasized that “the problem requires a radical solution from the state, in light of fears that these children will form a new generation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, or that they will fall victim to tribal reprisals from the families of those who died at the hands of their fathers.”
Mohammed Rashid, the founder of the Children's Parliament in Iraq, said that the issue “cannot withstand further delays; the state has an obligation to find a solution. It is our duty under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.”
Rashid emphasizes that the authorities must issue a special law to address these cases, “regardless of the child's father, whether he was a terrorist or criminal. The state must register these children and give them their full right.” He has called on the state to undertake a “mass adoption” of these children.
However, this “mass adoption” — and the legal solution that must precede it — is still far from being realized. According to Mahmoud Mohammed, a personal-status law judge, this requires parliamentary legislation and a government decision. Mohammed emphasizes that judges are obliged to follow “legal text whenever they review a case.”
Opposition to naturalization
While some officials and members of parliament sympathize with these victims, it hasn't reached the level of them issuing the necessary legislation. At the same time, they are faced with a refusal on the part of other MPs and officials to naturalize these children. These officials believe that granting the children of al-Qaeda leaders civil rights is unfair to those who died at the hands of the group.
Hakim al-Zamili, a member of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee, openly expresses his opposition to any step in this direction. He said that such a move would be “unacceptable, given that al-Qaeda has spilled the blood of thousands of Iraqis. We cannot grant them any legitimacy.” Other MPs support this view, stressing that citizenship should only be granted to the children of those who were not involved in the shedding of Iraqi blood.
No right to citizenship
The Iraqi constitution is one of the most progressive constitutions in the region in terms of granting citizenship. Under Article 12 of the constitution, the children of Iraqi women are given citizenship regardless of the citizenship of the father. Yet, despite this fact, the problem with Shaima, Huda, Mohammed and Omar lies in the fact that they do not possess official papers to verify the identity of their fathers, which the state could use to prove their lineage.
The father's identity is required
Tariq Harb, a legal expert, said that registering marriages and verifying the lineage of these children is not impossible. The wife must file a lawsuit against her husband — who is either missing or dead — and prove that the marriage occurred outside of the courts. She must provide witnesses, along with official papers that verify the identity of the husband, so that the courts can investigate and officially verify the marriage. If there are children involved, the courts will issue a decision verifying their lineage and send a copy of the decision to the Directorate of Naturalization and Personal Status, which will register the children.
Harb, however, stresses that it is not possible to verify the marriage took place in cases where the father's identity is unknown, even if witnesses were present. Under Article 46 of the Code of Civil Procedure, any petition filed by the wife must include the defendant's name, address and occupation. The husband's name is considered vital information; without it; the petition is invalid.
This same view is expressed by Abdul Sattar Bayrakdar, a judge who serves as the official spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council. He said, "These women and their children face no legal problems if they provide official papers that verify the father's identity. Once they prove the marriage took place, this is enough to verify the child's lineage."
It seems, however, that it is impossible to complete the required procedures to verify the marriage and lineage in most of these cases involving the children of Arab fighters. The husband is absent [or dead], witnesses are scattered across the country and official papers do not exist to prove the husband's identity and address. This information is necessary to notify him to come to court so that he can confirm whether or not the marriage took place, if he's alive, or to obtain evidence of his death if he has died.