V Understanding the pressures against leaving and the dangers it can entail
The culture these children have been born into is unity at all costs. Do not speak out against your parents, your family, your social environment. Do not act against it. Do not leave the unit. Not only do they face strong familial constraints against leaving, but also broader social constraints from within the milieu.
I’ve already mentioned how children were denied educations, but the boys fared far better than the girls. Most girls were married off very young. Some of these girls were not even in their teens. Soon they had children, trapping them even further. Many were used by bin Laden and others as bargaining chips, married off to solidify fraying allegiances, to ensure that families did not leave, to tighten intra group ties, or to forge new alliances. For example; bin Laden orchestrated the marriage of his son to Abu Hafs al Masri’s daughter in order to further tie him to al Qaeda after hearing he was considering resigning.
Both direct and indirect family ties have been used to prevent wives from leaving. If the marriage was to a cousin or into another family in the milieu with close social ties these child-wives were further restricted in their ability to leave, by being subjected to added layers of familial and social pressure. A stranger might have family support they could rely on and return to, so where possible this type of marriage was to be avoided.
And then we have the women who are now widowed and their children. How do they get out?
They need chaperones. As I said before, there is no one to contact, there are no initiatives in place. There is nothing. And so, usually, the widows are married into another family. Some are so traumatized they don’t want to leave; they want to die on the soil where they lost their husbands, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. And then of course there are some who support the cause and want to stay. But my focus here is on those who want to leave but cannot.
Some time ago someone traveled to the region to try to get the women and children out–owing we can reasonably assume to there being not one single program in place for them to attempt to return through any official channels, and the likelihood they would in any event be exploited. This person who was working to try to get the women and children out (and who himself was a child born into the militant milieu) was killed in a drone strike. That he was trying to get the women and children out was widely known in certain circles, and was information that without doubt reached intelligence elements. Perhaps this person was involved in other activities causing them to be targeted for killing, but we’ll never know because there is no accountability or transparency for these extra-judicial killings. The morality, legality and accountability of and for these types of extra judicial killings deserves its own blog post, but I raise it here because the consequence of this particular extrajudicial targeted killing has been that even this option is now closed off, further trapping women and children who wish to leave.
It is also important to note that this option was limited to begin with, because using it meant you had to have permission to leave. In some family environments women and children are obliged to follow the direction of their husband, father, brother, uncle or other family patriarch. Obliged in this sense means they have no choice but to obey, or face the consequences. It’s not like this for everyone, but I think it is important for people to know that for many it is. Women and children don’t always have agency; they don’t always have choices. Even when they do have permission it doesn’t stop pressure or counteraction from within the community.
For those who do have permission and are willing to go against such pressures, the closing of this route out means there is even less hope of leaving. As I mentioned earlier, it has also become more dangerous. They need chaperones and must by necessity travel with men who can be the subject of extra juridical targeted strikes. Still they try to leave, and some die in the process.
It has also become more dangerous to leave because of changes within the milieu, particularly in areas of Pakistan which militants have sought sanctuary (although also in some home areas to which they return). Owing to so many having left or trying to leave, a split has taken place in the younger generations. Those who have stayed and want to stay have become more, rather than less radical. This development has been driven not only by their exposure to the increasingly takfir nature of the ideological positions being propagated in areas they have sought sanctuary (and in the broader milieu), but also by their isolation and lengthy exposure to aerial strikes and conflict in general. Simply put, this development is fed in part by ideological and doctrinal elements and in part by conflict trauma and revenge, both of which are now inextricably linked, causing further radicalization in the milieu, which has important consequences for future militant activities, particularly in shaping the doctrines underpinning their targeting strategies (but this too requires its own blog post).
I raise it here because it is important to note that a consequence of the reliance of aerial strikes and targeted killings has been the elimination of older more pragmatic figures. This has resulted in the newer generations who have chosen to stay and the ideological current around them becoming particularly virulent because there are few left with the clout and pedigree to challenge the emergence of a more violent and unrestrained dynamic within the milieu.
It has also manifested in the increasing radicalization against the state in those parts of Pakistan where militants have sought sanctuary. But violence against the state is just one element. Aid workers are now at greater risk of violent attacks and unable to operate in some areas; no small thanks to the takfiri teachings and actions driving and/or justifying attacks on them, but also to those intelligence agencies who use aid work as cover. A consequence is that these areas are not safe to work in and are not receiving important aid assistance. As a result, aid organizations would face significant difficulties if they were to try to create safe pathways out for the women and children. They too may find themselves subject to attacks by both internal and external forces, not only endangering them, but also the women and children they may seek to assist.
With this option not currently in operation those wanting or trying to leave must run the gauntlet of pressures and actions from within their own communities, aerial strikes and unscrupulous intelligence agencies, who are, particularly in the case of young boys, likely to try to send them back in as assets. Accordingly, to try to leave is more dangerous now than ever.
And then we arrive at the question of what happens if they do manage to get themselves out?