In a Syrian camp for ISIS supporters, a Belgian vows she made a huge mistake

Cassandra Bodart is fighting to return to Belgium, but Brussels refuses to repatriate her

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Her mother still calls her baby doll, but Cassandra Bodart is a long way from home. After running away with an Islamic militant to Syria as a teenager six years ago, the 24-year-old Belgian lives in a Kurdish-run camp for ISIS families in north-eastern Syria, unable to return home.

She has cast off her veil and renounced the fundamentalist ideology of ISIS. But now the blonde-haired Belgian says she fears for her life as she remains living among the group’s supporters at Roj Camp.

As US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces recently finished the operation to clear the last ISIS redoubt in Syria – a tiny encampment in Baghouz in Deir Ezzor – thousands of the group’s supporters have been surrendering. About 400 foreign ISIS wives and their children have been brought to Roj, where the most hardline are covertly attempting to enforce the extremist group’s rules under the noses of the camp’s administration.

My family pushed me towards Islam, Islam pushed me towards my husband, and my husband pushed me towards ISIS

"It's a radicalisation camp," Ms Bodart told The National recently during an interview conducted in a portacabin used by camp management. "It's very dangerous."

Ms Bodart’s story illustrates the difficult question of what to do with foreign women who supported ISIS, a cohort that includes obvious offenders, some clear victims and others whose culpability is far less obvious. Thousands like Ms Bodart now languish in Kurdish-run camps in north-east Syria, discovering that the fraught journey that led them to ISIS may be nothing compared to the difficulty of finding a path to redemption and a return home.

Ms Bodart was 18 when she travelled to Syria in 2013. She was following her then husband Abdelhamid Derguiani, a Frenchman of Algerian descent 26 years her senior whom she had met on Facebook.

In a 40-minute interview, Ms Bodart spoke of conflict in her home life and a conversion to Islam in her teen years. She had been naive and easily manipulated, she said. “My family pushed me towards Islam, Islam pushed me towards my husband, and my husband pushed me towards ISIS.”

The pair settled in the capital of the Islamic State, Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city where her husband, a committed militant obsessed with martyrdom, was put to work manufacturing suicide car bombs.

For a time, Ms Bodart was happy. She posted a picture on Facebook of her torn-up passport captioned: “Prepare yourself, Belgium, and all other lands of disbelievers. Takbir! Allahu akbar!”

But, according to her account, reality kicked in and she soon wanted to leave. “After one year I wanted to come home,” she said. “When the bombardment became heavier.”

Her husband was domineering, Ms Bodart said, and she could not escape, despite several attempts. “He monitored my telephone,” she said. “He locked me inside for a month at a time.”

In June 2017, SDF forces besieged Raqqa and some time afterwards her husband killed himself in a suicide bombing. At this stage of their relationship, she was unmoved by his death: “I wasn’t thinking about this, I was just thinking of escape.”

Even going outside was dangerous. “The city was destroyed and I thought I was going to die in the Islamic State,” she recalled. Instead she fled, crossing frontlines to surrender to the US-backed force who held her briefly in a prison before moving her to Roj.

One of three camps run by Syrian Kurds to hold foreign women and children affiliated with ISIS, Roj is much smaller than the overflowing Al Hol Camp, which has received more than 57,000 people since December, when the SDF launched its final assault on Baghouz.

There are now women from 39 countries and more than 1,000 children living at Roj. The SDF hold at least 57 Belgian citizens, including 17 women and 31 children, although after the fall of Baghouz the figure is probably higher, according to Belgian journalist Guy van Vlierden.

Ms Bodart is notable among the camp’s inhabitants for her disavowal of ISIS, according to one camp manager. “She is genuinely remorseful,” said the woman, who declined to be named. “Evidence of this is that she has removed her veil.”

“How can we really know though?” asked another member of the camp’s management.

Distinguishing between the extremists and the extremely sorry is a thorny issue that Belgium, like many western states, is in no hurry to address. Ms Bodart said she has not been contacted by her government since arriving at the camp. But in April 2018 she was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for membership of a terrorist group.

Her Belgian lawyer is now fighting to bring her home so she can challenge this conviction. At stake are issues that are bigger than Ms Bodart, Nicolas Cohen told The National.

“We have to demand the protection of civil rights: the right to be present at your own trial, the right to defend yourself, the right to have consular assistance, and the right to humanitarian assistance,” Mr Cohen said.

Leaving her in Syria effectively “overturns a very strong body of national and international law”.

Ultimately, he said, “it’s a very simple right: the right of a citizen to be in their own country. Otherwise citizenship doesn’t mean anything.”

So far though, public debate in Belgium has focused on what to do about the women and children of ISIS fighters, rather than those who have faced prosecution. The government maintains that active participants in ISIS ought to remain in Syria. The country has suffered five attacks either directed or inspired by ISIS on its soil since 2014, the worst being the March 2016 twin suicide bombings at Brussels Airport and Maalbeek metro station, which killed 32 people.

"The general view is that it would be preferable to let them be judged in Syria" – provided the death penalty is not imposed, the former head of Belgium's State Security Service Alain Winants told The National. "It's a different route for the women and children who simply joined their husbands. How far are these women themselves radicalised, it's difficult to judge that."

Belgium has said it will repatriate the children of Belgian ISIS members but not their mothers. Last month, the government won an appeal against a judge’s order forcing it to repatriate two women who were convicted in absentia of belonging to ISIS, and their six children. The Brussels Court of Appeal ruled on February 27 that the state was not required “to undertake any act of repatriation”.

Other European nations have taken similarly hard lines. Britain has moved to strip citizenship from Shamima Begum – another high-profile Roj camp resident. France has repatriated orphans but maintains that French nationals who joined ISIS "must be tried in the territory where they committed their crimes".

Some countries, including Russia, Malaysia and Indonesia, have repatriated dozens of women and children. The Kurdish-led authorities controlling north-east Syria say more governments must do the same and that it is willing to hand citizens over to their governments.

"ISIS prisoners and their families are a responsibility for the global community," the head of foreign relations for the self-administration of north-east Syria Abdulkarim Omar told The National.

Researchers meanwhile paint a more nuanced picture of foreign female ISIS supporters.

Narratives of innocent girls lured by recruiters are as incomplete as those that paint foreign ISIS women as strictly motivated by ideology and religion. Criminologist Marion van San at Erasmus University in Rotterdam has interviewed the families of 28 Belgian and Dutch women who joined ISIS and says they identified personal problems as a major motivator, ranging from abuse and neglect at home to perceived and real discrimination in the community.

For impressionable and troubled young women, unrealistic visions of life under ISIS offered a path to redemption. In part, “young women were looking for forgiveness,” Dr van San wrote in an academic paper. “Initially they found that in Islam and later in a departure for Syria.”

The other significant motivator was romantic – following a husband. A study of 78 Belgian women who went to Syria and Iraq found that more than 70 per cent of departures could be linked to the women's husbands. The data set includes only one woman who travelled ahead of her husband, and four women who left in the company of female friends.

Those who went to Syria under their husband’s influence are not automatically innocent, and while some discourse in the West has focused on women as victims, citizens of Iraq and Syria who were forced to live under ISIS are more likely to consider female supporters as equally culpable as men.

Harvard University researcher Vera Mironova carried out an opinion survey in Mosul, Iraq, asking people about their views on ISIS. She found that 79 per cent of non-ISIS supporting respondents believed that women in ISIS were just as radical as the men, and that 83 per cent believed that ISIS women could be just as dangerous in the future as men.

Ms Mironova dismisses the risks posed by the women held in camps in Syria though, arguing that the most dangerous foreign ISIS fighters fled Iraq and Syria back in 2016. “Those left are just stupid,” she wrote on Twitter. “No real threat, not worth thinking of.”

They are becoming more dangerous in the camp

But for Ms Bodart's mother, thoughts of her daughter occupy her every waking moment. "I think about her 24 hours a day," Suzanne Anciaux told The National, speaking from her home in Sambreville in southern Belgium.

“I hope from the bottom of my heart to see her again… I love her to infinity.

“She’s a good person.”

Awaiting the outcome of her lawyer’s legal challenges, Ms Bodart is as concerned about her immediate surroundings as her future.

Since renouncing Islam, Ms Bodart said she and a French friend who also removed her veil face death threats from committed ideologues in the camp. “They threaten to cut our heads, they’re not afraid. Many don’t want to go home, so they're not afraid of committing acts here. They shouldn’t be mixed in with the others.”

Camp administrators did not allow access to the camp beyond the office, despite The National having been granted permission to visit. But research by an NGO in December found that 22 per cent of households reported personal safety and security issues in the camp in the two weeks before the assessment. Tents have been deliberately set alight.

In this environment, women are pressured to remain outwardly committed to ISIS. “Many were deceived [by ISIS] but other people are becoming more radicalised in the camp,” said Ms Bodart. “They are becoming more dangerous in the camp.”

Spending her days inside her tent, Ms Bodart has time to reflect on the choices she made.

“I am scared all the time,” she says. “I made a huge mistake.”