The ISIS bride problem: Don't take it out on the children

An American ISIS widow looks for a way home
An American ISIS widow looks for a way home

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Navigating the line between innocence and complicity, between knowing and ignorance, between willing agent and unwitting victim -- that is the work of those charged with figuring out what responsibility ISIS wives from overseas bear as the rule of the terrorist group winds down.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
What is certain: these women witnessed a brutal hell of inhumanity from a front-row seat. Stayed until the end of the so-called "caliphate." They bore and raised children amid hangings, beheadings and the enslavement of other human beings. Saw rape and murder and brutality organized, scaled and viciously and effectively tailored to inflict extreme suffering on a great many.
And now, for those women still in Syria, they live in dust-coated tents, or sometimes in prison rooms, alongside their children, inhabiting a legal purgatory until one authority or another figures out what to do with them. What do you do with an "ISIS bride" far from home who says she was a victim, but also played a role in burying human beings?
    That, right now, is the question facing US officials as they figure out what in the world to do with the case of Samantha Sally, an American woman from Indiana who ended up living with her husband in ISIS territory from 2015 until ISIS lost its one-time stronghold of Raqqa late last year.
    Sally witnessed enslavement of Yazidi women -- and says she witnessed their rape -- and she did not escape the caliphate. Or attempt it, she tells CNN, fearing for her and her children's lives. US-backed Kurdish forces found Sally, and US officials now are working to figure out her fate and that of her four American children, one of whom was forced to be in an ISIS video.
    Whether these wives, these widows are complicit in the barbarism they lived amid is an open question. What is certain is that their children bear no responsibility. And should not suffer for the sins either of their fathers OR their mothers.
    These children must not become pariahs. They must be reintegrated into the home countries from which their mothers came. The children cannot suffer the sins of their parents. Or we will all suffer as a next generation endures injustice it did not create — and perhaps seeks justice itself later on.
    Last August in Syria, I saw firsthand with the team from "PBS NewsHour" the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fight to retake Raqqa from ISIS. And while visiting a camp for the displaced I saw the tents housing dozens of ISIS wives and their children.
    My heart broke for the kids; they did not make the choices of their parents. They were not responsible as toddlers, as children, for the horrors their fathers meted out. No one wanted to go near these untouchables, aside from foreign journalists, and I have wondered ever since what would happen to these little ones ensnared in a hell they didn't make.
    Iraq has handled this question of what to do with the wives of ISIS fighters in its own courts. Just this week, it sentenced a 29-year-old French woman to prison for life for joining the Islamic State with her husband. Like Sally, she says she is a victim, not a perpetrator.
    Iraqi courts already have decided on the death penalty for a German woman and sentenced women from the former Soviet republics to life and to death. Overall, those covering the proceedings note, "since January in the capital, 103 foreign nationals have been condemned to death -- including six Turks sentenced on Wednesday -- and 185 to life in prison, according to a judicial source."
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    It is much easier to slay a terrorist than an ideology. And the question of what justice means for those who may have been both victimized and part of the brutality raises even more questions.
    But what is clear is that the children must be protected and cared for, not ostracized and exiled. Societies must embrace these little ones, not shun them. Nothing would more powerfully deflate the puffed-up house of lies, grievances and skewed truths that proved so irresistible to their fathers.