PARIS — A French woman captured in the Iraqi city of Mosul with her four children is facing possible prosecution in Iraq for allegedly collaborating with the Islamic State group, in a test case for how governments handle the families of foreign fighters now that the extremists are in retreat.
The fate of the children, ranging in age from 6 months to 8 years old, is in legal limbo. The father’s whereabouts are unknown.
How Iraq and France choose to handle this family’s case could set a precedent for the many other foreigners who joined the IS cause. France alone estimates that 750 French people are among extremists in Iraq and Syria — including up to 450 children.
Two Iraqi intelligence officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the woman is being investigated in Baghdad and could face terrorism charges for illegally entering Iraq and joining IS, and that the French government wants the children handed over to France.
French consular officials have been pushing for permission to see the family since their arrest earlier this month — but the French government has shown no interest in having the woman brought home.
The woman’s lawyer says the whole family should be brought to France, even though she would probably be jailed and face terrorism charges upon her return. Lawyer William Bourdon fears she could suffer abuse in Iraq and be used as a scapegoat for IS crimes or as a pawn in domestic political conflicts.
But French government spokesman Christophe Castaner said Wednesday the mother should be prosecuted in Iraq, saying she wasn’t in battle-torn Mosul “for tourism.”
While he said France condemns reported abuses by Iraqi troops in their campaign against IS, he insisted “the authorities in Iraq are justified in wanting to judge (foreign fighters) on site.”
The woman, believed to be in her 30s, was arrested July 9 along with her two sons and two daughters in a basement in Mosul’s Old City, according to the Iraqi intelligence officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release information.
The woman worked for Islamic State’s Diwan al-Hisba, or morality police, and told Iraqi security forces that her husband was killed during the fight in Mosul’s Old City, the officials said.
While her lawyer could not provide details about why the French family joined IS, France has sent more extremists to Iraq and Syria than any other Western country. France has also been repeatedly targeted by deadly IS attacks, mainly staged by homegrown extremists.
The captured Frenchwoman abruptly left her home in a Paris suburb in late 2015 and followed her husband to Syria and then to Iraq, taking their three children along, according to Bourdon. The woman’s family doesn’t want her name released for their protection.
The woman gave birth six months ago in Mosul, Bourdon said, even as Iraqi troops — with help from U.S., French and other forces — battled to oust IS from its main stronghold in Iraq.
“The logical solution, from a judicial and human standpoint, would be for the family to be handed over to French authorities,” Bourdon told The Associated Press. “That she made the most stupid choice of her life is not a reason to have a view of her that is only judicial.”
A French diplomat said Wednesday that consular authorities still haven’t been able to see the woman or her children. The government spokesman said French and Iraqi authorities are working to verify the children’s identities.
The French Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it had told the woman’s parents last month to urge her to turn herself in to the Red Cross or French consular authorities in Baghdad or Irbil.
Bourdon acknowledged such cases are “a headache” for French authorities, given sustained IS threats to France, but warned that the problem is likely to get worse as IS territory is overtaken and other French families “come out of the woodwork.”
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials also said they arrested a foreign woman they believe is German in Mosul’s Old City last week. They said she had been recruited by an Arab IS member through social media. German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said the government is in contact with Iraqi authorities but can’t yet confirm that the German woman was in Iraq.