Tunis – He is an orphan of the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, a Tunisian toddler who is now caught in diplomatic limbo and has been stuck in a Libyan prison for a year.
Tamim Jaboudi’s grandfather has managed to visit the child twice in the prison in Tripoli, delivering a winter jacket and as much familial warmth as he can manage in the brief meetings.
But Tamim barely knows him, and by now can hardly remember his parents – a Tunisian couple who left their homeland to join the Islamic State group and were killed last year in an American airstrike, according to the grandfather, Faouzi Trabelsi.
Living among a group of around two dozen Tunisian women and their young children imprisoned in Tripoli’s Mitiga prison, Tamim is being raised by a woman who herself willingly joined ISIS, according to his grandfather and human rights groups.
“What is this young child’s sin that he is in jail with criminals?” asked his grandfather, Faouzi Trabelsi, who has traveled twice to Libya to see the boy and twice returned home emptyhanded. “If he grows up there, what kind of attitude will he have toward his homeland?”
European governments and experts have documented at least 600 foreign children of fighters who live in or have returned from ISIS territory in Syria, Iraq or Libya.
But the numbers are likely far higher. In Libya, the fate of 44 Tunisian children is particularly uncertain. The North African nation descended into chaos after the 2011 civil war and has been split into competing governments with numerous militias, tribes and political factions. Militias in December captured the main ISIS stronghold in Libya, Sirte.
Both Tunisia and Libya say they want the return of the women and children, but for months any effort to hand them over has fallen apart with little explanation.
That has raised complaints in Tunisia that the government does not want them back for security concerns. But the militia running Mitiga prison, even as it says it want to hand over the families, has tightly controlled access to them, saying the Tunisians need permissions from the office of Tripoli’s top prosecutor.
Part of the problem also appears to be that Tunisian officials are reluctant to deal directly with the militia, since it isn’t a government body.
On Wednesday, a Tunisia delegation was in Tripoli and was supposed to come to the prison, but the visit was cancelled at the last minute, and the delegation returned home emptyhanded.
Tunisia is willing to take them, said Chafik Hajji, a Tunisian diplomat who handles the cases of Tunisians who have joined the extremists. “There is no wrong in being born in a conflict zone,” he said. “Once their Tunisian citizenship is confirmed, they will have an individual treatment.”
Tamim’s grandfather Trabelsi spoke with The Associated Press in his spotlessly clean living room in Tunis. Outside, the neighborhood was rough at the edges, its streets pitted with neglect. Around the corner, adolescent boys brawled as a crowd circled around to watch.
He said his daughter, Samah, married a young man from the neighborhood after a quick courtship, and then the newlyweds left for Turkey, a common jumping off point for Europeans and North Africans joining extremist groups.
Tamim was born there in April 2014. The couple returned to Tunisia briefly, then went to neighbouring Libya, where they remained for two years, he said.
The Islamic State group paid particular attention to recruiting families, boasting it would build a society to endure for generations.
“In the long term, there is the new generation of ISIS,” said Mohammed Iqbel, whose Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad advocates for the families of those who have left. “And if we don’t save them, they will be a new generation of terrorism.”
Quilliam researcher Nikita Malik said 80 British children were inside Islamic State territory. France estimated 450 children are within ISIS territory, including around 60 who were born there; Dutch and Belgian intelligence each offered an estimate of 80 of their own children.
In the Netherlands, anyone over 9 is labeled a “jihadi traveler” and considered a potential security threat – 9 is the age at which Islamic State extremists formally begin teaching boys to kill.
Tamim’s mother made it out once, Trabelsi said, but she was demoralized by what he described as harassment from Tunisian intelligence agents. She left the second time without warning, Trabelsi said.
She took all her documents and nearly all the family photos. He scrounged up a photocopy of her ID card, which shows a veiled young woman gazing directly at the camera.
“When she called me she didn’t give me any information, neither where they were living nor what they were doing,” Trabelsi said. “Her husband told her to be quiet and not to tell us anything.”
The couple was among at least 40 dead in a US airstrike on an ISIS training camp in the city of Sabratha in February 2016.
The Pentagon at the time said the target was Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian who is suspected of involvement in the 2015 attack on Tunis’ Bardo Museum in which 22 people died.
Tamim survived and was taken with the group of Tunisian women and children, including Chouchane’s wife, to the air base prison. Word filtered back to his grandfather, who began pressing for the child’s return.
A low point came when Trabelsi was permitted to take Tamim outside the prison and sit with him in a car. He wondered, he said, if he should just drive away with the child, who by now was closer to the prison warden than his own grandfather. Despite daily commercial roundtrip flights from Tunis, the boy has not been allowed to return to his family.
“He is clean, he is in good shape. They told me they bring him out to play and see other children,” he said. “But he should be allowed back. He is in a prison.”