In a New York Times photo, 4-year-old Bilal looks like any other kid sitting in bed, lost in a video game on a smartphone.
But there is a back-story. Bilal grew up in Mosul, Iraq, living on the run with his father, who was a fighter for the Islamic State. And right there is the question facing officials in Russia -- Chechnya, to be specific -- and in several European states: What should leaders in these nations do with children, especially boys, who grew up witnessing people beheaded, stoned and gunned down?
What about boys who were actually forced to take part in some of these rituals, as part of ISIS efforts to turn them into ultimate warriors? Are they, as one German official puts it, "living time bombs?"
That's the question at the heart of this fine Times story, which ran with the headline: "Raised by ISIS, Returned to Chechnya: ‘These Children Saw Terrible Things’." Here is a crucial summary passage near the top of this international-desk story:
As the American-led coalition and Syrian government forces captured cities that had been held by the Islamic State, they found among the ruins a grim human wreckage of the organization’s once successful recruitment drive: hundreds and perhaps thousands of children born to or brought with the men and women who had flocked to Syria in support of the Islamic State.
While Russia, which has so far returned 71 children and 26 women since August, may seem surprisingly lenient in its policy, its actions reflect a hardheaded security calculus: better to bring children back to their grandparents now than have them grow up in camps and possibly return as radicalized adults.
“What should we do, leave them there so somebody will recruit them?” said Ziyad Sabsabi, the Russian senator who runs the government-backed program. “Yes, these children saw terrible things, but when we put them in a different environment, with their grandparents, they change quickly.”
Now, as you would expect, I do have questions about the role of religious faith in all of this. I would have liked to have seen a bit more information about the role of Islam in this process.
After all, these children witnessed horrors that are hard to imagine. At the same time, they were raised to think of these acts as an essential part of a twisted, radicalized version of Islam.