By Ben Hubbard
As US-backed forces assault the final bastion of the Islamic State in Syria, two American children may be stuck inside, their father fears.
“I am praying to my God that they will return to me,” said the father, Bashirul Shikder. “They are innocent. I am just hoping.”
Four years ago, his wife fled their Florida home to join the Islamic State and took their two children with her. She was killed in an airstrike, but the children are believed to be in Baghuz, the last village held by the Islamic State in Syria.
As the years long battle to destroy the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate draws to an end, Western governments have struggled to deal with citizens who joined the terrorist organization. The family of Shamima Begum, who left for Syria as a teenager, has said the British government intends to revoke her citizenship, and President Donald Trump has vowed not to let Hoda Muthana, an American-born woman, return to the United States.
But Shikder’s ordeal raises the question of what happens to children who ended up in the Islamic State through no fault of their own.
Shikder, 38, told his story in phone calls from Iraq and Florida, and two lawyers involved in his case corroborated his account.
“Mr. Shikder is a religious Muslim, but he is also very much an American,” said Charles D. Swift, director of the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, who is helping Shikder. “He believes in America and in the ideals of America.”
Born in Bangladesh, Shikder moved to Canada as a young man, before immigrating to the United States and becoming a citizen a decade ago. He married a Bangladeshi-born American woman, Rashida Sumaiya, and had two children, Yusuf, a boy, and Zahra, a girl.
They lived near Miami, where he works in information technology, he said. He and his wife liked to play chess and badminton and hold barbecues in Miami Beach.
But his life was upended in March 2015, when he left for a pilgrimage to Mecca. His wife was supposed to take the children to visit her parents in Orlando, he said. But when she stopped responding to his texts, he began to worry.
After days of silence, he reached her parents, who said she and the children were gone but refused to say more, he said. So he contacted the FBI and returned to Florida, learning that his wife, their children, then 4 and 10 months old, and his wife’s sister, had flown to Turkey to cross into Syria to join the Islamic State.
A few weeks later, he received a call from Syria while he was driving on the freeway, he said. A man with a British accent asked him whether he was the father of Yusuf and Zahra. Shikder said yes and asked where they were.
“In the Islamic State,” he said the man told him.
He gave Shikder one month to join them in Syria or said his wife and children would be taken away from him.
About a week later, his wife called and told him how she, her sister, and their children had been smuggled into Syria and had their passports taken away, he said. That was the start of an intermittent and painful correspondence between him, his wife, her sister and other members of the Islamic State.
Sometimes his wife sent him videos of his children playing and put them on the phone, he said. But he never knew whether they were in danger.
“Many times I was very worried because I was seeing fighting, I was seeing airstrikes, I was seeing Assad’s soldiers,” he said, referring to Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. “I was seeing people being killed.”
Later, he received messages asking him to send money or telling him to join the family in Syria, appeals he was not sure were from his wife or from someone else using her phone, he said. He refused to send money, having been advised that it could violate the American law against providing material support to a terrorist group.
In 2016, he received a document from an Islamic State court divorcing him from his wife. The document said his wife had asked for a divorce because Shikder lived in “the land of disbelief (America),” had refused to move to the Islamic State and had not sent money to his wife.
He later learned that his wife had remarried and given birth to a daughter, and sometime later that her new husband had been killed, he said.
He last spoke to Sumaiya in December, he said. He told her that her father had died in the United States, and she spoke of a nearby airstrike that had terrified the children. In January, his sister-in-law told him that his wife had been killed in an airstrike and that the three children had been burned in the blast.
The sister-in-law got in touch one more time, on Feruary 4, and said the children’s wounds were healing, Shikder said. That was the last he heard from her.
Last month, Shikder received word that his children had been found in a refugee camp in eastern Syria, so he flew to northern Iraq, intending to cross the border to retrieve them. But it turned out to be a false report, so he returned to Florida last week.
Clive Stafford Smith, a British human rights lawyer who is helping Shikder, says he has confirmed, through contacts he has with people whose relatives are in the village, that the children are alive and in Baghuz, in the care of a British woman who is reluctant to surrender.
Shikder is an observant Muslim who does not drink or smoke, prays regularly and wears a long black beard with a trim mustache. His own faith compounded his horror at the jihadis’ actions, he said.
“I do everything that Islam tells you to do, but my Islam did not tell me to do what they did,” he said.
He said he struggled to determine how much his wife had embraced their message.
“Sometimes I was feeling that she was stuck,” he said. “Sometimes I was feeling that she was believing what she was doing.”
Yusuf is now 8, Zahra is 4, and his wife’s other daughter, Safyah, is about 18 months old. His lawyers believe she can claim American citizenship through her mother, and Shikder has offered to adopt her.
But it remains unclear whether the children will make it out of Syria.
Smith and Shikder have contacted American diplomats, law enforcement agents and members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that have surrounded Baghuz, hoping to secure safe passage for the children, Smith said.
Heather Fabrikant, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Irbil, Iraq, said the State Department was “aware of reports of an international parental child abduction case in which U.S. citizen children were taken to Syria in 2015” but that she could not discuss details because of privacy considerations.
On Monday, Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, wrote on Twitter that they had slowed the offensive on Baghuz “due to a small number of civilians held as human shields” by the Islamic State. “However, we assert that the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon.”
As he waits, Shikder prays, and tries to stay hopeful that his children will be saved.
“Everything is making me worried,” he said.