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Central Asia shows the way in mainstreaming Jihadi families

Abandoned families of foreign terrorists abound in Al-Hol and Roj camps in northern Syria (Photo: OGNReports/Twitter)

As the Islamic State was on a rampage in Afghanistan at the end of  July, Syria’s semi-autonomous Kurdish administration was handing over to authorities of Tajikistan the custody of 146 women and children related to ISIS extremists.

Thousands of foreign extremists from Central Asia had joined ISIS as fighters when the terror organization suddenly arose and began seizing territory in Syria and Iraq. These fighters brought with them wives and children to live in the promised land – the “caliphate”, so different from the Muslim but secularized lands of their birth.

An increasing number of foreign women and children, the wives and children of different terrorist groups who had been active in Iraq and Syria, especially belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) group, have been found abandoned or stranded in camps there, their husbands either dead or in custody of different governments. Many of them find themselves stateless, with the governments of the countries of origin unwilling to take them back. With the governments of Iraq and Syria reclaiming territory under the control of ISIL and other militant groups, these stranded women and children have come to represent a humanitarian crisis. The UN has been forced to intervene and adopted UN Security Council resolution 2396, which mandates that governments extend help to their citizens, who may be associated with foreign terrorist militants and who may be victims of terrorism.

The authorities have repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their citizens from crowded displaced camps. Al-Hol and Roj camps are home to tens of thousands of relatives of ISIS militants from Syria and abroad, with the former holding 10,000 foreigners.

Most states have been reluctant to receiving them only sporadically, afraid of bringing back terror in their countries. Earlier in March, Save the Children organization had warned that children held in these camps may remain stuck there for another 30 years, unless the pace of repatriations accelerates. The organization estimated that 18,000 Iraqi children and 7,300 minors from 60 other countries are stuck in the Kurdish-run al-Hol and Roj camps, in northeastern Syria.

According to the United Nations around 56,000 people live in al-Hol, an overcrowded camp plagued by murders and escape attempts. In 2021, 74 children died there, including eight who were reported to have been murdered.

That is why Tajikistan’s actions stand out. This of course had not been the first time. In April 2019, 84 Tajik children were repatriated from Iraq. This time, however, women have also been included. Almost 42 women and 104 children, including orphans, who were held in the al-Hol and Roj camps were handed over to Tajikistan’s ambassador to Kuwait Zabidullah Zabidov, who is handling the repatriation process for Tajikistan. According to officials, Tajik authorities had been in contact with Syria’s Kurds “for months” to repatriate their citizens, something which according to the official news site Khovar is close to President Emomali Rahman’s heart.

 

While Tajikistan’s actions are both laudable and exemplary, it is not the first in the region to such repatriation efforts. Much earlier Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had shown the way. There are no specific data for the number of Kazakh or Uzbek citizens who travelled to join the ISIS. Estimates range from 5000-10,000. However, the Kazakh government estimates at least 260 Kazakhs were killed in Syria since 2011.

In 2019, Kazakhstan together with the support of the US government conducted Operation Zhusan to repatriate Kazakh citizens from the conflict zone. Almost 600 Kazakhs —33 men, 156 women and 406 children including 32 orphans — were brought back from Syria. These returnees were enrolled in a rehabilitation program before returning to their local communities. Other returnees — 31 males and 12 females — have been sentenced to various prison terms for their participation in a terrorist organization. In December 2019, 14 people received sentences ranging from 8 to 12 years in prison.

 

According to scholar Anna Gussarova “A complex multi-layered and multi-stakeholder approach has been developed by the Kazakh government to implement what has been dubbed the ‘3R’ policy: repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration. As it is a new policy, it has yet to develop best practices. Basically, learning-by-doing has become the only available option for the country.”

In 2019 under Operation Mehr (Kindness), Uzbekistan allowed back almost 156 Uzbek citizens – mostly women and children – who had found themselves trapped in conflict zones in the Middle East. The operation was carried out, as directed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in “full compliance with the fundamental international instruments in the field of human rights, as well as on the rules and principles of international humanitarian law.” The Uzbek Government announced that it was providing comprehensive assistance for the rehabilitation and reintegration of all those who have returned to their homeland. They will have access to health care and psychosocial support, educational and other social programmes. Since then, the country has conducted five such operations bringing back home some 435 women and children, mostly from Syria but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, including 343 minors ages 1 to 15.

 

The U.N. resident coordinator in Uzbekistan, Helena Fraser had said the country’s “commendable experience and collaboration” could be a model for 56 other countries to repatriate nearly 10,000 citizens associated with IS in Syria.

Similarly, Kazakhstan has established a network of rehabilitation facilities in coordination with NGOs across the country. Foreign fighters were placed in a rehabilitation center for a month, where they underwent health checks, psychological and religious counseling, and meetings with family members. Since many of the returnees are female, they were given vocational training. Children were allowed to remain with their mothers, while being provided health care, education.  and being exposed to different interventions by theologians, psychologists, and families. In an interesting move the government also changed Arabic names of children born in Syria. Citizenship was provided to children only if a Kazakh bloodline was proven.

Kazakhstan’s repatriation of extremist fighters and their families from conflict zones of Iraq and Syria has earned the Central Asian country praise from UN independent human rights expert Fionnuala Ni Aolain. Aolain, who is the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, has said that Kazakhstan’s action “safeguards the rights of vulnerable children and their mothers”, and has asked other states in the region to take similar humanitarian initiatives.

 

Interestingly, according to Gussarova, the fact that then President Nazarbayev ordered the operation without taking into consideration public opinion or any public discussion was what allowed the operations to go ahead. Such quick decision-making would be hamstrung in democracies.

Presumably, the Tajik government will also follow a similar course like that of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and even Kyrgyzstan. The timing of the repatriation itself was significant – as the conference on Afghanistan began in neighbouring Tashkent. The efforts of these governments are driven by two main factors. One, is the humanitarian approach, that ensures that their citizens stranded in conflict zones are not left to providence. The other is security, ensuring the strict monitoring of those found in the conflict zones. Some may be used in counter-terrorism  and intelligence gathering. The third is to use the example of those rehabilitated to deter other citizens from radicalization and joining terror groups.

Given the growing footprint of the ISIS-KP in neighbouring Afghanistan, and the ties that the ruling Taliban there still have to terror groups like Al Qaeda, the efforts for the repatriation and rehabilitation of foreign fighters by the Central Asian states acquire greater salience and urgency for both Central and for South Asia.

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