The Bulan Institute for Peace Innovations hosted an expert dialogue on the current situation of former ISIS fighters and their associates in Northeast Syria. The discussion focused on state policies toward ISIS affiliates held in camps and prisons in the region. The panellists of the event were Dr Anne Speckhard of the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism and Dr Gavin Helf of the US Institute of Peace. The experts brought in their insights and perspectives on the issue of ISIS affiliates by examining the policies taken by countries in Europe and Central Asia.
The panel discussion began with a presentation from the Director of the Bulan Institute, Cholpon Orozobekova, who provided the findings from the research and publications from the Bulan Institute. She reiterated that repatriation appeared to be the best policy to address the situation in Northeast Syria.
Dr Speckhard discussed her personal experience travelling to the camps and her findings from discussions with 253 foreign ISIS fighters and their families. The health conditions in the camp were found to be appalling, with many mothers claiming that their children are sick and dying. This situation is particularly acute now that the world is confronting a global pandemic. “The US [is] leading the way in repatriation,” she said, “but we also don’t face such a terrible problem”. The US only had 300 foreign fighters and only needs to take back around 20 people. The European resistance to repatriation could be linked not only to the higher number of foreign fighters and their families requiring repatriation but also to the repeated terrorist attacks on the continent which soured public opinion towards the issue. Politicians, therefore, were afraid of enabling repatriation, resulting in the drafting of inadequate laws and policies. Currently, European countries only bring orphans, children and mothers back on a case by case basis. Dr Speckhard reiterated that most of the children in the camps were under seven years old, but there was a reluctance to bring them back due to EU family reunification laws. “Are you responsible for your countries’ citizens, are you responsible for your innocent children?” she asked, laying bare the consequences of inaction.
Dr Gavin Helf reflected on the experiences of Central Asian states saying that “for those of us who follow Central Asia, the story of repatriation is a good news story”. Central Asia has taken the lead in repatriation, with the notable successes of Operation Mehr in Uzbekistan and Operation Zhusan in Kazakhstan. However, he warned that “repatriation is the easy part”, reintegration being the difficult follow-through to the policy. Dr Helf went on to outline the different models of reintegration that Central Asian countries had taken. Kazakhstan has taken “a state-led, institutional de-radicalisation approach”, holding that radicalised citizens had been exposed to bad versions of Islam and that their de-radicalisation should stem from their reintroduction to more peaceful, local versions of Islam, thanks to theologians and psychologists. Tajikistan, in contrast, rejects the idea of an ideological problem: “It’s not about changing what’s in people’s hearts, it’s about changing people’s behaviour”. Measures of success thus quantify the ability of returnees to start working and reengaging in normal life. Uzbekistan has a model of “organic reintegration”, using the Mahala, a communal organisation locally present throughout the country. The Mahala provides “preventative oversight and intervention”, that would be capable of safely bringing people back into communities. It is a model of communal intervention, rather than individual behaviour change.
Despite their success in repatriating their citizens, Central Asian states still have gaps in their reintegration capabilities, ranging from PTSD, child education and developmental issues, to the lack of long-term social work and returnee stigmatisation. The question of the capacity and desire of societies to take back their former compatriots underpins these gaps. The Question and Answer session following the presentation centred both on the lack of these capabilities and on the European aversion towards addressing this issue. ISIS fighters were sent to Iraq and Syria to be tried, leading to questions of the morality of such an approach, due to the problems facing those judicial systems. The discussion also focused on the issue of the underestimation of the agency of women engaging with and travelling to the Islamic State. Dr Speckhard concluded by pointing out that the demonisation of Islamic people significantly set Europe apart from the Central Asian states. Dr Helf gave the audience a final reminder that the world had to find a way to end the global war on terror in a humane and reconciliatory manner.
It is important to note that all these policy positions and developments have been undercut by the COVID-19 related disruptions and lockdowns, adding a considerable obstacle to addressing the issue of returning ISIS fighters and their families to their countries.
The full video of the panel discussion will be available soon on our YouTube channel.