- June 14, 2021
- Posted in Reports
Following the establishment of the so-called caliphate by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 2014, thousands of people traveled to the Middle East to join their ranks and those of other allied terrorist groups. According to Vladimir I. Voronkov, Under-Secretary for the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office, more than 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters from 110 countries might have traveled to join the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Recruits flocked from all over the world, predominantly the Middle East, North Africa, Western Europe, and Central Asia to the conflict zone.
The subsequent territorial defeat of ISIS on March 23rd, 2019, prompted the current dilemma about what should be done with the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their family members who remained in northeast Syria. Men, women, and children linked to ISIS who were unable to escape Syria were placed in Al-Hawl and Al-Roj camps. As research from the Bulan Institute for Peace Innovations and other notable organizations such as Human Rights Watch have found, the majority of those who were captured continues to be held in appalling conditions without adequate nutrition, clean water, healthcare, or shelter, in these hastily built camps in Northeast Syria. Those who were captured across the border in Iraq were largely detained, charged, and have been sentenced by the Iraqi judicial system, allegedly without minimum standards of justice or fair trial. These conditions, as well as the legal obligations and moral imperative of states to care for their citizens, have been referred to repeatedly by the United Nations, which has called for the repatriation of foreign citizens from Northeast Syria and Iraq wherever possible.
The United States has been playing an important role by advocating for repatriation of foreign nationals held in northeast Syria and also assisting states with logistics to organize repatriation operations. Washington made huge efforts to negotiate repatriation at least of women and children by warning that the Syrian Democratic Forces may not be able to guard its jails. “The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement. The United States has emphasized the security threat for international peace that comes from the current situation with ISIS fighters and their associates. Christopher Harnisch, deputy coordinator for countering violent extremism at the Bureau of Counterterrorism with the US Department of State, highlights that there is a big risk that ISIS fighters can be be free at some point whether they escape whether they are freed by ISIS fighters. “ISIS has called for the liberation of the prisons and the camps for some time now and if those people are able to escape from the prisons and the camps they will return back to the battlefield either in Syria or to another battlefield in Afghanistan, Libya, or they will return undetected through the back door to their home country. So, in order to secure that enduring defeat of ISIS, we think it’s imperative that countries repatriate now when they have an opportunity to repatriate,” said Christopher Harnisch.
States should not ignore their international obligations towards their citizens. Security Council Resolution 2178 urges all member states to prevent and suppress the recruitment, organization, transport, and equipping of foreign terrorist fighters. Security Council Resolution 2397 urges those same countries to assist women and children associated with foreign terrorist fighters who may be victims of terrorism and to do so taking into account the impact of age and gender on their vulnerability and individual needs. Following repatriation, according to Article 4 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (2002), children should be considered as having been recruited by violent extremist groups in violation of international law. In fulfilling their international obligations, some states are actively supporting their citizens to claim their rights, as outlined under various international instruments. The current report focuses on the efforts of Central Asian countries in particular who have taken a proactive approach in repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS associates.
When considering the broader picture of state responses to the issue at hand, it is remarkable how Central Asian states have taken a lead in repatriating their citizens from Syria and Iraq. According to the Institute for National Strategic Studies, citizens from Central Asia represented the third largest group of people who traveled to Syria during the conflict, after citizens of the Middle East and North Africa. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have conducted the largest repatriation efforts to date bringing both children and women back home. Collectively they have facilitated the return of over 1300 people to the region. These repatriations have been followed up by comprehensive though evolving reintegration and rehabilitation policies focused on those women and children intending to restore them to their families and their communities. Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country to have also brought back male citizens who were embroiled in the conflict, 43 male former foreign terrorist fighters in total. The noteworthy array of policies created by these Central Asian states offer potential models for repatriation, reintegration, and rehabilitation efforts of so-called foreign fighters and their family members in other countries of the world. Considering the high level of sensitivity, fear, and risk adversity that arises over the issue of preventing terrorism, positive examples of proactive approaches to citizens detained in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq may go a long way towards resolving this pressing issue.
This report aims to outline and assess the repatriation operations, rehabilitation interventions, and reintegration processes undertaken in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The report is divided into six sections. Throughout, interviews by the Bulan Institute with state officials and activists from civil society in the region offer testimonies and insights into the experiences of stakeholders.
 UN Press, ‘Greater Cooperation Needed to Tackle Danger Posed by Returning Foreign Fighters, Head of Counter‑Terrorism Office Tells Security Council | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases’, accessed 27 April 2021.
 Thomas Francis Lynch and others, The Return of Foreign Fighters to Central Asia: Implications for US Counterterrorism Policy (National Defense University Press 2016). Page 16.
 Bulan Institute for Peace Innovations, ‘State Obligations and International Norms towards Children with Links to ISIS Being Held in North-Eastern Syria’ (2021).
 The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, ‘Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction of States over Children and Their Guardians in Camps, Prisons, or Elsewhere in the Northern Syrian Arab Republic’ (OHCHR 2020). Page 1.
 US asks countries to repatriate jihadists held in Syria, France 24, 04 February 2019, accessed on 01 June 2021
 Christopher Harnisch, Public Discussion Organized by the Atlantic Council, 08 January 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/kazakh-repatriation-of-foreign-fighters/
 United Nations Security Council, ’Resolution 2178 (2014): Adopted by the Security Council at Its 7272nd Meeting”; Schmid, ‘Foreign (Terrorist) Fighter Estimates: Conceptual and Data Issues,’ Page 9.
 United Nations Security Council. Security Council resolution 2398 (2017). S/RES/2396 (2017).
 Joana Cook and Gina Vale, ‘From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate’ (2019) 12 CTC Sentinel 30.
Read the full version of the report here: Report on Repatriation in Central Asia