“Welcome back to your motherland!” was heard recently in Kazakhstan, which has repatriated some 500 men, women and children who had been living in the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Kazakhstan isn’t alone. Countries across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and Southeast Asia, and beyond, are grappling with whether to accept the thousands of people who left home to join the Islamic State.
But, Kazakhstan is one of only a handful of countries that have accepted their citizens being held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria or by the Iraqi government. In fact, most have so far refused to repatriate their citizens (including children born in the conflict zone). The reasons include security concerns and pushback from nervous publics who don’t want them back in their communities.
When they do return and there is sufficient evidence that a crime was committed, which is not always the case given the challenges of collecting and preserving evidence for crimes that may have been committed in conflict zones, the men are often prosecuted and jailed. Although women often went to Syria knowing what they were doing, and even some children were involved in terrorist violence, women and children are typically provided support to help them reintegrate into the community. Most receiving countries are regarding women returnees predominately as victims, “based on (often false) gendered assumptions about their limited agency,” according to a report from the United Nations.
Thus, most women are being treated outside the criminal justice system. Rather than giving them a prison cell, receiving governments are looking to provide mothers and their children with psycho-social support, specialized schooling, job training and family assistance. There is no shortage of international good practices and frameworks for this type of multi-dimensional, tailored support to address the needs of returnees who aren’t being handled by the criminal justice sector. However, the capacities and willingness of (often local) professionals and practitioners to implement these guidelines in the home countries is often limited.
Getting this reintegration process right is not just a humanitarian and security imperative, but addressing the challenges of working with returning mothers and children may be the best opportunity that any country, or the international community more broadly, will ever have to get preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE) right – even if it is years too late to have prevented the wave of recruits to the Islamic State.
It is an opportunity for governments (both national and local), civil society organizations, professionals and communities to show that the importance of a “whole of society” approach to P/CVE is not just a talking point for ministers and other senior policymakers in the sterile conference rooms at the U.N. and European Union. Rather, it is also critical to addressing the practical needs of often vulnerable and traumatized individuals. If left unaddressed, the likelihood of falling prey to ideology or recruiters in the future only increases.
Success here depends not only upon the criminal justice or national security system, but must also involve a wide swath of non-law enforcement professionals and practitioners, including from civil society. It takes a village – schools, clinics, community centers, houses of worship, workplaces, municipal governments – to welcome, orient, and support these mothers and children as they restart their lives. We see more of them willing to step up and work with law enforcement and security agencies.
But good intentions are not enough. More is needed. Teachers; mental health professionals; social and other municipal workers; religious, youth, and other community leaders require specialized training to best support these individuals. National security agencies need to be more willing to share responsibility and information with non-law enforcement actors, including civil society. Politicians and parliaments need to ensure the necessary resources and legal and policy frameworks are in place to enable long-term rehabilitation and reintegration efforts.
The opportunity here is also a matter of numbers. Some of the criticism of P/CVE efforts to date have focused on how they are discriminatory in nature (targeting individuals or communities based on religious or other discriminatory grounds), or too broadly focused on communities rather than the individuals most at risk of, or vulnerable to, radicalization or recruitment to violent extremist groups. However, rehabilitation and reintegration programs for women and children returnees are focused on a relatively small number of self-identified people. We know who they are and, for the most part, what they did, and what they are at risk of doing, in some cases, again.
The opportunity is also tied to fairly well-established interventions. Their trauma-related mental health problems can be treated by mental health professionals. Theologians can engage with and, where needed, help guide them on religion. Social workers can help them mend family conflicts and get them settled back home. Educators can help the children to catch up in school. Municipalities can help women returnees find housing and jobs.
This is by no means as straightforward as it seems. It is a long and difficult path, and there are clearly some mistakes to avoid.
What do receiving countries need to do to get it right?
They must learn not to over-securitize the returnees who don’t end up behind bars and to intervene in ways proportionate to their actual risk. However, assessing risk can be very difficult, especially with the challenge of collecting evidence and intelligence from a war zone. Women, and even some children, may very well have been indoctrinated into ISIS ideology or may have committed or had intended to commit violence while in Iraq and Syria. For those that were radicalized, the process of disengagement from violence can be long and its effectiveness difficult to evaluate. Given the limited tolerance for risk when it comes to anyone who has come into contact with the Islamic State, unless risk can be reduced to zero, governments may feel they have little choice but to institute very costly law enforcement surveillance or other monitoring for years to come.
However, the reality is that the majority of women, and virtually all children, do not need to be prosecuted or hounded by security agencies – and such agencies are unlikely to be well-positioned to garner the trust from these individuals that is a critical step to working with them to address their psychosocial and practical needs.
Receiving countries can’t assume that simply by putting children in schools and giving their parents housing and jobs, as important as those are, will be enough to function in society. The work with repatriated child soldiers shows that many children couldn’t function adequately in schools, because their traumas left them with too many problems with concentration and anger. Helping their teachers and parents manage their mental health and behavioral issues was just as necessary for their success. To make this happen with Islamic State returnees, we need to provide training and support to civil society actors.
Receiving countries should develop and implement rehabilitation and reintegration programs that are evidence- or best practice-based where possible, drawing on lessons learned from multidisciplinary programs that have been implemented to steer individuals away from extremist, gang, and other forms of violence in Australia, Canada, Denmark, The Netherlands, and beyond. These programs should also include monitoring and evaluation at the individual and programmatic level. That way, they will be building further evidence that can inform quality improvement and future program design. Much can be learned in each receiving country.
Needless to say, a lot is at stake if a country fails and someone chooses the path towards violent action.
But, even more is at stake if a country succeeds, and not only for the young child who gets to fulfill his or her beautiful future, even after such a disastrous beginning in the Islamic State.
Through this work, it may be possible to change societies’ narratives about how best to prevent and counter extremist violence, and the role that civil society and other non-law enforcement actors play. The assumption at the core of P/CVE, which its proponents have often not managed to communicate, is that these actors can complement law enforcement in very practical ways. When it comes to the rehabilitation and reintegration of those returning from the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria who can’t or won’t be prosecuted, the assumption will be tested like never before.
No doubt there will be challenges, and lessons learned.
Ten years ago, one of us visited the Al Ha’ir rehabilitation center for adult male jihadists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Seeing firsthand how the Saudis were using mental health professionals, theologians, social workers, job coaches and art therapists to help change the beliefs and behaviors of jihadists, inspired many of us in the field to aim for what was called back then “psychosocial counterterrorism.”
The Saudi model, which focused on adult male jihadist offenders in a prison setting, didn’t actually lend itself nearly as well to teaching society lessons about P/CVE as do the new wave of rehabilitation programs for the families of returned foreign terrorist fighters.
Ten years on, policymakers and practitioners are still asking whether or not P/CVE works in any space. This time round, with returning mothers and children from the conflict zone in Iraq and Syria, making it work seems doable. Even if the Islamic State is not likely to reconstitute itself, the lessons that the many receiving countries learn and teach about specific program design and the roles of civil society and other non-law enforcement actors in preventing ideologically motivated and other extremist violence, can help prepare us for future terrorist threats, whatever those may be.