Rehabilitating the Islamic State’s Women and Children Returnees in Kazakhstan

Last week’s terrorist stabbing in London shines a light on the limits of rehabilitation. It was committed by 28-year-old Usman Khan, who recently had been released on parole after serving eight years of a 16-year sentence for involvement in a pipe-bombing plot and had been inspired by al-Qaeda. In prison, he participated in a rehabilitation program that was hosting a conference near the iconic London Bridge, where the attack occurred. One of the two people killed in the stabbing was a course coordinator in the program.

This assault comes at a time when the battle against ISIS has extended into a struggle over what to do with not only the group’s foreign fighters returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq but also with the children and wives of those captured or killed. Of the 40,000 children waiting in Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, the U.K. government took back several orphans, and the United States and Canada have retrieved some children and are preparing for more. Many European Union countries say they do not want to risk bringing back children or mothers who could someday launch an attack or spread extremist ideology. The same issue has roiled Australia.

In the post-Islamic State landscape, the Republic of Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia and the world’s 9th largest country by land mass, has emerged as a global leader, repatriating more than 400 children and 100 mothers. Several months ago U.N. Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin reported on the returnees initial reception at a camp in Aktau, Kazakhstan.  The world is watching as their program continues.

In Kazakhstan, bringing children and their mothers back is framed as a humanitarian and moral issue. These children are regarded as victims, even if some were taught extremist ideology or how to use weapons. Even mothers who followed their husbands or fathers to the Islamic State were not necessarily committed terrorists. The Kazakhstanis want to return these children and mothers to the motherland and move them away from violent extremism. Doing so involves much more than just the legal act of repatriation.

Repatriation is a major test of how governments and civil society can work together to manage adults and children who potentially present national security risks, now and in the future, and how to do so within communities, not in detention.

`New Humanitarians’

The challenges posed by repatriating child and mother returnees call for action by what has been called the “new humanitarians,” meaning local practitioners in receiving countries such as Kazakhstan.  These practitioners are called upon to help victims of war and terrorism who come from a world away and end up in communities, schools, and clinics back in their home country. This puts enormous pressure on local health institutions, social service providers and educators to adequately deal with the complex needs of these returnees.

In the case of Kazakhstan, the government put the Ministry of Education in charge and contracted with two non-governmental organizations to open 17 regional rehabilitation and reintegration centers across their vast country. Each center has psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, theologians, lawyers, nurses, and teachers, working together to help the children, mothers, and their extended families and host communities.

These professionals apply what they already had learned from working with families impacted by domestic violence or human trafficking. They try to support the child and women returnees who are severely traumatized from war, from living in the self-styled “Islamic State,” and from family violence. They get children in school, get jobs for the mothers, and encourage their families and communities to accept them.

Theologians work with the mothers and children to try and get them to back away from what these professionals call “destructive religious movements.”  Like France, the government of Kazakhstan permits “traditional” forms of religious expression, but outlaws other forms, especially extremism. Girls cannot wear the hijab in school, and mothers cannot denigrate others as non-believers.

Still, even when the theologians persuade a child to sit with a non-observant Muslim, or get a mother to work or take off her hijab, they don’t know whether the client is just complying to gain short-term advantages or has undergone deeper, lasting change.

What Experience Shows About Feasibility

In lectures and discussions with the staffs of these centers, I have shared the experiences of other programs that have shown it is often more feasible to get individuals to relinquish active support for violent action (disengagement) than it is to persuade them to relinquish their belief system (deradicalization).

The rehabilitation and reintegration practitioners in Kazakhstan are working by trial and error but learning lessons every day that they want to share. In turn, they are eager to receive advice from foreign specialists, even when the specialists come from countries such as the United States that have not had nearly as many returnees.

A big challenge for any country rocked by terrorism is to build and carry out strategies for preventing extremist violence. Approaches include managing extremist ideologies and ameliorating the social, psychosocial, and mental health vulnerabilities that can drive people to embrace such ideas.

Viewed from a public-health vantage point, strategies can encompass primary prevention (population-level efforts to change social norms and values) or secondary prevention (hotlines for parents concerned about their child to call in) or tertiary prevention (rehabilitation and reintegration for returnees or those convicted of terrorist offenses).  Given that to date, there is still inadequate evidence that such strategies work, it matters that programs like the one in Kazakhstan are doable and can be evaluated, as Eric Rosand and I discussed previously.

The Difficult Balancing Act

As much as governments and the public want to be protected against terrorism, most don’t want security considerations to dominate every aspect of society and life, and they don’t want the fear of terrorism to quash humanitarian responses and human rights. Many governments and civil society organizations also want to appropriately and accurately distinguish between terrorists and their victims while acknowledging that some persons returning from the Islamic State may have been both.  Many countries support using psychological and social means to help returnees and other vulnerable persons to avoid falling prey to extremism and violence.

The activity currently taking place on the steppes of Kazakhstan aims to build a model that strikes the right balance between governmental and non-governmental actors, between security and human rights, and between a focus on social and psychological drivers and one that primarily targets ideology.

Many countries are looking at what kind of model Kazakhstan builds and whether it will produce evidence of its effectiveness. Of course, countries differ in their political systems, cultures, and history and would have to tailor their programs accordingly. But those watching Kazakhstan understand that the countries that get this right should be in stronger positions to both protect public safety and to come to the aid of their most vulnerable citizens.

IMAGE: Women and children ride in the back of a truck at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp for the displaced where families of Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters are held, in the al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on December 9, 2019. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Stevan Weine

Professor of Psychiatry, Director of Global Medicine, and Director of the Center for Global Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine.