Central Asian states lead the way in the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters’ families from Syria and Iraq

Uzbek women and children at the Tashkent airport in Uzbekistan after their repatriation from the Middle East on May 30, 2019. Photo from the website of Uzbekistan's President's Office.

After the defeat of the Islamic State (IS), around 10,000 foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) remain in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of ethnic militias and rebel groups operating in northeastern Syria. Over 60,000 women and children, family members of the fighters, have been held in the refugee camps controlled by SDF. The UN has repeatedly urged countries to repatriate their citizens stranded in these refugee camps.

The Syrian civil war and IS created a myriad of security challenges for Central Asia, a predominantly Sunni Muslim region. Islam arrived in the eighth century and played an important role in political and social life. However, 70 years of atheist Soviet rule removed religion from the public sphere and transformed it into a national attribute. Since gaining independence in 1991, the region has been experiencing an Islamic renaissance, coinciding with the emergence and growing threat of religious extremism. The largest scale extremism related challenge has been the issue of FTFs.

Between 2019 and 2023, Central Asian states became pioneers in bringing back their citizens from Syria and Iraq. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan led the way and returned 793 children and 304 adults, almost all of whom are women. Kyrgyzstan repatriated 120 children and 18 women, and Tajikistan returned 261 children and 73 women. Other countries have been reluctant to repatriate their citizens, citing different reasons.

Portrait of Cholpon Orozobekova. Used with permission.

Cholpon Orozobekova is the author of the book “Foreign Fighters and International Peace: Joining Global Jihad and Marching Back Home” (which came out in 2022). She is the director of the Bulan Institute for Peace Innovations and Executive-in-Residence Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Global Voices interviewed her to explore why so many FTFs and their family members remain in the camps, states’ changing attitudes to their repatriation, and the experiences of those countries who repatriated them. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Nurbek Bekmurzaev (NB): Could you please share what motivated you to write this book and describe the research process for it?

Cholpon Orozobekova (CO): The book is the result of almost two years of research. It addresses the current situation of IS fighters and their family members. About 40,000 people from more than 60 countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups there. This was the first time when the world witnessed such a scale of mobilization of foreign fighters. My book addresses the emergence of the radical ideology that pushed them, their lives under IS, the current situation in Al-Hol and Roj camps. It seeks to answer the main question, which is: “How to deal with them now?” I analyze state policies of establishing an ad hoc tribunal, stripping citizenship, and repatriation to home countries among others.

NB: Why has the current situation in northeastern Syria become difficult to manage from the legal standpoint? Why can't foreign fighters be tried in Syria and Iraq? 

CO: Iraq as an independent country tried hundreds of IS fighters captured on its territory. The situation in northeastern Syria is complex because of two reasons. First, fighters are trapped in Syria, which is administered by SDF, a non-state actor. This lack of state authority is a source of ambiguity states refer to when they refuse to repatriate or take other concrete actions. Many states maintain a position that IS fighters and their associates should be brought to justice on the territory where they committed their crimes.

States do not consider the SDF to be a legitimate negotiating actor. Thus, other options have been considered, such as creating an ad hoc tribunal or transferring all captured foreign fighters to Iraqi prisons. As for the latter, the Iraqi judicial system has shown itself to be inadequate with numerous serious deficits, and Western countries cannot hand over their citizens to such a system. The only appropriate legal solution is repatriation and bringing the fighters to justice in their home countries.

Second, the scale of global travel to IS-held territory by fighters and the substantial percentage of women and children who joined them are unprecedented. The international community had never witnessed the mobilization of foreign fighters at this scale. We had never seen small children and women traveling to conflict zones to join terrorist groups. Thus, countries are facing tremendous challenges to manage the current situation.

NB: Several countries repatriated their citizens while others are reluctant to do so. Are there any changes in attitudes of those countries who have been reluctant to bring back their citizens? 

CO: There have been some changes. In addition to political pressure, court decisions are playing a significant role. The 2022 decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled out that France has an obligation to repatriate its citizens, was a turning point. The court condemned French authorities over refusal to repatriate French women who traveled to Syria and ruled that they must swiftly re-examine requests made by the parents of the two women, who requested their daughters be allowed to return to France. This decision played a role in changing the positions of some countries. There were court decisions in many countries when citizens themselves or their relatives demanded repatriation from their national governments. Decisions of national courts were also in favor of repatriation in many countries.

NB: You analyzed state policies with regards to repatriation operations in at least five countries. What insights have you learned from these case studies?

CO: There is a separate chapter that covers details of the repatriation and rehabilitation programs in Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The last four are Central Asian countries that have repatriated their citizens. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan carried out large-scale repatriation operations by bringing back hundreds of women and children. The main conclusion from studying their experiences is that the rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees is very difficult, but possible. Rehabilitation and reintegration processes are very complex and there is no guarantee that they will be successful. Children’s trauma may sleep for many years and return many years later.

However, abandoning them in the desert will have a more catastrophic impact on international peace. What we see now is that children who were repatriated have been successfully rehabilitated and reintegrated. Children adapt and integrate faster than adults. The majority of them go to school, and they are completely different from when they first arrived. The cases of Central Asian countries can serve as a study model, and have many good practices to share with the international community.

NB: As new experiences are emerging, are there any differences in the policies of different countries when it comes to prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration? 

CO: So far countries have repatriated only women and children. Only Kazakhstan repatriated 37 men and all of them were immediately arrested, convicted and sentenced. The question of bringing male fighters to justice has not been discussed yet.

There is a difference in state policies when it comes to female returnees. After the UN resolutions on FTFs, many countries criminalized traveling abroad and joining terrorist groups. Specific clauses appeared in criminal codes. Women are also being charged with terrorism related offenses. In several European countries, women were arrested immediately at the airport.

However, Central Asian countries took a different approach by pardoning them. In Uzbekistan, all female returnees received presidential pardons. Uzbekistan arrested only 13 women and charged them with propaganda and recruitment related charges. Tajikistan also granted amnesty to the majority of women. Central Asian countries took this softer approach because of children returnees. Female returnees come back with small children and separating them from their mothers adds another layer of trauma for children. Moreover, taking care of them and finding legal guardianship is a challenging task.

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