Reintegrating ISIS militants and families is a global problem

Reintegrating ISIS militants and families is a global problem
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With the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in war-battered Iraq and Syria, governments around the world — including the United States — are struggling with a new challenge from the terrorist group: What to do about thousands of family members of dead or captured ISIS fighters?

Thousands of women from around the world — America, Western and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and beyond — traveled to Iraq and Syria at the height of ISIS's power, marrying into its ranks and bearing children. Others were taken as captives from Kurdish, Yazidi, Christian and other Iraqi and Syrian religious-minority communities overrun by IS and eventually absorbed into the terrorist organization, in one form or another. 


Many of those women want to return to their home countries, along with their children, since the IS "caliphate" is no more, and Iraq and Syria are not eager to accept them as citizens. Whether or how they can be reintegrated is an incredibly difficult issue, with enormous potential security implications, especially for Central Asia nations that face their own ethnic, religious, political and security issues. 

Uzbekistan recently announced the repatriation of 156 IS survivors, mostly women and children who had been living in parts of Syria controlled by Islamist groups. Another 300 Uzbeks still stranded in the Syrian desert may soon follow them home, and the presidential administration said they would be “provided good housing and employment.”

The governments of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have announced the return of their own expatriates who had joined extremist groups.  

The Central Asian governments are taking the bit between their teeth, as opposed to European governments that have been accused of “outsourcing” the trial and punishment of terrorism suspects from their countries. (Early this year, the U.S. quietly repatriated two small groups of women and children from Syria.)

The reintegration of IS supporters will be a challenge, but it also is an opportunity to stanch future radical recruitments and to develop Islamic education that reflects the experiences and sensibilities of Central Asia, built on the region’s intellectual tradition which produced foundational work in astronomy and medicine.  


One observer claimed the welcome given to the family members was a “considerable softening” of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s 2017 declaration that Uzbeks involved in fighting in Iraq and Syria would be stripped of their citizenship. Actually, what Tashkent is doing is consistent with Mirziyoyev’s remarks in June 2017 that drew a distinction between “delusioned persons” and people with blood on their hands: “There is no point of talking to them and expostulating them.”

The reintegration process, if successful, will have immediate, long-term payoffs. The adults will probably undergo extensive debriefing to collect intelligence and to determine the extent of their culpability in IS crimes. In the longer term, the reintegration of the women and, most importantly, their children will be a hallmark of the government’s effort. Success could make radical recruiters’ jobs a lot harder when the youngsters they are pitching in late-night chat rooms know first-hand that their country shows mercy to those who return to the “straight path.”

Secular Uzbekistan can create a successful reintegration effort — one that could be a model for other nations — with the ready collaboration of imams, the government and civil society, as it won’t have to deprogram citizens who received a state-sponsored education in intolerance, as in the Palestinian territory or Pakistan. That said, Svante Cornell has pointed out that the Soviet legacy of atheism left many in Central Asia with no strongly rooted religious tradition to form a counterweight to extremism.

The repatriation of the IS families has now moved the discussion of de-radicalization from the theoretical to the practical and the public.

The legacy of Soviet atheism, the lack of religious education and the threat of increased online recruitment that will accompany the government’s loosening of restrictions on the internet present the government an opportunity to make its own religions tradition, free of any Middle Eastern entanglements. And the leadership likely remembers the Soviet Union’s efforts to control Islam in the interest of revolutionary socialism, further encouraging it to revitalize its organic resources, such as establishing a Center for Islamic Civilization in Tashkent to train qualified imam-khatibs. Training imams locally will ensure they know local languages and customs and, most importantly, that the local community knows them.

To make this happen, the Uzbek government may apply more “manual control” than some advocates of religious freedom are comfortable with, so it will have to spend some time explaining what it is doing and why.

In 2017, Uzbekistan found itself a target of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, accused of limiting the rights of all religious groups, attempting to control religious activity and censoring religious materials. The U.S. State Department followed up by designating Uzbekistan a "country of particular concern" (CPC).

The commission was rebutted by Central Asia scholars who pointed out that Uzbekistan’s rules “help protect secular Muslims, women, and minorities from religious coercion” and that its recommendations will punish a country that observes strict separation of church and state, has refused to designate Islam as a formal state religion, and maintains secular laws and courts — in contrast with major non-NATO allies of the United States, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In 2018, the State Department declined to designate Uzbekistan a CPC for restrictions on religious freedom, in recognition of “substantial changes” made by the country.

That State Department decision will give Tashkent some breathing room as it pursues its de-radicalization project, which Mirziyoyev said starts with an emphasis of the spiritual welfare of youth, and labeled a whole-of-society effort when he recalled that “One child has seven parent-neighbors.”

Uzbekistan and its Central Asian neighbors have the means and opportunity to apply the tools of jobs, religious education and community involvement to rescue wayward adults and give their innocent children a chance for a real life — the rebuke the terrorists fear most.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).