The challenge of female ISIS returnees in the Balkans

Around 250 foreign fighters from the Western Balkans returned to their homes, facing the issues of prosecution and rehabilitation, despite the difficulties. This is true especially for female supporters, who often avoid prosecution. Leonie Vrugtman explores the hard challenges posed by their return.

Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) have been the source of at least 900 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. Local governments have put an unprecedented focus on preventing and countering violent extremism (P-CVE). Each country adjusted their legislation to criminalise partaking in foreign wars or recruiting or financing other to do so. Moreover, the governments developed and implemented comprehensive national action plans to face the issue of P-CVE.

Although these efforts have yielded positive results in preventing people from leaving their countries to fight abroad, they fail to consider long-term solutions for the foreign fighters who are returning. This is in part due to the difficulty of prosecuting them. Even when records are available of travels to Iraq or Syria, the secretive nature of groups like al-Nusra or the Islamic State (IS) makes it difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that people took part in these organisations. This leads to very low sentencing for returnees.

In Kosovo for example, seven men were convicted for between 2.5 and 4.5 years imprisonment for fighting for IS and recruiting on behalf of the organisation. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nedzad Mujic and Fikret Hadzic made a plea agreement with the court, which despite admitting to having fought for IS in Syria, allowed them to walk out of the court by paying a fine.

Until now, local authorities made efforts mostly toward the prosecution of returnees, and much less toward de-radicalisation and rehabilitation. Detained jihadists live in prisons alongside other criminals, which creates a hazardous atmosphere. Prisons have long been considered as hubs for radicalisation. They are full of ‘angry young men’ that are ‘ripe’ to embrace radical ideas. Already radicalised prisoners can tap into the knowledge of other criminals, helping them further sophisticate operational plans. In the past, prisons have also served as centres where operational planning has taken place – making the prospect for a repeat more alarming.

In Kosovo alone, data report that around 130 returnees or family members need de-radicalisation and reintegration programmes. However, in most Western Balkans countries a comprehensive strategy aiming at these objectives is largely absent. According to Balkan Insights, financial support is insufficient to equip prisons with de-radicalisation programmes. Government sources have refrained from supporting such programs in fear of public backlash, as funds could be invested in the currently underfunded education or welfare systems.

It is for this reason that international funds to support these programs are critical. In Kosovo, a reintegration programme for foreign fighters and their families is in the implementation phase as a result of funds from the international community. Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina are in earlier stages of putting into action similar programmes. Arct, a local Albanian NGO, is working to start small-scale prison de-radicalisation projects. Given that these programmes are foreign funded with clearly defined timelines, it is difficult to achieve sustainable results or measure their long-term impact.

Women are even harder to prosecute, due to their assumed non-aggressive and domestic roles. Indeed, the classical jihadi doctrine defines a woman’s role as non-combative, limited to being a wife and a mother, with tasks like supporting her husband and educating the next generation of jihadists. Testimonials from female returnees reflect this, as most claim to have not committed any crimes. Some even go as far as claiming to have been deceived to think they were going on holiday in Turkey but ended up in Syria instead.

Indeed, most women leaving Western Balkans for Iraq or Syria did travel with their husbands, but according to a 2015 report by Quiliam ‘female supporters are just as aware of what life in the “caliphate” holds for them […] as their male counterparts are’. In addition, when radicalised, women have equally persistent beliefs to men. An internal report by the French Ministry of Justice reflects their awareness, since the majority of the French women travelling to the Caliphate deliberately joined the Islamic State to “practise their faith without Western oppression”.

Research of life inside Islamic State’s has shown that not all women in the caliphate are merely housewives. Foreign women especially, held active roles as an online recruiter or a member of the female run morality police (al-Khansaa brigade). A report by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism notes that members of the al-Khansaa brigade undergo military and intelligence training and use violence to punish female violators of morality law. Allegedly, a Kosovar woman “is the main online recruiter of ethnic Albanian females”. She even set up and led a female training camp in Syria to host “dozens of women and girls from Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia”.

Following IS military defeats, it has become more accepted for female supporters to pick up arms (Winter and Margolin, p. 26). As Elizabeth Pearson correctly states, the Battle of Mosul marked the beginning of a new doctrine regarding women, as they were urged to launch attacks, including in the West. Months after IS major setbacks in in large parts of Iraq and Syria, its organs published an increasing amount of propaganda regarding the combative role of women, including a video showing women fighting on the front line.

It is likely that female returnees are downplaying their commitment to the organisation and their roles inside the caliphate to avoid prosecution. By portraying themselves as victims with a domestic role, female IS supporters know that it is difficult to built a case on existing legislation. Currently, the legislation that is used to prosecute those travelling to Iraq and Syria is a recently added section in the penal code, tailored to the foreign fighter phenomenon.

Between 2014 and 2015 all the Western Balkan countries amended their penal codes, enabling them to prosecute anyone who enlisted in a foreign military, paramilitary or parapolice formations or encouraged others to do so. However, this does not consider the role of the Islamic State as a proto-state, in which women live away from the frontlines and are mostly supporting the organisation’s cause with non-combative roles.

Constrained by unsuited legislation, a lack of evidence and a narrative of victimisation by female returnees, it is difficult for prosecutors to build a case against them. As a result, many women avoid prosecution altogether.

Source: Global Risk Insights