Independent and cutting-edge analysis on Turkey and its neighborhood

ISIS’s demise has left neighboring countries, including Turkey, with new and complex challenges, including what to do with thousands of foreign women and children who lived under the group.[1] Many Western countries are refusing to engage with these women and children who remain today in Syria and Iraq. This is likely to increase the threat that they pose to their home countries and the states they travel through. Few governments have developed comprehensive policies and programs that consider women’s critical roles as preventers, supporters, perpetrators, and victims of violent extremism. The UN Security Council’s call in 2015 (Resolution 2242) encourages states to consider women’s role in perpetrating and preventing violent extremism and to include women and women organizations in efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE). These recommendations were further deepened in Resolution 2396 (2017), yet too often the gender dimension is forgotten or added as an afterthought in P/CVE.[2] Today, this is again evident in many states’ refusal to repatriate, or otherwise to engage with women, who lived under ISIS and are currently kept in camps in northern Syria and in detention in Iraq.

Western countries’ unwillingness to take back women who lived under ISIS is likely to create new problems in the coming years, especially for Turkey, which borders both Syria and Iraq, and through which many foreign fighters and ISIS sympathizers originally traveled. Former ISIS sympathizers may cross back into Turkey and go underground to regroup, or they may be put in detention but quickly released when there is insufficient evidence of their crimes. Since the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on 1 January 2017, a large-scale terrorist activity has not been recorded in Turkey in part due to the state’s more robust counter-terrorist efforts.[3] But to what extent will Turkish counter-terrorism effectively address the challenges of those who are returning from an ISIS controlled life  ?  especially of women?

Cook and Vale provide one of the most comprehensive estimates of the women (6902) and children (6577) from outside the region who voluntarily lived under ISIS. They came from a wide range of countries, with some of the largest numbers estimated to come from: Turkey (2000), Russia (1000), Tunisia (700), France (382), Tajikistan (250), and the UK (150).[4]

Today, after the fall of ISIS, the majority of these women and children remain in northern Syria and Iraq. Approximately 70,000 women and children live in the Al-Hol camp in northern Syria.[5] Many of them are from Syria and Iraq,[6] but Al-Hol is thought to hold about 11,000 from other countries  ? of which 7,000 are children under 12 years old.[7] Moreover, thousands of other foreigners are detained in Iraq; an estimated 1000 women and 820 children were awaiting trial in May 2019, in Baghdad. In one day, more than 40 foreign women were sentenced to death after 10-minute hearings, while many other received similar sentences or life imprisonment.[8] In 2018, it has been reported that 466 foreign women were tried and convicted of Islamic State membership.[9]

Western countries’ unwillingness to take back women who lived under ISIS is likely to create new problems in the coming years, especially for Turkey.

While the humanitarian situation deteriorates in camps,[10] and death sentences are being imposed in Iraq, most Western governments have refused to return their citizens.[11] Security concerns and public opinion make them especially weary.[12] In July 2019, Australia was considering banning persons accused of extremism from returning home for two years, including 15-17 year olds.[13] Women, who are estimated to have made up some 13 percent of those foreigners who traveled to join ISIS, only comprise about eight percent (609) of those who are recorded as having returned.[14] This imbalance is especially striking, considering that women were much less likely to die on the ISIS battlefield than men.[15] As the UN Secretary General remarked in regard to the women and children detained in Syria and Iraq in a July 2019 report to the Security Council, “Their detention has raised questions regarding jurisdiction, evidence and criminal responsibility, which require urgent resolution, including from the perspective of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. The deteriorating situation faced by thousands of people [...] is increasingly untenable.”[16]

Some countries, that are often less economically privileged have retrieved their citizens, especially women and children. Kazakhstan has brought back about 139 women since January 2019, while Kosovo repatriated 32 women and 74 children in April 2019.[17] Already in 2015, Tajikistan offered an amnesty to its nationals who voluntarily returned from the conflict zone and renounced violence. More than 100 people returned, before and under the amnesty, and many have already begun to reintegrate into society.[18] The Tajikistan government supported the return of 84 children in April 2019 from Iraq[19] and continues to work to repatriate some 50 Tajik women and children who are currently held in camps in northern Syria.[20] Russia, and especially the regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, were some of the most open to returns in 2016.[21]

These returns are generally in line with UN Secretary General’s “Key principles for the protection, repatriation and reintegration of women and children with links to UN listed terrorist groups”  ?  thus countries that are trying to implement them should be supported in this effort.[22] These principles complement the 2015 Guiding Principles on Foreign Terrorist Fighters (Madrid Principles) and their addendum adopted by the Security Council Committee established in December 2018, pursuant to Resolution 1373 concerning counter-terrorism. According to the Addendum:[23]

 

Women and children associated with foreign terrorist fighters returning and relocating from conflict may require special focus and assistance, as they may have served in many different roles, including as supporters, facilitators or perpetuators of terrorist acts, and may be victims of terrorism. States should pay particular attention to ensuring that their domestic legislation respects international law with regard to women and children, while taking into account the best interest of the child as a primary consideration.              

 

Professor Jayne Huckerby, Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University, has argued that there may be additional obligations for states if their citizens were minors when they left their countries of origin. According to Huckerby, some young women may also be considered to be victims of ISIS trafficking.[24] In this case, Huckerby adds that “the principle of non-punishment would apply, meaning that trafficking victims should not be detained, charged, or prosecuted for activities that are a direct consequence of their having been trafficked.” She goes on to quote a statement by the President of the Security Council calling on states not to penalize or stigmatize trafficking victims for their involvement in any unlawful activities in which they were compelled to engage.[25] In 2017, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a report on the role of the justice system in cases dealing with children who are recruited and exploited by violent extremist groups, defining them as “victims of violence at various levels,” deserving tailored responses of justice as well as support for rehabilitation and reintegration.[26]

In one day, more than 40 foreign women were sentenced to death after 10-minute hearings, while many other received similar sentences or life imprisonment.

While some women who have returned to their home countries have been prosecuted and sentenced, according to the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), in some countries women may also receive more lenient sentences than men due to gendered assumptions that they followed male family members and were less aggressive.[27] Furthermore, “Because women are, sometimes falsely, believed not to pose a significant threat, they may not receive the necessary rehabilitation and reintegration support, thus putting them at potentially greater risk of recidivism, re-radicalization and potentially undermining their successful reintegration into society.”[28]

Although the government of Turkey has not publicly repatriated many women who lived under ISIS, it did bring back 188 children from Iraq in May 2019. The children left behind 84 mothers  in detention and were generally placed with family members in Turkey. Now, many of those families are struggling with supporting the reintegration and addressing the myriad of physical, psychological, and educational problems of the children while advocating for the return of the mothers.[29] The prospect of an organized return of Turkish citizens who are currently in northern Syria is even less likely as they are held by Syrian Democratic Forces, who are considered terrorists by the Turkish government due to their links with the PKK.

Yet over the years, some Turkish women returned on their own, some were detained and then released, some were sentenced and sent to jail, and others apparently managed to escape the detection of  security officials.[30] In the future, should the Turkish state agree to bring back more women, it will be challenged with finding the correct balance between reintegration and prosecution.[31] In that regard, the principles mentioned above, as well as UNODC’s Handbook on Gender Dimensions of Criminal Justice Responses to Terrorism, may further help Turkey develop gender-responsive programs and policies.[32] UNDP’s global study, “Invisible Women: Gendered Dimensions of Return, Reintegration and Rehabilitation,” developed in partnership with the International Civil Society Action Network, also provides substantial examples on women’s roles in reintegration and rehabilitation processes, in addition to the work of women-led organizations in supporting these processes.[33]   

While Turkey can manage the return of its own women and children, it faces greater difficulties when dealing with the citizens of other countries. According to information provided by authorities in June 2019, there were 47 foreign women held in detention in Turkey for their links to ISIS.[34] Other foreigners suspected of terrorism links were placed in removal centers to be repatriated to their home countries. In some cases, Western European countries requested Turkey’s support to retrieve their citizens from Iraq, and once they were on Turkish soil, refused to take them back until they had gathered additional information to verify the persons’ identity, such as DNA test results. One of the most difficult situations can occur when a country strips its citizens of their citizenship, as the UK and the US have both done.[35] Since stateless men, women, and children have no place to legally return to when they make it to Turkey, they ultimately become Turkey’s responsibility. The UN Secretary General has noted the dangers of taking away citizenship, stating in July 2019, “Member States have primary responsibility for their own nationals […] Policies and actions that lead to statelessness should be avoided, including from a security perspective.”[36]  

…In some countries women may also receive more lenient sentences than men due to gendered assumptions that they followed male family members and were less aggressive.

The global war against terror has been heralded as an effort shared by a vast majority of countries. Two years ago, few would have imagined how swiftly ISIS would lose control and how quickly its threat would transform from being overt to covert. However, as a consequence of the victory over ISIS, there is a massive number of displaced people, including ISIS victims and supporters. The combat against ISIS will not be totally successful until both sides return to their homes. The return, reintegration, and prosecution of the men and women who chose to live under ISIS requires an international effort no smaller than the prevention of violent extremism. With a 900 kilometer border with Iraq and Syria, Turkey is on the frontline of this post-ISIS effort. Western countries’ reluctance to fulfill their responsibilities vis-à-vis their citizens and international law is posing additional challenges to Turkey. Turkey can do more to design and implement a gender-responsive policy to support Turkish women’s return, transit, and prosecution but when it comes to foreign ISIS sympathizers, it needs close cooperation and engagement fro

 

[1] “Foreign” is throughout this article meant to signify men, women, and children who are neither from Iraq or Syria. Over the past several years, this has become a widely used term such as in the designation of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), which in the ISIS context usually means fighters who are from outside the immediate conflict theatre.  

[2] Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein, “Women and Terrorism: Hidden Threats, Forgotten Partners,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 2019, https://www.cfr.org/blog/women-and-terrorism-hidden-threats-forgotten-partners

[3] It is estimated that between 2011-2017 Turkey was attacked 87 times, by nine terrorist groups leading to the deaths of 956 persons and wounding 4717: “Terror Attacks in Turkey between 2011-2017,” 140 Journos, 5 May 2017, https://140journos.com/terror-attacks-in-turkey-between-2011-and-2017-4b5981c974ca; The deadliest attack (excluding the 2015 attempted coup) occurred on 10 October when individuals linked to ISIS carried out a suicide bombing killing 103 persons, mostly young leftists. In a few instances, women appear to have carried out suicide attacks.

[4] Joana Cook and Gina Vale, “From Daesh to Diaspora II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate,” ICSR, July 2019, https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ICSR-Feature-From-Daesh-to-%E2%80%98Diaspora%E2%80%99-II-The-Challenges-Posed-by-Women-and-Minors-After-the-Fall-of-the-Caliphate.pdf.: These figures are approximate because many states do not record and share gender disaggregated data on ISIS supporters. For Turkey, it is a rough estimate quoted in Cook and Vale from A.S. Yayla, “Turkish ISIS and AQ Foreign Fighters: Reconciling the Numbers and Perception of the Terrorism Threat,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, July 2019, p.6; Roughly 1,000 Turkish women and children tied to the Islamic State were captured in Iraq, the majority outside the Iraqi city of Tal Afar in August 2017 according to journalist Carlotta Gall, “‘Her Eyes Were Full of Fear’: Turkey Repatriates Children of ISIS Followers,” The New York Times, 27 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/27/world/middleeast/turkey-children-isis.html 

[5] The camp population was at 70,097 individuals or 19,824 households, as of 26 June, more than 90 percent were children and women: UNOCHA, “Syria: Humanitarian Response in Al Hol Camp,” Relief Web, 5 July 2019, https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/syria-humanitarian-response-al-hol-camp-situation-report-no-5-5-july; Several hundred more foreigners are held in two other camps in northeast Syria, Ain Issa, and Roj.   

[6] Al-Hol camp holds 30,000 Iraqis in northeast Syria, the vast majority of them female-headed households in Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Preparations to Confine Families in Camp,” 20 July 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/20/iraq-preparations-confine-families-camp

[7] Human Rights Watch, “Syria: Dire Conditions for ISIS Suspects’ Families. Countries should Support Citizens’ Returns: Increase Aid,” 23 July 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/23/syria-dire-conditions-isis-suspects-families

[8] Martin Chulov, “They deserve no mercy: Iraq deals briskly with ‘accused women of Isis,’” The Guardian, 22 May 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/22/they-deserve-no-mercy-iraq-deals-briskly-with-accused-women-of-isis?CMP=share_btn_tw

[9] Cook and Vale (2019).

[10] According to the July 2019 OCHA report, p. 3: “The need for specialized services to address psychological distress caused by GBV as well as the need for reproductive health interventions is still present, despite the scaling up of Reproductive Health professional services. As the camp expands, focus needs to stay on the needs of women and girls; set-up of facilities, lighting and positioning of WASH facilities and selection of distribution sites. Overall, the importance of a robust intervention on the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation remains paramount, both within humanitarian organizations as well as at inter-agency level;” According to Human Rights Watch’s senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher, “Foreign women and children are indefinitely locked in a dustbowl inferno in northeast Syria while their home countries look the other way;” Human Rights Watch, “Syria: Dire Conditions for ISIS Suspects’ Families. Countries should Support Citizens’ Returns: Increase Aid,” 23 July 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/23/syria-dire-conditions-isis-suspects-families

[11] Keerthana Annamaneni, “For ISIS Children, Returning Home to Europe Meets Resistance,” The New York Times, 15 August 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/15/world/europe/isis-children-belgium.html.; According to Cook and Vale July 2019 estimates, a maximum of 8,202 men, women, and children have so far been returned by their countries of origin; Joana Cook and Gina Vale, “From Daesh to Diaspora II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate,” ICSR, July 2019, https://icsr.info/2019/07/26/from-daesh-to-diaspora-ii-the-challenges-posed-by-women-and-minors-after-the-fall-of-the-caliphate/

[12] But even in the camps the women may pose security risks. According to media reports, Women detained in a camp for Isis families in Syria raised thousands of pounds through an online crowdfunding campaign named “Justice for Sisters.” Another campaign reportedly explicitly aimed at raising funds to pay smugglers to help them escape; Richard Hall, “ISIS suspects in Syrian camp raise thousands through online crowdfunding campaign,” The Independent, 25 July 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-syria-camp-al-hol-paypal-telegram-online-crowdfunding-a9021006.html

[13]“Australia Seeks to Ban Extremists’ Return for 2 Years,” Asharq Al-awsat, 4 July 2019, https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1797516/australia-seeks-ban-extremists-return-2-years

[14] Cook and Vale (2019), pp.5-6. Reasons why women are returning in lesser numbers than men may include, they often surrender their passports to ISIS figures of authority, cannot travel without a male guardian, are more threatened by smugglers, and their countries of origin tend to prioritize the return of children; UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), “Gender Dimensions of the Response to Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters,” February 2019, https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Feb_2019_CTED_Trends_Report.pdf  

[15] Estimates by several Member States of the attrition rate at the global level for foreign terrorist fighters average 25 percent killed and 15 percent unaccounted for. Set against an approximate initial figure of 40,000 who joined the “caliphate,” these percentages would suggest that between 24,000 and 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters are alive. Figures provided by a UN member state quoted in UNSC, “Ninth report of the Secretary General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” 31 July 2019, https://undocs.org/S/2019/612

[16] UNSC, “Ninth report of the Secretary General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” 31 July 2019, p.9.

[17] They were brought back from Al Hol; Andrew E. Kramer, “Kazakhstan Welcomes Women Back From the Islamic State, Warily,” The New York Times, 10 August 2019; Valerie Plesch and Serbeze Haxhiaj, “Kosovo is trying to reintegrate ISIL returnees. Will it work?” Al Jazeera Feature, 9 June 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/kosovo-reintegrate-isil-returnees-work-190608200858002.html

[18] Farangis Najibullah, “Why Tajikistan is Fighting to bring its Islamic State Windows Back Home,” RFE/RL, 21 February 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/why-tajikistan-is-fighting-to-bring-its-islamic-state-widows-back-home/29782787.html

[19] The Defense Post, “Iraq repatriates 188 children of ISIS fighters to Tajikistan,” 29 May 2019, https://thedefensepost.com/2019/05/29/iraq-repatriates-isis-children-Tajikistan/; In early 2019 there were 43 Tajik mothers serving time in Iraq with 92 children between them.

[20] Farangis Najibullah and Mumin Ahmadi, “No IS Kids Left Behind: Tajikistan to Repatriate Dozens of Islamic State Children from Iraq,” RFE/RL, 12 March 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/no-is-kids-left-behind-tajikistan-to-repatriate-dozens-of-islamic-state-children-from-iraq/29817362.html

[21] “Chechnya sends ex-ISIS women into schools, not jails,” France 24, 09 August 2019. https://www.france24.com/en/20190809-chechnya-sends-ex-women-schools-not-jails

[22] UN, “Key principles for the protection, repatriation and reintegration of women and children with links to UN listed terrorist groups,” April 2019.

[23] Addendum to the guiding principles on foreign terrorist fighters (2018), S/2018/1177.

[24] Referring to the case of Shamima Begum, who was fifteen when she traveled to ISIS from the UK, she argues “For authorities, whether Begum was trafficked to ISIS turns on whether, as a child, she was subjected to some act, such as recruitment or transport, the purpose of which was her exploitation. This assessment does not hinge on her reported lack of remorse, the security threat she might pose, or even the sensational details of how she was “groomed” before travel.” Jayne Huckerby, “When Human Trafficking and Terrorism Connect,” Just Security, 22 February 2019, https://www.justsecurity.org/62658/human-trafficking-terrorism-connect-dangers-dilemmas/

[25] United Nations Security Council, “S/PRST/2015/25,” 16 December 2015, https://undocs.org/S/PRST/2015/25

[26]UNODC, “Handbook on Children Recruited and Exploited by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups: The Role of the Justice System,” 2017, https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/Child-Victims/Handbook_on_Children_Recruited_and_Exploited_by_Terrorist_and_Violent_Extremist_Groups_the_Role_of_the_Justice_System.E.pdf

[27] Christien and Turkington, “Women, Deradicalization, and Rehabilitation: Lessons from an Expert Workshop,” pp. 3-4; Audrey Alexander and Rebecca Turkington, ‘Treatment of Terrorists: How Does Gender Affect Justice?’ CTC Sentinel, Vol. 11, No: 8 (September 2018), quoted in CTED February 2019, p.17.

[28] CTED February (2019).

[29] An additional 16 were brought back in 2018. Carlotta Gall, “‘Her Eyes Were Full of Fear’: Turkey Repatriates Children of ISIS Followers,” The New York Times, 27 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/27/world/middleeast/turkey-children-isis.html 

[30] Interview with Crisis Group representative, July 2019, Istanbul.

[31] With regards to women, Cook and Vale suggest “it is critical to assess the varying levels of individual agency based on their unique circumstances of joining, the plurality of their roles in the group, and possible continued support for, or disownment of, the group. Assessments should take into account the risk that some women may pose, both in security terms and the possibility of radicalising others. Action must also be taken in accordance with legal norms and with respect of human rights, including access to fair trials and gender-conscious rehabilitation and reintegration programs.” Joana Cook and Gina Vale, “From Daesh to Diaspora II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate,” ICSR, July 2019, https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ICSR-Feature-From-Daesh-to-%E2%80%98Diaspora%E2%80%99-II-The-Challenges-Posed-by-Women-and-Minors-After-the-Fall-of-the-Caliphate.pdf.

[32] UNODC, “Handbook on Gender Dimensions of Criminal Justice Responses to Terrorism,” 2019, https://www.unodc.org/documents/terrorism/Publications/17-08887_HB_Gender_Criminal_Justice_E_ebook.pdf

[33] UNDP and ICAN, “Invisible Women: Gendered Dimensions of Return, Reintegration and Rehabilitation,” 2019, https://www.icanpeacework.org/2019/01/11/invisible-women/

[34] Interview with Crisis Group representative, July 2019, Istanbul.

[35] For example, against Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana respectively.

[36] UNSC, “Ninth report of the Secretary General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” 31 July 2019, p.9.

CONTRIBUTOR
Sabine Freizer
Sabine Freizer

Dr. Sabine Freizer is an Adviser on Governance, Peace and Security at UN Women’s Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women, the United Nations, or any of its affiliated organizations. 

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