Rehabilitation specialists continue work with Kazakh returnees from Syria

By Ksenia Bondal

Muslim women participate in a charity bazaar in Nur-Sultan in August. Many Kazakh women became radicalised in 2012-2014, abandoning their families and joining terrorists in Syria. [Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan]

Muslim women participate in a charity bazaar in Nur-Sultan in August. Many Kazakh women became radicalised in 2012-2014, abandoning their families and joining terrorists in Syria. [Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan]

ALMATY -- Psychologists, doctors, theologians and investigators are working hard to rehabilitate Kazakh women who returned from Syria earlier this year.

The Kazakh government on May 28-31 evacuated 67 women and 171 children from Syria as the final stage of Operation "Jusan" (Bitter Wormwood), which was aimed at bringing home the family members of militants who travelled there to fight with "Islamic State"(IS).

The evacuation was the third since the start of the year. In total, 524 Kazakhs -- 137 women, 357 children and 30 men -- have been repatriated.

Authorities sent the returnee women to a centre in Aktau specifically created for their rehabilitation. Younger children are likelier to stay with the mothers during the process, while the older ones undergo rehabilitation of their own.

"Our task, as theologians, was to assess the level of radicalisation of these people, to understand whether they pose a threat to society from the point of view of further spreading of this ideology," said Tulegen Taldybayev of Aktobe, deputy director of the Ansar think-tank.

For example, if someone who underwent training by IS, knows the Arabic language and might even have taught militants enjoys complete freedom of movement, there is a significant risk that he or she will begin to preach radical ideas among the public, said Taldybayev, who works at the Aktau rehabilitation centre.

Among the more than 500 Kazakhs "who have returned from Syria as a result of Operation Jusan [since the beginning of the year], about 20 have a serious level of religious radicalisation. We need to separate them from society and work on their long-term rehabilitation", said Taldybayev.


When rehabilitation workers ask women why they left for Syria, they hear mainly two arguments, Taldybayev said.

"First, families turned away from them because they were wearing religious clothes and praying, and that caused them to begin to visit extremist websites," Taldybayev said. "Second, after a divorce, they couldn't return home and therefore were forced to marry again, then again and so on until they came to the recruiters' attention."

If women abandon their families to go to the militants, that means they are seriously affected by the radical ideology and are infected with false images of an ideal life in a so-called Islamic "caliphate", said Asylbek Izbairov, director of the Institute for Geopolitical Studies in Nur-Sultan.

"We should not treat this matter casually because this powerful viral ideology can spread further," he said. "These women are now perceived as the widows of martyrs, and for those in our country who have radical religious views, it would be an honour to marry them."

"This is dangerous from the point of view of both the repeated radicalisation of these women and the further dissemination of these ideas," said Izbairov.

For rehabilitation work with extremists, the "cogwheel" method is effective, said Izbairov.

The method consists of six stages, is built on the correct Islamic postulates and uses the same terminology used by radicals, but the terms come with the correct explanation this time, he said.

"This is very effective in dissuasion," said Izbairov.

Facing justice

Two out of 67 women evacuated from Syria on May 28-31 received prison sentences for participating in terrorist activities.

One of them, Aktobe resident Akmaral Almagambetova, a 32-year-old mother of five, is already serving her prison term. The two children who were born in Syria will stay in a children's home.

The older three children will stay with their father, who never went to Syria.

At the end of July, an Aktobe court sentenced another Kazakh woman, 29-year-old Zarina Akmalayeva, to five years of imprisonment for promoting terrorism and inciting religious strife.

"Akmaral [Almagambetova] did not go there [to the Aktau rehabilitation centre], as she was immediately taken from Syria to the Aktau jail," said Taldybayev, the think-tank director.

"I did work with Zarina Akmalayeva, met with her mother and talked with Zarina's 12-year-old daughter," Taldybayev said.

Eyewitnesses to the horrors and cruelty committed by IS speak honestly, said Taldybayev. They say that no so-called "caliphate" exists in Syria, that the militants paid them only $50 (19,432 KZT) a month at best, and that life there was worse than in Kazakhstan.

Operation Jusan was the right move by the country's leadership, Taldybayev said, adding that if citizens fall into any difficult situation abroad, the duty of the state is to take care of them.

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