Kazakhstan Welcomes Women Back From the Islamic State, Warily

The young woman said she thought she was going on vacation in Turkey, but instead found herself in Syria, tricked, she said, by her husband, who joined the Islamic State. She herself, she said, never subscribed to ISIS teaching.

But back in Kazakhstan, government psychologists are taking no chances. They have heard that story before. They have enrolled the young woman, Aida Sarina — and scores of others who were once residents of the Islamic State — in a program to treat Islamist extremism.

“They want to know if we are dangerous,” said Ms. Sarina, who is 25 and has a young son.

Unlike virtually every Western country and most of the rest of the world, Kazakhstan is welcoming home women like Ms. Sarina — albeit warily and despite the lack of proof that deradicalization programs work — rather than arresting them if they dare show up.

Kazakhstan has repatriated 548 citizens who lived in Syria under the Islamic State.CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times.

Actors performing a play showing how a young woman’s conversion to radical Islam created turmoil in her family.CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

Men are allowed back, too, in Kazakhstan, though they face immediate arrest and the prospect of a 10-year prison term. Only a few have taken up the offer.

At the treatment site, the Rehabilitation Center of Good Intentions, the women are provided nannies to look after their children, fed hot meals and treated by doctors and psychologists, testing the soft-touch approach to people affiliated with a terrorist group.

For Ms. Sarina, it is a far cry from her previous life in a fetid refugee camp in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria, a human refuse heap of thousands of former Islamic State residents despised by most of the world.


Having somebody now ask how she felt was amazing, she said. “It was like your mother forgot to pick you up from kindergarten, but then remembered and came back for you,” she said.

Rather than treating the women as criminals, the professionals at the rehabilitation center encourage the women to talk about their experiences.

“We teach them to listen to the negative feelings inside,” Lyazzat Nadirshina, one psychologist, said of the method. “Why is that negative feeling bubbling up?’” she said she asks her patients. “Most often, it is the feeling of a little girl angry at her mother.”

Set up in January to quickly process scores of women whose radical ideas might only ossify if they were thrown in prison for long spells, the center’s services are not so much for the benefit of the women as the society they will soon rejoin, organizers say.

“I turned a new page in my life,” Zura Sarsemalieva, left, said. Ms. Sarsemalieva lived in the Islamic State from 2014, until its collapse earlier this year.CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

The Islamic State recruited more than 40,000 foreign fighters and their families from 80 countries over its quick arc from expansion to collapse, from 2014 until this year. American-backed Kurdish militias in Syria still hold at least 13,000 foreign ISIS followers in overflowing camps, including at least 13 Americans.

“Governments are not big fans of experimenting with this group because the risks are too high,” said Liesbeth van der Heide, an expert on Islamic radicalization at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.

What’s more, she said, studies of deradicalization programs going back decades have failed to show clear benefits.

Governments have tried it on neo-Nazis, members of the Red Brigades and IRA militants, among others, with mixed results. “Does it really matter if you go through a rehab program?” she said. “We don’t know.”

“They want to know if we are dangerous,” Aida Sarina said.CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, the director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, said deradicalization programs offer no guarantees but are an alternative to indefinite incarceration or capital punishment.

Western governments show little sympathy. Female suicide bombers are hardly a rarity. Britain and Australia have revoked the citizenship of nationals who joined the Islamic State. France allows its citizens be tried in Iraqi courts, where hundreds of people have been sentenced to death in trials that last just a few minutes.

Kazakhstan has sought a larger role in international diplomacy with a variety of initiatives to solve global problems, including once offering to dispose of other countries’ nuclear waste on its territory. And to date, it is the only country with a large contingent of citizens in Syria to agree to repatriate all of them — a total of 548, so far.

The program lasts about a month. The women meet individually and in small groups with psychologists. They undergo art therapy and watch plays put on by local actors that teach morality lessons on the pitfalls of radicalization.

“It’s a success when they accept guilt, when they promise to relate to nonbelievers with respect and when they promise to continue studying,” said Alim Shaumetov, the director of a nongovernmental group that helped design the curriculum.

“We don’t offer 100 percent guarantees,” he added. “If we manage to achieve 80 percent success, that is still success.”

Teachers and helpers setting up for a child’s quiz in the playroom of the treatment center.CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

“I haven’t met any sister with some ideology left inside her,” said Ms. Farziyeva, right. “We understand we were wrong.”CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

The everyday horror of life in the Islamic State soured some women on radicalism, Ms. Nadirshina, the psychologist, said. The very insecurity of their lives in recent years and months can be put to use in the deradicalization process, she said, by offering the women a safe and secure environment.

Conversely, she said, any threat from the government during this delicate period, like stern interrogations by police, would work at cross-purposes. The male soldiers on guard, for example, are under strict orders not to intimidate the women.

Still, most analysts of radicalism reject the view of ISIS brides as merely browbeaten young women under the thumb of terrorist husbands. Some fought, while others at the least nurtured their zealot spouses. Handling the women has become a puzzle as they lie on a scale someplace between victims and perpetrators.

Ms. Sarina said she was cured. She said that soon after they arrived in Syria, her husband died and she vanished into a so-called house of widows in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. Fighters regularly stopped by to pick out new brides, she said, but Ms. Sarina did not remarry.

As the fighting intensified, the ISIS official in charge of evacuating widows instead abandoned them in the desert, she said. They survived by eating grass. Some children froze to death on cold nights.

Now, Ms. Sarina said she was a mentor for other returning women in Kazakhstan, telling them ISIS failed to protect them so they should now trust the government. “I want the world to know it’s wholly realistic to rehabilitate us,” she said.

Still, Kenshilik Tyshkhan, a professor of religion who tries to persuade women in the program to adopt a moderate form of Islam, said in an interview that some women “express these ideas that a nonbeliever can be killed.” And many show little remorse, he said.

Nazigul Amzeyeva, 31, with her children in Aktau, Kazakhstan, after her release from the treatment program. She says the government told her she would go to prison or be killed if she did not return home and undergo rehabilitation.CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

“Everybody has a right to make a mistake,” Gulpari Farziyeva, 31, said of her journey to Syria, and marriages over six years to a succession of Islamic State militants. Even three weeks into treatment, she seemed remarkably untroubled by the militant group’s ways.

One day in Syria, she recalled, she was host at a dinner party at her apartment. While cooking dumplings and baking a cake, she dashed out to the market for a tablecloth she had forgotten to buy on an earlier trip.

At the market she saw a ghoulish scene, “five or six headless bodies,” on the ground along with “a lot of blood.” A public execution had taken place between her two trips. She averted her eyes, she said.

Nonetheless, she said, she bought the tablecloth and said the dinner party went swimmingly, with all the guests having a good time.

At another point, Ms. Farziyeva said, a militant living across the street was presented with an enslaved Yazidi concubine as a gift. “I was sorry for her,” she said. “She was a woman, too.” But as a non-Muslim, she said, the woman could not be taken in as a wife, with such rights as that entailed.

In the end though, Ms. Farziyeva expressed repentance. “I haven’t met any sister with some ideology left inside her,” she said. “We understand we were wrong.”

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