Ending Islamic State: Dealing With Women and Children Returnees in the North Caucasus

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 4

Islamic State Khansaa Brigade (Source: Daily Mail)

In the spring of 2016, Islamic State (IS) propagandists released an unusual video purporting to show the famous Chechen pop-singer Azza Bataeva, previously known for her provocative clothing, wearing a niqab and calling on Muslims to join “the path of Allah,” as she tore up her Russian passport (Kavkazskii Uzel, April 22, 2016). The video was some of the first evidence of North Caucasian female jihadist activism in Syria and Iraq.

As IS is dislodged from its captured territories, the return to their home countries of militants’ families has become a concern, albeit one that is under-examined. According to Russian officials, about 445 Russian children were taken to the conflict zone, more than half of whom were under the age of three and have since effectively grown up under IS tutelage (Kavkazskii Uzel, January 17).

In the North Caucasus, human rights organizations and local authorities have voiced concerns. A failure to properly reintegrate indoctrinated women and children into the local communities could lead to new tensions in the traditional but fragile North Caucasian society.

The Attraction of the Five-Star Jihad

Historically, the role of female actors in the North Caucasian insurgency has been marginal, but the emergence of IS changed that. The group encouraged many North Caucasian women to participate in some form by moving to IS-held territories and bring their children with them.

The most intensive migration of women and children to IS-captured territories was in 2015. [1] The large rebel-held territories in Syria and Iraq, with their functional infrastructure and favorable conditions for civilian life, presented a more comfortable alternative to a life of jihad carried out in the forested mountains of the North Caucasus. While some women were encouraged to make hijrah (migration or journey) to IS-held territories, with no expectation of returning home, by their husbands, for others the intensive promotion by IS of a “pure” sharia lifestyle within its territories will have held its own appeal. Even girls from affluent families, such as Seda Dudurkaeva, the daughter of a Chechen official, were attracted by IS’ so-called “five-star” jihad (Chechens in Syria, November 9, 2014).

Nine Chechen women are reported to have joined the all-female, Raqqa-based al-Khansaa brigade (Novaya Gazeta, October 29, 2017). However, information about female IS recruits is scarce, and the primary function of IS women in Syria and Iraq is most likely to have been to take care of the children and offer support to the men, rather than take part in active combatant.

Following the rapid withdrawal of IS from major settlements, foreign non-combatants have found themselves deprived of sanctuary. Many ethnic Chechen fighters sent their family members to the relative safety of Idlib province in Syria, under the protection of non-IS Caucasian armed groups. Others were unable to send family members away. Those left behind in Mosul have been captured by Iraqi forces, and those in Raqqa were picked up by Kurdish groups. It appears that scores of Caucasian women and children are today waiting to be deported back to Russia, despite the uncertain future they face there. [2]

Repatriation Raises Security Concerns

From interviews with Caucasian women returning from IS-held territories, it is evident the many have become disillusioned and no longer share the group’s ideology. However, there can be no denying that they present a potential security threat in the North Caucasus. In previous jihadist conflicts, women have proved to be efficient recruiters, indoctrinating younger women and recruiting “jihadi brides” for arranged marriages with members of the insurgency. Female jihadists are often particularly vulnerable to being co-opted as suicide bombers if they have lost their husband or another family member. During the Second Chechen War, for example, the majority of female suicide bombers were driven by a sense of revenge, rather than a belief in the ideology of jihad (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 22, 2003). The female Dagestani suicide bomber Diana Ramazanova, who blew herself up near the Sultanahmet mosque in Istanbul in January 2015, was the widow of Chechen IS militant Abu Edelbiev (Hurriyet, January 16, 2015).

Another problem is related to Caucasian children who have grown up as part of IS. Children taken to the conflict zone by their parents are clearly victims. However, brought up on the ideology of IS, they are at the same time potential perpetrators. The case of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo shows that former child soldiers display higher levels of aggression than adult ex-combatants and are more difficult to reintegrate into society. [3] Having been deprived of a normal education, undergone indoctrination and lived in a high-stress environment, those difficulties are understandable.

IS categorized children over 15 as adults and allowed them to participate in combat, even younger children were trained to fight. A report by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights on the combat training of 12-year-old Chechen children in Tal Afar in Iraq, and reported cases of atrocities carried out by Kazakh child soldiers, offers some indication of the potential threat (nur.kz 19 December, 2014). [4] It is also one for which North Caucasian society is unprepared. During the Chechen Wars, the mujahideen leadership refrained from conscripting child soldiers. As a consequence, the society has never had to face the problem of child militancy and has no expertise in countering it.

No Formal Strategy

There are a host of technical and legal problems connected with the return of these individuals. Bureaucratic barriers imposed by the Iraqi and Syrian governments make repatriation difficult. The situation is further complicated by the difficulties that Russian officials face when attempting to verify the identity of children born in Syria or Iraq, especially if they are unable to communicate in either Russian or one of the Caucasian dialects.

Another challenge lies in the re-education of returned children. The traditional educational and social systems are not designed with former child soldiers in mind. Without a focus on debunking IS ideology, there is the possibility of their future engagement in violent activities.

There is also the issue of trust. Instead of using disillusioned female returnees as effective counter-propaganda tools to combat radicalization, the Russian security services have insisted on pursuing a hardline policy. In one case, three Dagestani women who were encouraged to return by the local government were immediately apprehended by state security services upon arrival (Kavkazskii Uzel, December 1, 2017). This policy of suppression is leading to mistrust and the fear of criminal prosecution, making reintegration more complicated and increasing the risk of extremism.

Despite efforts by the Russian government to have Russian female citizens and their children returned from Syria and Iraq, there is no short- or long-term strategy for their social reintegration when they make it back. Instead, regional leaders such as Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov are simply using the process to paint a dovish picture of themselves for Caucasian Muslims.

The participation of women and children in the Middle Eastern conflict is a complex problem and a relatively new phenomenon for the North Caucasus. The Russian authorities’ insistence on continuing a rough counterinsurgency policy—known colloquially as mochit v sortire (roughly “kill them even in the restroom”)—instead of focusing on a long-term solution is likely only to entrench grievances and foster radicalization in North Caucasian society.



[1] Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees. The Soufan Center. October 2017, p. 5

[2] Information from the author’s own fieldwork in the Pankisi Gorge (January 2018)

[3] Katharin Hermenau, Tobias Hecker, Anna Maedl, Maggie Schauer & Thomas Elbert (2013), Growing Up in Armed Groups: Trauma and Aggression Among Child Soldiers in DR Congo, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 4:1, p. 7

[4] OHCHR; A Call for Accountability and Protection: Yezidi Survivors of Atrocities Committed by ISIL, p. 12