European Eye on Radicalization
In her forthcoming book, Foreign Fighters and International Peace: Joining Global Jihad and Marching Back Home (2023), terrorism expert Cholpon Orozobekova gives a new, informative overview about the complex issues which were born out of the Islamic State’s collapse in 2019 and, most importantly, provides an extensive corpus of first-hand accounts based on dozens of interviews that she carried out between 2018 and 2019.
The author starts with relatives of fighters and interviews parents of those who were in Syria. Then, the repatriation operations in four countries in Central Asia provided her with a chance to look closer at the profiles of returnees and she began to have access to both returnees, psychologists, theologians and social workers in these countries who were involved in rehabilitation programs and directly worked with repatriates.
The book features testimonies and conversations from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Relatives of individuals who joined Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) also helped her connect with, and interview, women who have been living in the Roj and Al Hol camps in northeastern Syria.
Why did they reject their home countries to live in a so-called Islamic state? Should we demand states to take responsibility for their citizens who joined ISIS and are now trapped in the desert? What role do grievances play in radicalization processes?
The book attempts to answer these and other old yet crucial questions through a remarkably deep knowledge of Central Asia and former Soviet Republics’ history, societies, and dynamics of radicalization.
The foreword to the book is penned by John Heathershaw, Professor of International Relations at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. He founded the Exeter Central Asian Studies (ExCAS) research network and directed its Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) project 2015–2020. He was a member of the board of the Central Eurasian Studies Society and the European Society for Central Asian Studies. Professor Heathershaw is also the author of Post-Conflict Tajikistan: The Politics of Peacebuilding and the Emergence of Legitimate Order and coauthor of Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia.
In his preamble to the book, he notes that Orozbekova takes an original approach to the topic. First, she is originally from the post-Soviet space of the foreign fighters that she studies, whereas most research on foreign fighters is written by outsiders. Therefore, she is able to highlight that foreign fighters should always be considered a domestic matter. She argues in her introduction that jihadists and terrorists are not adversaries that came from abroad, but products of our societies. She explains that foreign fighters are not an aberration from, but a reflection of, the ways in which Central Asian states and societies have evolved in the 30 years since the end of the Soviet Union.
Moreover, Orozbekova presents radicalization and repatriation as universal moral challenges. Her perspective is not the security imperative of protecting ‘us’ from ‘them’, secular states from Islamists or everyday life from extremists. In Heathershaw’s words, Orozobekova shows that their lives are ours. They are both secular and religious, ordinary and extremist.
This book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter, “Global Jihadism: Emergence, Gradual Change and Search for Enemies”, analyzes global jihad, its roots, emergence and gradual evolution. The chapter traces genealogies of jihadism and analyzes historical grievances of jihadist groups’ motivations behind positioning the West as an adversary. It sheds light on how jihadists misinterpreted and used distorted concepts of Islam to justify their violence. The chapter also analyzes the nature of the Salafi-Wahhabi ideology and how Islamic fundamentalism emerged from the colonial era.
The second chapter, “Why Join ISIS: Conceptualizing the Radicalization Process of Jihadists”, is devoted to the radicalization process of jihadists. It proposes the non-enigma cycles radicalization theory that consists of six casual cycles. Each cycle is crucial in the radicalization process and they have a strong causal relationship by complementing each other.
Chapter Three, “The Fall of ISIS: Dilemma of Justice and Consequences of a Family Jihad”, analyzes the fall of ISIS, the genocide and war crimes committed by the group, and international efforts to bring their fighters to justice. The United Nations established three international bodies: the UNITAD investigative team, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism. However, the main question of how and where to try fighters still remains.
Voices of ISIS Women
The fourth chapter, “Post-ISIS-Life: Women and Children in the Desert Nowhere to Go” is devoted to the post-ISIS lives of fighters and their family members, and the current situation and living conditions of women and children living in Roj and Al Hol camps. The chapter features the voices of women in these camps who spoke to the author. One of these women named Sabina, shared her diary with Orozobekova, who featured an excerpt from it in her book. One passage, which details Sabina’s feelings and thoughts, provides some understanding on how these women live and what they dream about.
Chapter Five, “Women’s Roles in ISIS and Gender-Based Assumptions” and Chapter Six: “Children of ISIS: Brought to or Born in the Conflict Zone”, are dedicated to women and gender analysis as well as children, as 90 percent of the habitants of Al Hol and Roj camps are women and children.
The seventh chapter, “State Policies to Deal with Returning Fighters and Their Associates”, analyzes state policies towards ISIS fighters and the dilemma of bringing them to justice. The options to deal with former ISIS fighters and their family members include the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal, stripping their citizenship, transferring them to Iraqi prions, repatriation and rehabilitation and sentencing in absentia.
The final chapter, “States Responsibility: Repatriation Cases as a Model to Study”, is about repatriation operations carried out by several countries such as Kosovo, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Experts often notice that Islamist extremism is still largely unorganized in Central Asia and that jihadism has shallow roots in the communities of the region compared to other Muslim-majority countries. A surprisingly large number of post-Soviet citizens, however, seem to have found in radicalization the answers to their struggles and their search for meaning. Cholpon Orozbekova’s Foreign Fighters and International Peace. Joining Global Jihad and Marching Back Home explains how this trend took place and what its consequences are today.