The recent repatriation of an Islamic State (IS) woman and four children from the Kurdish-controlled al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria is being applauded as an important step by Albania to deal with its citizens abroad who have been affiliated with the terror group.
Some observers say they are expecting a long journey ahead for the country as it addresses the rehabilitation of IS families and their reentry into society.
“Although modest in size, this transfer signals Albania’s shift toward a proactive approach for the repatriation of its citizens, especially children and women,” Adrian Shtuni, a Washington-based security and radicalization expert, told VOA.
Roughly 13,500 foreign women and children are among about 70,000 IS families held by the Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria, according to a report in April by the Crisis Group. Researchers in Albania say at least 70 members of the group hold Albanian citizenship.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said last week that he was in Beirut to bring home from Syria a 41-year-old woman, Floresha Rasha; her three children – Amar, Emel and Hatixhe Rasha; and another minor, Endri Dumani. The five Albanians were evacuated from the al-Hol camp in a process mediated by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Mark Ghraib, Albania’s honorary consul in Beirut, said the Albanians had been given medical checkups and provided with proper care. Authorities have not disclosed many details about the health of the evacuees but said Floresha Rasha uses a wheelchair because of “severe injuries” and will need immediate surgery upon her arrival in Tirana.
Floresha Rasha will face investigation to determine if she was involved in any terrorist attacks during her seven years in Syria, according to the Albanian Special Anti-Corruption Prosecution. The four children, however, do not have any criminal liability under Albanian law because of their age.
Kurdish authorities repeatedly have called on countries to repatriate their citizens, saying imprisoned IS fighters and their families are a burden on their limited resources.
Albanian Interior Minister Elisa Spiropali said in September that the return of the Albanian adults would face legal challenges because “they are considered the losing side of an armed battle.” She said the government was on track, though, to bring home 28 children.
The government in Tirana first planned to repatriate dozens of its citizens in August 2019. But Spiropali subsequently announced the process was suspended because of the changing geopolitical situation in Syria following Turkey’s military operations and the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops in October 2019.
The halt prompted a protest in September by relatives of the IS children, who said the government had to put more effort into bringing home minors who are citizens.
Following the protest, Albanian Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj went to Beirut to discuss with his Lebanese counterparts the possible repatriation of children and women from the camps.
“For children, we are trying to save them from that hell,” Lleshaj told Albania’s national Top Channel in September.
Rights groups describe al-Hol camp as “massively” crowded and unsanitary. Doctors Without Borders reported in August that the camp was witnessing a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases, with very little health care available.
Since the territorial defeat of IS in March 2019, many IS foreign women in Syria have petitioned their home countries to take them back because of harsh conditions in the camps.
Some experts noted that some of the women remain radicalized, however, and do not want to be repatriated home because they expect a revival of IS.
“They honestly believe that ‘brothers’ are going to go and liberate them,” Vera Mironova, a research fellow at Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told VOA.
“When you are talking to them, they are like, ‘You know, brothers are standing on a hill around the camp, and they are watching us or preparing to attack the Kurds,’ ” Mironova said.
IS members who are not connected by marital ties usually refer to each other as brothers and sisters. The group’s fighters reportedly have attacked the SDF at least twice to break into the camps to free their family members.
Mironova also added that another motivation for these women who prefer to stay is to raise their children in the camp, which they consider an Islamic land, thinking that their countries do not have Islamic practices.
Some may not seek return
Similarly, Adrian Shtuni says the assumption that all of the Albanian women being held in the camp are eager to return home may not be accurate.
“Substantiated media reports that a number of Albanian women went into hiding to evade repatriation point to a less well-understood aspect of the reality in camps,” Shtuni told VOA.
“This highlights once more that though repatriation in itself is a complex effort, it is only the beginning of a long-term process of rehabilitation from trauma and violent extremism required to prepare returnees for reentry into mainstream society,” Shtuni added.
Rama in the past has said his Cabinet is well-prepared to hold IS adult members accountable, and to prepare for the return of the brainwashed children into society.
In a news conference last week, Rama announced his government rehabilitation program for children was being assisted by the children’s relatives and was equipped with the necessary care, psychologists, teachers and doctors.
“The progress of these children will be monitored. Work will be done step by step to integrate them into the social structures, based on the opinion that will be given by doctors and psychologists,” Rama added.
More than 100 Albanians are reported to have joined the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, alongside other ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and North Macedonia. The U.S. State Department's 2019 Country Report on Terrorism determined the terrorism threat in Albania came mainly from foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, along with Albanian youth being radicalized to terrorism.