GROZNY, Russia (AFP) — Mother of five Zalina Gabibulayeva says she was “tricked” into joining jihadists in Syria five years ago. Now, repentant and repatriated to Russia’s Chechnya, she goes into schools to teach others of the dangers of extremism.
Countries around the world are grappling with the question of how to treat citizens who traveled to the Islamic State “caliphate,” then decided to return.
That problem is felt particularly keenly in Russia, which has seen thousands of people leave to fight alongside jihadists in Syria, according to President Vladimir Putin.
While some Western nations have stripped IS recruits of citizenship or banned them from coming back, Russia has actively repatriated women and children — though the return of women was suspended more than a year ago due to security concerns.
Most of Russia’s IS recruits came from Muslim-majority Caucasus republics such as Chechnya, the site of two bloody separatist conflicts with Moscow in the 1990s and now notorious for human rights abuses.
The republic, however, has welcomed women like Gabibulayeva — with the expectation that some will go to work to prevent young Muslims from becoming radicalized.
“We’re useful. We can tell the new generation about what happened to us, so they don’t make the same mistakes we did,” the 38-year-old says as her two youngest children play on the floor of her flat in regional capital Grozny.
Wearing a leopard-print khimar veil covering her head and body, she describes visiting schools or colleges a couple of times a week across Chechnya and neighboring republic Ingushetia.
There she tells young people how she fell for propaganda from the Islamic State group before her family moved to the “caliphate” and found “cruelty, horror … it had nothing to do with Islam.”
Gabibulayeva was already widowed when she went to Syria with her children, but married a Macedonian there after discovering discrimination against women without a husband.
Later the pair tried to escape via Iraq, where he was arrested and she was sent to a refugee camp, from which she was eventually brought back to Russia.
Gabibulayeva moved to Chechnya after receiving a suspended sentence in her native republic of Dagestan.
While using former members of extremist groups in education is not unusual, analysts told AFP this was the first such schools program they were aware of using returnees from the Islamic State.
“It’s very difficult for (the women) to talk about their experience, but we get them to understand it’s a way to show they repent,” says Kheda Saratova, who sits on the rights council of Chechnya’s authoritarian leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Saratova — who manages repatriation efforts with Kadyrov’s and Moscow’s backing — said young people are turned off by traditional lecturing about the dangers of extremism.
“But when someone appears before them to say in detail how they were radicalized, what they did there, how they managed to escape … they see the real picture, the real face of this terrorist organization.”
In a video from one of the classes, another returnee’s voice cracks as she describes the pain she caused her family by going to IS.
“There were special groups who taught children how to fight: They treated it as a game; they taught them how to shoot,” the woman tells the class of Grozny teenagers.
Saratova hopes Russian federal authorities will remove their ban on repatriating women from Syria and Iraq. The activist says around 200 women and children have already been brought back, and she is planning a trip to collect more children of Russian families.
“Eventually they will come back to their countries — especially the children. But in what capacity?” she said.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the independent Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, said in some ways the initiative was a “showcase” to balance out reports of rights abuses from Chechnya.
At the same time she believes the use of such personal experience “is considered to be one of the most effective ways of trying to ideologically counter terrorism.”
“It’s not easy to do, because usually in democratic states you can’t push people to speak — you have to ask for their consent and most are reluctant to do it” because of psychological difficulties, stigma or personal risk.
Fenna Keijzer of the European Union’s Radicalization Awareness Network said similar education projects in other countries tended to use the experience of people who had been longer out of extremist environments.
Saratova insisted that the five women involved in the program, which has reached around 600 young people in the past year and is seeking support to continue, took part voluntarily.
But she suggested there was an element of quid pro quo in the arrangement.
“You have to pay for everything in this life,” she said.
© Agence France-Presse