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Kazakhstan’s Repatriation of Foreign Fighters and Their Families

As a major source of foreign fighters for the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Central Asia now faces the security and humanitarian challenge of repatriating these fighters and their families. Having repatriated over 700 of its citizens - mostly women and children - through ‘Operation Zhusan,’ Kazakhstan has emerged as a global leader in these efforts.


   Though many countries have refused to repatriate, we felt it was our ‘international obligation, humanitarian in its nature,’ Yerzhan Ashykbayev, deputy minister of foreign affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan told an Atlantic Council briefing today. ‘In total, 33 men – all of whom were prosecuted - 187 women, and 490 children who had been lacking food, shelter, water, health resources and education, and been subject to exploitation have been repatriated. We’ve seen a widespread disillusionment with ISIS, and pleas for repatriation… We want to be a “listening state,” though our endeavours have not met with 100% public support.’

   Christopher Harnisch, deputy coordinator for countering violent extremism at the Bureau of Counterterrorism with the US Department of State noted that: ‘There are over 2,000 foreign fighters in Kurdish prisons in Northern Iraq and 13,000 women and children in Kurdish camps. If they escape, they will in many cases return to the battlefield or slip back home and radicalise there. This is a security issue. The US has been calling for repatriation, and two years ago Kazakhstan was the first country to step up to the plate… It’s a matter of political will, which Western Europe lacks.’


   Non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Noah Tucker characterised the Kazakh program as ‘a remarkable success which demands emulation,’ noting that ‘there has not been an increase in extremist activity’ following repatriation.


   Radical Islam is not native to Central Asia, rather it is what former US Ambassador to Uzbekistan, John Herbst characterised as ‘a nasty import’ which tends to occur in concentrated hotspots. Such was the case in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, where wooed by promises of Saudi money, in 2012 President Atambayev inaugurated the new Sulayman Mosque with the capacity to host 20,000 people, which was built with funds from Saudi Wahhabis. Of the Osama Bin Laden school of thought, the goal of Wahhabis is to indoctrinate those on the fringes of society, to destroy secularism and create a region-wide caliphate based on Sharia law.  

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