The challenge of female ISIS returnees in the Balkans

The challenge of female ISIS returnees in the Balkans

As hundreds of foreign fighters from the Western Balkans return home, it’s unclear whether governments are prepared to deal with the issues of prosecution and rehabilitation. Leonie Vrugtman explores the challenges posed, especially by female returnees.

New P-CVE measures are not enough

Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) have been the source of at least 900 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. Local governments have put an unprecedented focus on preventing and countering violent extremism (P-CVE). Each country adjusted their legislation to criminalise partaking in foreign wars or recruiting or financing other to do so. Moreover, the governments developed and implemented comprehensive national action plans to face the issue of P-CVE.

Although these efforts have yielded positive results in preventing people from leaving their countries to fight abroad, they fail to consider long-term solutions for the foreign fighters who are returning. This is in part due to the difficulty of prosecuting them. Even when records are available of travels to Iraq or Syria, the secretive nature of groups like al-Nusra or the Islamic State (IS) makes it difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that people took part in these organisations. This leads to very low sentencing rates for returnees.

In Kosovo for example, seven men were convicted for between two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half years imprisonment for fighting for IS and recruiting on behalf of the organisation. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nedzad Mujic and Fikret Hadzic made a plea agreement with the court, and despite admitting to having fought for IS in Syria, were allowed to walk free by paying a fine.

The need for long-term solutions

Until now, local authorities made efforts mostly toward the prosecution of returnees, and much less toward de-radicalisation and rehabilitation. Detained jihadists live in prisons alongside other criminals, which creates its own risks. Prisons have long been considered as hubs for radicalisation. Radicalised prisoners can also tap into the knowledge of other criminals, helping them further sophisticate operational plans. In the past, prisons have also served as the locus of operational planning for terrorist attacks.

In Kosovo alone, the data show that around 130 returnees and their family members need de-radicalisation and reintegration programmes. However, in most Western Balkans countries a comprehensive strategy aiming at these objectives is largely absent. According to Balkan Insights, financial support is insufficient to equip prisons with de-radicalisation programmes. Governments may have refrained from supporting such programs for fear of public backlash, when under-funded education and other services are seen as being the priority.

International funds to support these programs are thus critical. In Kosovo, a reintegration programme for foreign fighters and their families is in the implementation phase as a result of funds from the international community. Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina are in earlier stages of putting into action similar programmes. Arct, a local Albanian NGO, is working to start small-scale prison de-radicalisation projects. Given that these programmes are foreign funded with clearly defined timelines, it is difficult to achieve sustainable results or measure their long-term impact.

What about the women?

Women are even harder to prosecute, due to their assumed non-aggressive and domestic roles. Indeed, the classical jihadi doctrine defines a woman’s role as non-combative, limited to being a wife and a mother, with tasks like supporting her husband and educating the next generation of jihadists. Testimonials from female returnees reflect this, as most claim to have not committed any crimes. Some even go as far as claiming to have been deceived to think they were going on holiday in Turkey but ended up in Syria instead.

Indeed, most women leaving Western Balkans for Iraq or Syria did travel with their husbands, but according to a 2015 report by Quiliam ‘female supporters are just as aware of what life in the “caliphate” holds for them […] as their male counterparts are’. In addition, when radicalised, women have equally persistent beliefs to men. An internal report by the French Ministry of Justice reflects their awareness, since the majority of the French women travelling to the Caliphate deliberately joined the Islamic State to “practise their faith without Western oppression”.

Women as active fighters

Research into life inside the Islamic State has shown that not all women in the caliphate are merely housewives. Foreign women especially, held active roles as online recruiters or members of the female run morality police (al-Khansaa brigade). A report by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism notes that members of the al-Khansaa brigade undergo military and intelligence training and use violence to punish female violators of morality laws. Allegedly, a Kosovar woman “is the main online recruiter of ethnic Albanian females”. She even set up and led  a female training camp in Syria to host “dozens of women and girls from Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia”.

Following IS military defeats, it has become more accepted for female supporters to pick up arms (Winter and Margolin, p. 26). As Elizabeth Pearson correctly states, the Battle of Mosul marked the beginning of a new doctrine regarding women, as they were urged to launch attacks, including in the West. Months after IS major setbacks in in large parts of Iraq and Syria, its organs published an increasing amount of propaganda regarding the combat role of women, including a video showing women fighting on the front line.

How to prosecute women

It is likely that female returnees are downplaying their commitment to the organisation and their roles inside the caliphate to avoid prosecution. By portraying themselves as victims with a domestic role, female IS supporters know that it is difficult to built a case on existing legislation in the Balkans. Currently, the legislation that is used to prosecute those travelling to Iraq and Syria is a recently added section in the penal code, tailored to the foreign fighter phenomenon.

Between 2014 and 2015 all the Western Balkan countries amended their penal codes, enabling them to prosecute anyone who enlisted in a foreign military, paramilitary or parapolice formations or encouraged others to do so. However, this does not consider the role of the Islamic State as a proto-state, in which women live away from the frontlines and are mostly supporting the organisation’s cause with non-combative roles.

Constrained by unsuited legislation, a lack of evidence and a narrative of victimisation by female returnees, it is difficult for prosecutors to build a case against them. As a result, many women avoid prosecution altogether.

Implications of gender bias

Given the IS doctrine shift to involve women in acts of violence, the potential threat of female returnees is no less threatening than that of male returnees. Many of the women come back disillusioned by the reality of living in the caliphate. They may also feel self-fulfilled in their duty to serve IS and eager to reintegrate into a normal life where they can raise their children.

However, without de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes in place, it is difficult to see how some of them will not continue to believe and support radical ideas.


These women can pose a serious threat to the security of the Western Balkans, and the European continent more broadly, even when it is only a handful. Coming back to the society in which they were prone to radicalising, they may get in touch with likeminded people or even radicalise others. They could also remain in touch with other returning sisters across all over the world.

More strikingly, Islamic State may instruct them to plan and carry out attacks on European soil. As women enjoy a positive security bias, in which authorities and the general public perceive women as less threatening, they have a greater potential of carrying out a successful attack.

Compounding the problem, a lack of sufficient support could further alienate the female returnees, because communities will be reluctant to accept them back. Such exclusion and isolation poses a unique challenge, that countries can only tackle with relevant rehabilitation programmes that make the women feel included. Education or employment opportunities would likely be the most effective de-radicalisation argument to offer.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Leonie Vrugtman

Leonie Vrugtman is an independent researcher in political violence and extremism, with a focus on women in Islamic State. Her research covers home-grown radicalization and security issues in the West (mainly UK/NL/Western Balkans), as well as global and local issues that allow Islamic Extremism to rise in the Middle East. She previously worked at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Dickson Poon School of Law. Leonie holds and MA in International Relations at King’s College London, and a BSc and a BA in Journalism and Communications from the Netherlands.