The authorities are making preparations to reintegrate Bosnian supporters of Islamic State when they return from camps in Syria – and considering whether female ISIS followers should be prosecuted for joining the militants.
Senija Muhamedagic from Cazin in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina is waiting for her daughter to finally come home.
Two years ago, Muhamedagic’s daughter, a former acolyte of the so-called Islamic State, escaped from an area controlled by the Islamist militant group. But she did not manage to get back to Bosnia and Herzegovina and is currently in a camp in Syria run by Kurdish and US forces.
She and two other Bosnian citizens sent a letter to the authorities more than six months ago, saying that they want to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Muhamedagic’s daughter, who she did not want to name, said in the letter that she wants to come back with her children, that she regrets her decision to join a terrorist organisation in the Middle East, and that she is ready to face trial.
But the authorities have yet to find a way to bring her and dozens of other women and children back from the camps where they now live.
“We thought it would develop faster as far as our Ministry of Security and all that is concerned, but to this day, nothing has happened here,” Senija Muhamedagic told BIRN.
She insisted that her daughter was aware that she had made bad decisions.
“Of course it took a lot of courage to write something, repent and ask for help,” she said.
Six months after the US authorities declared the fall of the so-called Islamic State, more than 100 men, women and children originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina are in camps in Syria.
The Sarajevo authorities face several major challenges – how to confirm the identities of Syrian-born children of Bosnian citizens, how to care for the former ISIS followers when they get back to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and – one of the most sensitive questions – whether to prosecute the women who are returning.
For months, humanitarian organisations have been warning states to speed up the process of bringing back their citizens, former residents of the so-called Islamic State, as living conditions in the camps have become increasingly poor, particularly for children.
The al-Hol Camp in north-eastern Syria currently houses more than 70,000 people, more than 90 per cent of whom are women and children.
The UN recently reported that around 390 children have died at al-Hol since the start of the year from treatable diseases. Senija Muhamedagic’s daughter and her four children are at the al-Roj camp, also in in north-eastern Syria, where conditions are somewhat better but still very difficult.
The authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have not yet officially announced when they expect the return of the women and children from the so-called Islamic State. The Ministry of Security, which is managing the process, rejected multiple requests from BIRN for an interview.
However, BIRN’s journalists were told in a number of unofficial conversations that the return of the women and children had been expected this summer. Institutions at the local level confirmed that their arrival is expected soon and that they are making rapid preparations. Among the returnees, according to experts, will be about 30 women, 70 children and about ten men.
BIRN has learned that security agencies have information that some of the women from Bosnia and Herzegovina who are currently in Syria participated in the fighting, and some were members of the so-called Sharia police force, which was responsible for numerous crimes against civilian.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, no indictment or warrant has been issued for any woman so far, but lawyers explained that it is possible that some women will be prosecuted, not only for terrorism, but also for endangering the safety of children who were taken to the frontline territory controlled by Islamic State.
Are ISIS women criminals or victims?
Vlado Azinovic, a professor at the Faculty of Political Science at Sarajevo University and an expert on extremism and terrorism, said that the returning men will definitely be arrested and put on trial.
Azinovic said that he is aware of at least two cases of “women who claimed for themselves on these social networks that they actively participated in the fighting”, and that one of them “even posted photos of her shooting at one of her friends who was in that police force [Islamic State’s Sharia police]”.
The big question is whether the Bosnian courts will take such evidence into account, he said. However, he added, the authorities should be aware that “there is no one single answer for all the women”.
European countries, such as Britain and Germany, have already prosecuted ISIS women for endangering child safety. One British court decided to remove a child from her mother, stating that she knowingly neglected the danger to the child by taking him to a war zone.
In the most high-profile case, a woman who ran away to join Islamic State at the age of 15 but wanted to return to the UK was told she would be stripped of her British citizenship, sparking a major political row after her newborn baby died in the al-Roj camp in Syria.
Other states, such as Kazakhstan, do not prosecute women for endangering children but instead have special programmes to resocialise them.
In Kosovo, where more than 100 people have returned from ISIS territory, the cases of each woman who comes back is individually examined.
Mirsad Crnovsanin, a former employee of the Bosnian Prosecutor’s Office who worked on terrorism cases and is now a lawyer, explained that the country does not have a state-level law that would directly apply to women accused of child endangerment.
But he said that there are certain provisions in the country’s Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation entity “which could be used in the prosecution of such women who endangered the safety of their children”.
The OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which oversees the implementation of the country’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, told BIRN that “it is possible that some of the returning women may face criminal prosecution, whereas others will be treated outside the criminal justice system”.
This will require “tailored approaches” to each case, the OSCE said in a written answer to BIRN’s questions.
“There is a potential that some women and girls were victims of sexual violence which can lead to facing additional stigma in their communities. Such a situation warrants distinct psychosocial and health support,” it explained.
“Programmes dealing with women and girls should include elements tailored for them, which could involve specific dealing with gender-based violence, parenting, and empowerment and networking programs,” it added.
State-level judge Branko Peric said he sees no benefit in putting the returning women on trial.
“They are women after all, and in the meantime [since going to the Middle East], they have become mothers. They are expected to educate children in a way that they are not fanatical,” Peric said.
“I am not sure that this can be achieved through prosecution. So it seems to me that this plan should be abandoned. They need to be dealt with in a different way,” he added.
Malik Garibija, the Minister of Labour, Social Policy, Displaced Persons and Refugees of the Sarajevo Canton, argued that the women should be viewed solely as victims.
“These are not people who participated in the fighting, they are not people who were on the battle lines, these are women and children who very often were victims of various forms of violence,” Garibija said.
“And the very fact that they witnessed various things left them with significant traumas, which shows us that they are victims and that we as a society now simply face the choice: will we neglect them and allow them to misbehave in various ways in reaction to what they have been through, or we will all do our best to help them get back to their normal life as soon as possible and become productive citizens as soon as possible?” he asked.
He said that a meeting was recently held at which social workers and state institutions discussed how to work with the returning women and children, and that a special team is scheduled to undergo training to deal with them.
“We will go with a social programme of resocialisation, rehabilitation and detraumatisation of these people to help them integrate as much as possible into the local community. We will try to accommodate the arriving families and children in their homes, if they have homes. If not, with relatives’ families,” he added.
‘Most important is to save the children’
Garibija and staff of local social work centres who spoke to BIRN said that social workers are highly motivated to work with the returning women and children, but that the centres in which they work lack resources.
The OSCE said that the issue of ISIS returnees poses a significant challenge for all countries, and that “due to a variety of factors, including fragmented governance and resource gaps, Bosnia and Herzegovina is no exception in being insufficiently prepared to effectively rehabilitate and reintegrate these individuals”.
“While Bosnia and Herzegovina has been at the forefront of criminal justice responses to foreign terrorist fighters, other aspects of the response measures are lagging behind,” it added.
Rehabilitation and reintegration programs, especially those intended for children, should be comprehensive, the OSCE urged.
“Members of the receiving community should be prepared for the return of families and children, as to mitigate the risk of re-victimisation that can arise as a result of community-level stigmas, misperceptions and prejudices,” it said.
“These programmes should aim to foster a sense of safety, normalise the child’s day-to-day life, ensure exposure to cultural diversity and encourage consistent contacts with individuals outside of the home,” it added.
The former head of the counter-terrorism unit at the Federal Police Administration, Anes Cengic, said that Bosnia’s politicians need to focus on what is most important – the children who are currently stuck in camps in Syria, where their lives are at risk.
“The amount of them returning is insignificant compared to [the population of] Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I think that these children should first of all return and their lives be saved from the situation there,” Cengic said.
Senija Muhamedagic insisted that her daughter, and the two other Bosnian citizens who asked the authorities to be allowed to return, will prove after they get back to their home country that they are remorseful for having gone to join the so-called Islamic State.
“Everyone makes a mistake in their lives,” Muhamedagic said.
“They already have repented. They wrote a letter to repent and all that, but when they arrive, they will prove it. I will be happiest when I meet them, when I hug my daughter, hug my grandchildren, and I’m not scared about anything.”