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#Kazakhstan welcomes women back from #IslamicState, warily

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Credit Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

The young woman said she thought she was going on vacation in Turkey, but instead found herself in Syria, tricked, she said, by her husband, who joined the Islamic State. She herself, she said, never subscribed to ISIS teaching, writes

But back in Kazakhstan, government psychologists are taking no chances. They have heard that story before. They have enrolled the young woman, Aida Sarina — and scores of others who were once residents of the Islamic State — in a program to treat Islamist extremism.

“They want to know if we are dangerous,” said Ms. Sarina, who is 25 and has a young son.

Unlike virtually every Western country and most of the rest of the world, Kazakhstan is welcoming home women like Sarina — albeit warily and despite the lack of proof that deradicalization programs work — rather than arresting them if they dare show up.

So like a scene from a prosecutor’s daydream, a small hotel in the desert of western Kazakhstan is packed with these women, whom many governments view as terrorist suspects.

CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

Men are allowed back, too, in Kazakhstan, though they face immediate arrest and the prospect of a 10-year prison term. Only a few have taken up the offer.

At the treatment site, the Rehabilitation Center of Good Intentions, the women are provided nannies to look after their children, fed hot meals and treated by doctors and psychologists, testing the soft-touch approach to people affiliated with a terrorist group.

For Ms. Sarina, it is a far cry from her previous life in a fetid refugee camp in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria, a human refuse heap of thousands of former Islamic State residents despised by most of the world.

Having somebody now ask how she felt was amazing, she said. “It was like your mother forgot to pick you up from kindergarten, but then remembered and came back for you,” she said.

Rather than treating the women as criminals, the professionals at the rehabilitation center encourage the women to talk about their experiences.

“We teach them to listen to the negative feelings inside,” Lyazzat Nadirshina, one psychologist, said of the method. “Why is that negative feeling bubbling up?’” she said she asks her patients. “Most often, it is the feeling of a little girl angry at her mother.”

Set up in January to quickly process scores of women whose radical ideas might only ossify if they were thrown in prison for long spells, the center’s services are not so much for the benefit of the women as the society they will soon rejoin, organizers say.

The Islamic State recruited more than 40,000 foreign fighters and their families from 80 countries over its quick arc from expansion to collapse, from 2014 until this year. American-backed Kurdish militias in Syria still hold at least 13,000 foreign ISIS followers in overflowing camps, including at least 13 Americans.

American diplomats have been pressuring countries to repatriate their citizens, though with not much success.

“Governments are not big fans of experimenting with this group because the risks are too high,” said Liesbeth van der Heide, an expert on Islamic radicalization at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.

What’s more, she said, studies of deradicalization programs going back decades have failed to show clear benefits.

Governments have tried it on neo-Nazis, members of the Red Brigades and IRA militants, among others, with mixed results. “Does it really matter if you go through a rehab program?” she said. “We don’t know.”

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“They want to know if we are dangerous,” Aida Sarina said.
CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, the director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, said deradicalization programs offer no guarantees but are an alternative to indefinite incarceration or capital punishment.

Western governments show little sympathy. Female suicide bombers are hardly a rarity. Britain and Australia have revoked the citizenship of nationals who joined the Islamic State. France allows its citizens be tried in Iraqi courts, where hundreds of people have been sentenced to death in trials that last just a few minutes.

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Kazakhstan has sought a larger role in international diplomacy with a variety of initiatives to solve global problems, including once offering to dispose of other countries’ nuclear waste on its territory. And to date, it is the only country with a large contingent of citizens in Syria to agree to repatriate all of them — a total of 548, so far.

The program lasts about a month. The women meet individually and in small groups with psychologists. They undergo art therapy and watch plays put on by local actors that teach morality lessons on the pitfalls of radicalization.

“It’s a success when they accept guilt, when they promise to relate to nonbelievers with respect and when they promise to continue studying,” said Alim Shaumetov, the director of a nongovernmental group that helped design the curriculum.

“We don’t offer 100 percent guarantees,” he added. “If we manage to achieve 80 percent success, that is still success.”

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Teachers and helpers setting up for a child’s quiz in the playroom of the treatment center.
CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

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“I haven’t met any sister with some ideology left inside her,” said Ms. Farziyeva, right. “We understand we were wrong.”
CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

The everyday horror of life in the Islamic State soured some women on radicalism, Ms. Nadirshina, the psychologist, said. The very insecurity of their lives in recent years and months can be put to use in the deradicalization process, she said, by offering the women a safe and secure environment.

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Conversely, she said, any threat from the government during this delicate period, like stern interrogations by police, would work at cross-purposes. The male soldiers on guard, for example, are under strict orders not to intimidate the women.

Still, most analysts of radicalism reject the view of ISIS brides as merely browbeaten young women under the thumb of terrorist husbands. Some fought, while others at the least nurtured their zealot spouses. Handling the women has become a puzzle as they lie on a scale someplace between victims and perpetrators.

Ms. Sarina said she was cured. She said that soon after they arrived in Syria, her husband died and she vanished into a so-called house of widows in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. Fighters regularly stopped by to pick out new brides, she said, but Ms. Sarina did not remarry.

As the fighting intensified, the ISIS official in charge of evacuating widows instead abandoned them in the desert, she said. They survived by eating grass. Some children froze to death on cold nights.

Now, Ms. Sarina said she was a mentor for other returning women in Kazakhstan, telling them ISIS failed to protect them so they should now trust the government. “I want the world to know it’s wholly realistic to rehabilitate us,” she said.

Still, Kenshilik Tyshkhan, a professor of religion who tries to persuade women in the program to adopt a moderate form of Islam, said in an interview that some women “express these ideas that a nonbeliever can be killed.” And many show little remorse, he said

“Everybody has a right to make a mistake,” Gulpari Farziyeva, 31, said of her journey to Syria, and marriages over six years to a succession of Islamic State militants. Even three weeks into treatment, she seemed remarkably untroubled by the militant group’s ways.

One day in Syria, she recalled, she was host at a dinner party at her apartment. While cooking dumplings and baking a cake, she dashed out to the market for a tablecloth she had forgotten to buy on an earlier trip.

At the market she saw a ghoulish scene, “five or six headless bodies,” on the ground along with “a lot of blood.” A public execution had taken place between her two trips. She averted her eyes, she said.

Nonetheless, she said, she bought the tablecloth and said the dinner party went swimmingly, with all the guests having a good time.

At another point, Ms. Farziyeva said, a militant living across the street was presented with an enslaved Yazidi concubine as a gift. “I was sorry for her,” she said. “She was a woman, too.” But as a non-Muslim, she said, the woman could not be taken in as a wife, with such rights as that entailed.

In the end though, Ms. Farziyeva expressed repentance. “I haven’t met any sister with some ideology left inside her,” she said. “We understand we were wrong.”

EU

NextGenerationEU: €93 million recovery and resilience plan in line for Luxembourg

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The European Commission has today (18 June) adopted a positive assessment of Luxembourg's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €93 million in grants under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). This financing will support the implementation of the investment and reform measures outlined in Luxembourg's recovery and resilience plan. It will support Luxembourg's efforts to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RRF – at the heart of NextGenerationEU – will provide up to €672.5 billion (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Luxembourgish plan forms part of an unprecedented coordinated EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, to address common European challenges by embracing the green and digital transitions, to strengthen economic and social resilience and the cohesion of the Single Market.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today, the European Commission has decided to give its green light to Luxembourg's recovery and resilience plan. The plan places a strong emphasis on measures that will help secure the green transition, demonstrating Luxembourg's commitment to creating a more sustainable future. I am proud that NextGenerationEU will play an important role in supporting these efforts.”

The Commission assessed Luxembourg's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's assessment considered in particular whether the investments and reforms set out in Luxembourg's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

Securing Luxembourg's green and digital transition  

The Commission's assessment finds that Luxembourg's plan allocates 61% of total expenditure to measures that support climate objectives. This includes measures to supply renewable energy to a housing district project in Neischmelz, a support scheme for the deployment of charging points for electric vehicles, and the “Naturpakt” scheme encouraging municipalities to protect the natural environment and biodiversity.

The Commission finds that Luxembourg's plan devotes 32% of total expenditure to measures that support the digital transition. This includes investments in the digitalisation of public services and procedures; digitalisation of projects for healthcare, such as an online solution for remote healthcare checks; and the establishment of a laboratory for testing ultra-secure communication connections based on quantum technology. In addition, investments in targeted training programmes will provide job seekers and workers on short-time work schemes with digital skills.

Reinforcing Luxembourg's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Luxembourg's plan is expected to contribute to effectively addressing all or a significant subset of challenges identified in the relevant country-specific recommendations (CSRs). Specifically, it contributes to addressing CSRs on  labour market policies through addressing skills mismatches and enhancing the employability of older workers. It also contributes to increasing the resilience of the healthcare system, increasing available housing, the green and digital transitions, and the enforcement of the anti-money laundering framework.

The plan represents a comprehensive and adequately balanced response to Luxembourg's economic and social situation, thereby contributing appropriately to all six pillars of the RRF Regulation.

Supporting flagship investment and reform projects

Luxembourg's plan proposes projects in five European flagship areas. These are specific investment projects dealing with issues that are common to all Member States in areas that create jobs and growth and are needed for the green and digital transitions. For instance, Luxembourg has proposed measures aimed at increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of public administration service through enhanced digitalization.

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said: “Congratulations to Luxembourg for designing a recovery plan whose focus on the green and digital transitions goes way beyond the minimum requirements. This will make a significant contribution to Luxembourg's recovery from the crisis, promising a brighter future for its young people by investing in digital skills programmes, training for jobseekers and the unemployed, as well as increasing the supply of affordable and sustainable housing. These investments will make Luxembourg's economy fit for the next generation. It is also good to see Luxembourg's plans to invest in renewable energy and further digitalize its public services – both areas with potential for solid economic growth.”

The assessment also finds that none of the measures included in the plan significantly harm the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation.

The control systems put in place by Luxembourg are considered adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. The plan provides sufficient details on how national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds.

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Although its financial contribution is relatively limited in size, Luxembourg's recovery and resilience plan is set to deliver real improvements in a number of areas. Particularly positive is the strong focus on supporting the Grand Duchy's climate transition, with important measures to encourage the take-up of electric vehicles and increase energy efficiency in buildings. Citizens will also benefit from the drive to boost digital public services and provide more affordable housing. Lastly, I welcome the fact that the plan includes significant steps to further reinforce the anti-money laundering framework and its enforcement."

Next steps

The Commission has today adopted a proposal for a Council Implementing Decision to provide €93m in grants to Luxembourg under the RRF. The Council will now have, as a rule, four weeks to adopt the Commission's proposal.

The Council's approval of the plan would allow for the disbursement of €12m to Luxembourg in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total allocated amount for Luxembourg.

The Commission will authorize further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the Council Implementing Decision, reflecting progress on the implementation of the investments and reforms. 

More information

Questions and Answers: European Commission endorses Luxembourg's €93m recovery and resilience plan

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Questions and Answers

Factsheet on Luxembourg's recovery and resilience plan

Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Luxembourg

Annex to the Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Luxembourg

Staff-working document accompanying the proposal for a Council Implementing Decision

Recovery and Resilience Facility

Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation

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Defence

When it comes to online extremism, Big Tech is still our main problem

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Over the past two months, lawmakers in the UK and Europe have introduced a number of major new bills aimed at curbing the malicious role that Big Tech plays in the spread of extremist and terrorist content online, writes Counter Extremism Executive Director Project David Ibsen.

In this new legislative climate, social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, who for years have been complacent, if not deliberately negligent, in policing their platforms, are finally beginning to come under pressure. Unsurprisingly, their belated efforts to appease governments through self-regulatory initiatives such as Digital Trust and Safety Partnership are already giving way to a search for scapegoats.

Lately, Big Tech advocates have begun to promote the idea that extremist and terrorist content online remains an issue solely for smaller social media sites and alternative encrypted platforms. While tackling extremism and terrorism on smaller and alternative sites is certainly worth getting ahead of, the overall narrative here is more than a little convenient for Silicon Valley and flawed in a number of crucial respects.

The spread of extremist and terrorist material remains a big problem for Big Tech. In the first place, we are not yet anywhere near the promised land of a mainstream social media environment free of extremist messaging. Far from Big Tech leading the way in content moderation, a study of media responsibility published in February of this year found that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are being significantly outpaced by smaller platforms in their efforts to eliminate harmful posts.

In the same month, CEP researchers discovered an extensive cache of ISIS content on Facebook, including executions, exhortations to commit acts of violence, and combat footage, which had been completely ignored by moderators.

This week, with rates of antisemitic violence surging across the US and Europe, CEP has once again identified explicit neo-Nazi content across a host of mainstream platforms including YouTube, Facebook-owned Instagram, and Twitter.

Secondly, even in an imagined future where extremist communications take place primarily through decentralised platforms, extremist groups would still be reliant on some form of connection to mainstream outlets to grow their ideological support base and recruit new members.

Every story of radicalisation starts somewhere and regulating Big Tech is the greatest step we could possibly take to prevent ordinary citizens from being drawn down extremist rabbit holes.

And while dangerous and hateful content can flow more freely on unmoderated sites, extremists and terrorists still desire access to large, mainstream platforms. The near ubiquitous nature of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others offer extremists the ability to reach broader audiences—to either terrify or recruit as many people as possible. For instance, Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant, who took to live streaming his atrocities on Facebook Live, had his attack video re-uploaded more than 1.5 million times.

Whether it’s jihadists seeking to ignite a worldwide caliphate or neo-Nazis trying to start a race war, the goal of terrorism today is to capture attention, inspire like-minded extremists, and destabilise societies to the greatest extent possible.

To this end, the amplificatory effects of major social media channels simply cannot be underestimated. It is one thing for an extremist to communicate to a small group of ideological cohorts on an obscure encrypted network. It is something entirely different for them to share their propaganda with hundreds of millions of people on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

It would be no exaggeration to say that preventing the latter from happening through effective regulation of Big Tech would help to fundamentally tackle modern terrorism and prevent extremists and terrorists from attaining a mainstream audience.

The increasing decentralisation of online extremism is an important issue that lawmakers must deal with, but anyone who brings it up to try and obscure the importance of regulating Big Tech simply does not have the public’s best interest at heart.

David Ibsen serves as executive director for the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), which works to combat the growing threat of extremist ideology particularly by exposing extremists’ misuse of financial, business, and communications networks. CEP uses the latest communications and technological tools to identify and counter extremist ideology and recruitment online.

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Democratic Republic of the Congo

EU boosts access to electricity in the Virunga area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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The Commission has announced an additional €20 million to finance a new power plant in Rwanguba, that will provide a further 15 Megawatt of electricity. The European Union's rapid response to the urgent environmental crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has helped to restore up to 96% of the power lines and 35% of the water pipes damaged in Goma due to the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano on 22 May. This has allowed half a million people to access drinking water, and to have electricity in two important hospitals.

Speaking on the European Development Days panel on Virunga, International Partnerships Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen said: “Access to electricity saves lives and is crucial for economic and human development in this vulnerable region. This is why the European Union reacted rapidly to support the population affected by the recent Nyiragongo volcanic eruption. With this additional €20m, we will increase supply, more households and schools and provide opportunities for sustainable growth.”

The EU supports the construction of hydroelectric power plants and distribution networks around the National Park of Virunga, already supplying 70% of Goma's electricity needs. Power cuts are life-threatening for the local population as they lead to water shortage, the spread of diseases such as cholera, increased inequalities and poverty.

Background

The Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The EU is its longest and most important donor, supporting the National Park since 1988.

Since 2014, the EU has supported ongoing actions with a total of €112 million in grants. The EU's financial contributions support the day-to-day operation of the Park, inclusive growth and sustainable development initiatives in the area, the hydro-electrification of North Kivu and the development of sustainable agricultural practices. These activities have contributed to creating 2,500 direct jobs, 4,200 jobs in connected small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and 15,000 indirect jobs in value chains.

In December 2020, the European Union, environmentalist and Academy Award ® - winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and Re:wild (former Global Wildlife Conservation) launched an initiative to safeguard the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This type of initiative exemplifies the EU's commitment to delivering the EU's Green Deal around the world, in cooperation with key players such as Re:wild whose mission is to conserve the diversity of life on earth.

The EU's integrated approach links nature conservation with economic development while improving the living standards of local populations. It contributes to prevent poaching and supports sustainable forest management, including efforts to combat illegal logging and deforestation. Virunga National Park is already well-known as the most biodiverse protected area in Africa, notably with its wild mountain gorillas. In parallel, the EU invests in value chains such as chocolate, coffee, chia seeds, papaya enzymes for the cosmetic industry, making sure that resources reach small community-based farms and cooperatives while promoting inclusive growth and sustainable development.

More information

Press release: The EU, Leonardo DiCaprio and Global Wildlife Conservation team up to protect biodiversity

The European Green Deal and International Partnerships

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