Stigma of Islamic State haunts fighters’ families

Women and children undergo safety inspection in the al-Hol camp in the east of al-Hasakah – Syria, during the "Humanity and Security" operation - August 2022 (Internal Security Forces/Facebook)

Women and children undergo safety inspection in the al-Hol camp in the east of al-Hasakah – Syria, during the "Humanity and Security" operation - August 2022 (Internal Security Forces/Facebook)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

About a year ago, the Islamic State organization lost its effective control in Syria and Iraq, and returned to what it was before, small groups looking for targets in rural areas and the suburbs of cities, as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of the town of al-Baghouz east of Deir Ezzor, thereby ending the organization’s era as a power controlling and ruling vast areas of land.

The Islamic State organization, which a coalition of countries formed to fight against, has left a lasting impact on the local communities where it was present, and with its loss of geographical control, thousands of former fighters remain detained without plans to deal with them, and their families have paid the highest price.

These fighters left families, thousands of children and women, who were and still are known as families of Islamic State fighters, while they try to escape this label by all means.

Today, nearly five years after the end of the organization’s rule, these families suffer from the stigma of affiliation of one of its members to the organization, and their various attempts to escape this stigma or build a healthy relationship with the surrounding community have not been successful.

An unavoidable stigma

Mohamed, a 37-year-old residing in al-Subha town east of Deir Ezzor, is a former member of the Islamic State organization. He was imprisoned in the Alaya prison, a facility run by the SDF in the city of Qamishli and holds thousands of the organization’s fighters.

After being released from prison, facing society was one of his biggest fears. He told Enab Baladi that he spent six years in prison and was recently released following clashes between tribes from Deir Ezzor and the SDF, with effects that continue to this day.

Mohamed, who asked not to disclose his full name for social and security reasons, said that today he suffers from the local community’s refusal to accept him due to his former security position in the Islamic State organization in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor.

He added that he tried to surpass his past by opening a business in the town where he lives, but the locals preferred not to buy their necessities from him, even if they had to travel long distances to find an alternative grocer.

For Mohamed, he believes that locals are wary of his past in the organization, even though no violations against the locals were recorded during his time with the organization, as per what he told Enab Baladi.

Mohamed believes that today the locals link his present to his past, and his family is referred to as that of an organization fighter, while he is working hard to escape this stigma that chases him, in his words.

The same stigma plagues Zahra, who is the wife of a former fighter in the organization, hailing from Abriha town east of Deir Ezzor. She said in her conversation with Enab Baladi that her problems with society never end and often reflect on her children.

Zahra does not see the community at fault, as she believes the responsibility is borne by her husband who joined the organization early on and is accused of committing crimes against the people of Deir Ezzor.

Zahra’s husband was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crimes he committed, she expresses. However, the punishment did not end there, as her family avoids dealing with her and her children upon knowing the accusations directed at her husband.

In June 2023, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (the political umbrella for the SDF) decided to begin presenting its prisoners from Islamic State fighters to what it described as “public, fair, and transparent” trials.

The Autonomous Administration said it decided to start their trials in accordance with international and local laws related to “terrorism” and to preserve the rights of the claimants from the victims and their families, adding that the trial does not mean that the Autonomous Administration has deviated from its opinion on the need to establish an international or international-styled court specifically for the organization’s “terrorists.”

The prisons of the SDF hold thousands of fighters from various nationalities, including Syrians, and it also manages camps housing fighters’ families. It regularly works on extracting Syrians from these camps, but these efforts are proceeding at a very slow pace compared to the large number of families residing in them, with an estimated total of more than 55,000 individuals.

Attempts to escape

As rejection toward Mohamed grew, he isolated himself at home, and began to show his inability to communicate with his neighbors, according to what he told Enab Baladi, and he is looking for ways to earn income without interacting with society.

He added that he longs to escape from the region where he is unable to communicate with anyone, but he carries fears of migrating towards Turkey, as he is wanted by the Syrian National Army (SNA) factions that control the northern countryside of Aleppo for his affiliation to the organization.

Today, Mohamed works in agriculture on a project in the Ruwayshid desert north of Deir Ezzor to stay away from the locals who, he says, have not accepted his presence after leaving prison.

Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Zahra, who requested anonymity due to social considerations, resides in the town of al-Husan west of Deir Ezzor and moved there to escape from her relatives’ views. However, she did not notice any difference in treatment as her new neighbors learned about her family and her husband’s story, adopting a similar stance to the people in her original hometown she left.

Zahra attributes her failure to escape this stigma to the local society in eastern Syria being of a tribal nature, where an individual is tied to their tribe’s name. Through this link, it is impossible to hide their identity, past, or any detail about them.

Intergenerational stigma

Syrian society tends to stigmatize each other, often around an individual’s beliefs, where these stigmas are generally associated with national, religious, or ethnic aspects, according to sociologist Dr. Safwan Qassam.

Qassam told Enab Baladi that Syrian societies adopt the intergenerational stigma pattern, meaning that they transmit the stigma from one generation to the next and are often “aggressive” in judging individuals.

He added that this condition is not specifically connected to Islamic State fighters or the present reality Syrians live in but is an aspect of Syrian society’s history.

Qassam believes that in the case of Islamic State fighters and their families, this condition might last for generations if not appropriately addressed by the authorities.

He pointed to certain instances from Syrian history, mentioning that some communities have carried labels related to their roots for centuries, such as the Turkmen who stayed in Arab countries after the Ottoman Empire withdrew from them at the beginning of the 20th century. Local society distinguished them as Turkmen and not from the native community; similarly, with the Circassians as well.

This stigma is not correct from a social perspective, Qassam notes.

Authorities or governments tend to monitor a segment of society by stigmatizing them, making them distinct from local society, which facilitates imposing surveillance on them, but socially this will burden these communities with a stigma that follows them for extended periods.

Security agencies usually go about conducting security studies on individuals in the same manner. Security reports typically contain information about the person’s roots, their family, and their relatives’ affiliations, according to Qassam.

What are the Autonomous Administration’s solutions?

The Autonomous Administration makes some efforts to integrate the women of Islamic State organization fighters into local societies through vocational courses and other activities. However, these efforts are limited to families from the al-Hol and al-Roj camps and do not include men, while failing to create the desired impact in this respect.

In previous talks with Enab Baladi, Sondos Taha, an employee in the Women’s Committee of the Autonomous Administration in Deir Ezzor, said that the committee prioritizes women and widows of Islamic State fighters in terms of support and humanitarian aid.

She revealed that last year alone, a humanitarian organization provided projects on sewing and tailoring, as well as home management techniques like preserving food, and women’s beauty salons.

She added that the committee conducts awareness activities for the adult members of these families, in an attempt to integrate women into society and intellectually rehabilitate them and develop their culture.

Taha believes that women of the Islamic State fighters, in particular, were under the influence of the organization and are in need of support but there are no specialized centers or agencies primarily offering them support.


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