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U.S. Praises Kazakhstan For Leading the Repatriation Of Citizens From Syria

Dias Rakhmetov, a Kazakh citizen returning from Syria, was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of “participating in the activities of a terrorist group” in September.

WASHINGTON -- The United States has praised Kazakhstan for leading the international effort to repatriate citizens, including fighters, from war-torn Syria.

Kazakhstan has returned more than 600 of its citizens from Syria, including several dozen terrorist fighters, according to U.S. data. The United States has brought back 23 people, including 15 children.

Some European countries have been reluctant to take back their citizens that went to Syria, especially fighters. The Netherlands and Belgium have faced lawsuits from relatives who are seeking to compel those governments to take back their citizens captured in Syria.

“Kazakhstan, in particular, has been a real leader in repatriating hundreds of its own citizens,” a senior White House official said on December 20 during a background briefing on counterterrorism achievements in 2019.

There are currently about 2,000 foreign fighters in the custody of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, according to the senior official. There are also about 70,000 foreign women and children who are family members of Islamic State-affiliated fighters.

Bosnia-Herzegovina repatriated 25 of its citizens -- including fighters -- from Syria on December 19.

While the nations put the repatriated fighters on trial, they face the “much more complex task” of trying to rehabilitate family members who have been traumatized and exposed to radical ideology, the senior official said.

It takes a “substantial” amount of time and attention from local governments to make it work, the senior official said.

The United States has been supporting Kazakhstan's efforts, including sending experts to advise on issues such as childhood trauma and how to deal with exposure to violence.

Kazakhstan is also bringing in religious leaders to explain to the repatriated individuals the theological falsehoods that the Islamic state caliphate was built on.

Kazakhstan's experience will be valuable to other countries as they return family members of fighters back home from Syria, the senior official said.

“The Kazakhs have been leaders on this, and I think we’re going to be learning some really important lessons about how to do this the right way that we can export to other countries that are facing the same challenges,” said the senior official, adding that he had visited rehabilitation centers in Nur-Sultan earlier this year.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.