Most Kosovar men who travel to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS are accompanied by their wives. For our series “Women and Jihad,” we talk to counterterrorism experts who believe these women could be the key to challenging violent extremism.
“Wherever he goes, I follow. I will always be with my husband.” This is the mind-set of Kosovar women who join their militant husbands in Syria or Iraq, according to Kujtim Bytyqi, one of the government’s senior security policy analysts and head of Kosovo’s strategy to counter violent extremism. The police say that more than 300 Kosovars have traveled to fight for the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) – the highest number per capita in Europe – and the majority of fighters do not go alone: Bytyqi says half of the Kosovar citizens currently in Syria or Iraq are women or children.
Very little is known about the wives from Kosovo who travel to ISIS-held territory. But through the work of the government and NGOs, a picture is slowly emerging of a group of women who are isolated and disenfranchised. They play crucial roles in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, but are often overlooked in discussions on how to tackle the radicalization that drives the fighting.
To many Kosovars, the rise of violent Islamic extremism in their country has come as a shock. Kosovo was a communist nation for over 45 years and religion was viewed as a private matter. In the late 1990s, when U.S.-led NATO troops stabilized the region and paved the way for an independent Kosovo, the predominantly Muslim country celebrated its ties with the West. However, since the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999, the threat of violent Islamic extremism has been growing, fueled by poverty, youth unemployment and funding from foreign sources that preach extremist ideologies. Money from religious groups based in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations has gone into building schools and mosques where Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, is being taught, experts say.
The shifting allegiances from Kosovo’s traditionally moderate form of Islam to more radical forms are having a profound impact on families – especially newlywed couples where the husband has been exposed to extremist ideology and has “forced his wife to become subject to this ideology as well,” says Florian Qehaja from the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS). “Due to the fact that their husbands pressured them, we believe that about 40 women were subject to this ideology and have ended up in Syria and Iraq,” he says.
The women who end up in the conflict zone usually play a domestic role, according to a report published by KCSS in January. The report, Women in Violent Extremism, says these wives are “mainly cooking, cleaning and taking care of their children … They are valued solely as mothers who will raise the next generation of ‘lions.’”
And counterextremism experts believe that, with their invisible but pivotal roles at the hearts of ISIS families, the wives of fighters could prove key to challenging the extremist ideas held by their husbands and children.
Reaching out to those women, however, is a challenge.
Besa Ismaili, a professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, says the wives of radicalized men never attend lectures at her institution because, in their eyes, women like herself “are not good Muslimahs. We wear colors and mix with males.” Ismaili says it is impossible to “see [the wives], know them, talk to them” – they rarely leave the house, and if they do, they are escorted by their husbands. Physically cut off from the rest of the world, the women are also imprisoned by a lack of knowledge, says Ismaili. Their husbands are their main source of information, putting them in a “situation of complete darkness, brainwashing and lack of alternatives.”
The increasing awareness of religiously enclaved communities, and the risk of radicalization, is unsettling to many in Kosovo. Bytyqi says that, when some Kosovars see Muslim men with beards or women wearing the hijab, “They don’t want to talk to them; they are afraid.” According to Bytyqi, the police often receive calls from worried mothers who declare, “’Please can you come, my son has started to pray.’ … In their family tradition, nobody prayed before. So they are afraid.”
In an environment where some families fear that “everything Islamic is [equal to] terrorism,” says Bytyqi, several organizations have started working with women to help wives and mothers spot signs of actual radicalization – as opposed to genuine, good-spirited interest in Islam – and to strengthen women’s voices in the home.
Albert Berisha created the Institution for Security, Integration and De-Radicalization (INSID) in 2016, after he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for participating in a terrorist organization while in Syria in 2013. He served 23 days and is currently out on appeal, and says he only went to Syria for humanitarian reasons and returned after two weeks. But as one of 115 Kosovars who have returned from Syria or Iraq, Berisha believes handing down harsh sentences to returnee jihadis will only encourage radicalization.
His NGO works with foreign fighters and their families, offering legal aid and supporting the de-radicalization process. “Our main activity is to talk with foreign fighters and their families,” he says. “We want to be their voice against discrimination, against violations of human rights, and against stigmatization of their families. We give them legal advice and we try to understand what problems they have.”
While Berisha talks to the men, his female colleagues approach their wives. Berisha says that it’s “hard work” – his team are often met with suspicion – but he thinks reaching out to women is crucial. “We need our mothers, wives, daughters and sisters to be independent, strong and educated, to challenge the extremist ideas inside families,” he says.
This year, at least two other organizations, the Association of Women in Kosovo Police and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, are planning awareness-raising events that will show women how they can help prevent violent extremism. And the government plans to roll out a “referral mechanism” across the country, basically a drop-in service for families who are worried about loved ones being radicalized.
The government and police often highlight recent successes in their counterterrorism work, citing the fact that no one from Kosovo has traveled to Iraq or Syria in the last year. Yet there is growing recognition from police, the government and NGOs that in order to tackle violent extremism, women need to be involved.
“We need to build a society in which women will never be slaves who agree with everything their men say,” says Berisha. “The best investment against extremism and radicalization is investing in families and women.”
This story is part of a special series called “Women and Jihad.” It originally appeared on Women & Girls Hub. If you’d like to follow the series as it unfolds, please sign up here and you’ll receive one e-mail per week. For weekly updates, you can sign up to the Women & Girls Hub email list.