By Eva Burklund, NCITE student
On second day in Iraq, Austin Doctor attended a funeral of two men killed by the Islamic State.
The NCITE researcher had just flown into the Middle Eastern country to talk to policy makers and officials about what to do with foreign fighters who left home to fight for the Islamic State (IS), some of whom had brought their families with them.
Doctor had arrived in Erbil, a relatively safe city in the Kurdish-controlled northern region of Iraq. He stayed at a highly secured hotel, insulating guests from the simmering violence still occurring in other parts of Iraq. This was to be home base for the remainder of a trip designed to better understand his research project — how best to repatriate foreign terrorist fighter families who had left the U.S. to help IS and were still held in detention camps.
I’m deeply motivated to solve this problem — and now. It needs to happen now.
- Austin Doctor, NCITE researcher
But the day after he arrived, he got an invitation.
“So my buddy texts me,” he began. Did he want to attend a camel sacrifice as a guest of a Bedu tribal group in the area?
So much of field work is impromptu invitations to understand a place better. The 32-year-old Omahan said yes. He walked out of the hotel compound, passed armored cars and guards, and got into a car that drove him about an hour into the arid plains. Doctor was welcomed. He was later told their group was the first set of westerners with whom the tribe, al- Jaghaifya, had shared such an experience.
The funeral was for two tribal men who were recently beheaded by members of IS. Their tribe, al- Jaghaifya, had created a militia that fought against IS during the height of the territorial Caliphate between 2014 and 2018 and have been targeted by IS since. To escape the ongoing violence in central Iraq where they are from, the tribe had fled hundreds of miles north.
The UNO-based political scientist listened and watched a camel sacrifice to honor the dead and mark a religious holiday, Eid ah-Adha. The Muslim holiday commemorates Abraham’s devotion to Allah when he was asked to sacrifice his son. To mark the holiday, cattle are slaughtered, and the meat is given to the poor. During the funeral, the camel meat was distributed to families in the tribe.
Doctor’s visit is part of a research project he is leading for DHS to determine best practices for repatriating U.S. persons who had left the United States to fight for ISIS and who remained detained in prison camps in Iraq and Syria. The detention camps are rife with human rights violations and national security concerns as people living in these conditions could radicalize and perpetuate the violence still occurring in Iraq. Bringing former fighters and their families home can be complicated and controversial. Doctor is working with co-researchers Devorah Margolin, Haroro Ingram, and Iraqi historian Omar Mohammed to find the safest, most humane way of doing so for the U.S. persons still being detained. To determine best practices, Doctor visited Iraq and the Netherlands.
The violence that the al- Jaghaifya tribe still endures also occurs in communities throughout Iraq. Violence from other groups, such as Iran-backed militias, can cause some people to join IS to get vengeance for killed or wounded friends and family or themselves, perpetuating the cycle of violence, Doctor said.
“The number of contributing factors is immense,” he said, “and the reality of a possible relapse into a full violent conflict even when we are trying to reintegrate people is significant.”
There are also concerns that former IS fighters in detention camps awaiting reintegration, many of whom have been stuck in limbo, could return to those groups. In one of the camps he visited, Doctor noticed how the former fighters were staying in tents separate from the rest of the camp with no end to their isolation in sight.
“There’s so much shame that there’s no way that they could express it,” Doctor said. “I’m sure there is regret for some, but that doesn’t mean they won’t go back.”
These interviews and field trips were not part of his official research. But they did help ground him in the conflict and struggle. And the experiences helped Doctor sharpen questions to ask the people who were creating and implementing reintegration. His interviewees included people from the United Nations in Iraq and the International Organization for Migration.
“I was amazed with how frank they were — we had some really good conversations. I was really thankful for that,” Doctor said.
The value of going to Iraq is two-fold, he said. First, the many interviews allowed him to see meaningful variation in the people affected. Second, it helped deepen his understanding of the problems posed for reintegration.
While visiting Iraq showed the urgency of his project, his time in the Netherlands showed how other countries have dealt with repatriation of former fighter families. The Netherlands, which like many countries during the rise of IS, saw some citizens leave for the battleground in Iraq and Syria. Some were killed. Some have been detained. The Netherlands has recently taken the lead on repatriating those in detention back into Dutch society.
“Both countries want to return people to their home communities,” he said of Iraq and the Netherlands, “But in terms of local perceptions of people, they couldn’t be more different. This was incredibly important to understanding the foundations of the problem.”
They interviewed a municipal team from the Dutch capital The Hague that was doing the work to reintegrate former foreign fighters. Doctor was encouraged to see the Dutch using existing tools and knowledge about reintegrating prisoners back into society.
“I saw a lot of structure in place,” Doctor said. “These are people who have longstanding experience in reintegrating persons with violent ideologies. It was encouraging to see them drawing from existing knowledge. They have these tools and use them.”
When repatriating foreign fighters and their families, the Netherlands detains adults, processing them through the criminal system. Meanwhile, their children are placed into rehabilitation centers where they receive education, Dutch language training, and medical care and counseling. Parents are regularly given opportunities to see their children, and once they’re released, they have a safety net to rely upon as they reintegrate into society— with a surprising level of trust from Dutch citizens.
“It was really valuable to identify key decisions that had to be made at the structural level,” Doctor said.
The trip to two vastly different places gave Doctor a window on how to go about tackling a difficult problem. To be sure, the Netherlands is further removed from the violence of IS. Communities in Iraq, however, are coping with ongoing violence.
“I’m deeply motivated to solve this problem and now,” Doctor said. “It needs to happen now.”