Fachstelle Extremismus und Psychologie
Psychologisch-Therapeutisches Netzwerk

Rehabilitation of "IS" returnees and their children

Interview “Information Service on preventing Radicalization” with Kerstin Sischka and Dr. Claudia Lozano (October 2020)

Why is it important to bring children and their mothers back from refugee camps like Al-Hol in Syria? What can be expected in terms of children's mental health? Which factors are crucial for a successful rehabilitation and which actors should be involved in the process? Kerstin Sischka and Dr. Claudia Lozano gave the information service information in a written interview.

Together with Christoph Bialluch, the interviewees created the publication "Returnees and their children - psychological-therapeutic perspectives on the rehabilitation of women and children from the former areas of the so-called Islamic State". It was published in the Violence Prevention Network (VPN) series and can be downloaded free of charge from the VPN website.

Information service on preventing radicalization: Why did you decide to focus on "IS" returnees and their children in your publication?

Kerstin Sischka and Dr. Claudia Lozano: That's a good question. There were actually several reasons for this. However, it was particularly important to us to draw attention to the collective psychological processes that have led people to emigrate to the "caliphate" and which we now have to deal with in each individual case in rehabilitation.

When the terrorist militia "Islamic State" spread in Syria and Iraq, more than 5,000 young people from Europe followed the call to hijra [1]. Many of them wanted to leave their previous lives behind and dreamed of a "perfect world". The "IS" propaganda led them to believe that by leaving the country they could help build an "ideal society". They felt drawn to the promise to be able to "reinvent" themselves in the "Islamic State", to adopt a new name and to break with their origins.

If you look at "IS" primarily from a counter-terrorism perspective, this is sometimes difficult to understand, but the pull of this idea of break and new beginnings is something that we should understand even better if deradicalization and rehabilitation are to succeed in the long term. The suggestions of IS met with a resonance in the psychological depths of many young people. They projected their highly personal needs into this promise and developed illusory ideas: participating in a historical mission, helping the humiliated Muslim victims, seeking vengeance and retribution, taking the shortest route to paradise, staying with the best husband in the world forever ... all this attached itself to the great promise of a new beginning, so that this unfolded a revolutionary effect in the psyche.

We are convinced that rehabilitation and the undertaking of deradicalization should take these psychological, or rather psychodynamic, processes into account. Incidentally, there were similar fantasies, ideals and worlds of ideas, for example, among many people who were very fascinated by National Socialism in the 1930s, and this resulted in a war of extermination and collapse. [2] Idealization and destructiveness are never far apart. Even the caliphate no longer exists in the form the "IS" had envisaged.

And so, for rehabilitation and deradicalization, the question of how the breakdown is constellated in the psyche of those whose dream has failed is also important? You should actually be deeply disillusioned, turn away from the failed ideal and at best question it critically and admit your guilt. But of course this is by no means so linear, so simple. The psyche is very complicated there.

So how is the collapse dealt with? We know how difficult it was for those who were actively involved in National Socialism to internally admit to their failure and their guilt, to give up their great ideal and to take responsibility for their participation. This had a profound effect on children and young people born later in the 1950s and 1960s. It continues to work in the generations until today; transformed and superimposed by subsequent social experiences. We will also have to deal with this in rehabilitation.

Specialists should therefore deal more with these deeper individual and collective psychological aspects when thinking about the children and young people who have experienced "IS" and the time afterwards. Certainly most women with children will not pose an immediate danger to themselves or others in the sense of the safety authorities. What we have to reckon with, however, is that the difficulty in processing and processing what has been experienced and one's own actions also affects the children. It is possible, for example, that idealizations and certain narratives continue to have an effect and are passed on. With our publication we wanted to show how this can be better understood and dealt with.

Why is it important to act now and bring the children and, if necessary, their mothers back from refugee camps such as the Syrian camp Al-Hol?

Many of the children have been living in the internment camps for almost two years now - a long time for children who are beginning to overlay the extremes that they have experienced in the "IS" area. The situation in Al-Hol is extremely harmful for the children growing up: There is a lack of healthy food, clean water, medical care, education, and a safe living environment. Turkey's invasion of northern Syria and the corona pandemic have made this even worse. In general, children are a particularly vulnerable group. All children, whether Syrian, Iraqi or European children, need a perspective that is worth living in. As far as the children with a connection to Germany are concerned, they could not decide whether to travel to "IS" with their mothers. They are victims of their parents' decision and should therefore be allowed to return - with their mothers, who should be criminally responsible.

In addition, the German citizens - men and women - who have emigrated to the "IS" area or joined the "IS" cannot be brought before a recognized court in northern Syria. [3] So how long do you want to hold these people without trial and guilty verdict? In Germany, on the other hand, it is quite possible to bring returnees to court and obtain final convictions. Other countries, such as Kosovo or Kazakhstan, have already brought their nationals back.

It is also underestimated that this failure of justice and humanity will also affect the following generations of children and young people whose mothers or fathers are currently affected by it. It is already evident today that the German children in Al-Hol grow up more or less strongly with these narratives: "Your country does not want you!", "The Kurds kidnapped and imprisoned your fathers", "You are the lions of the caliphate, the future depends on you ". Of course, not all children are exposed to this equally, but for some it will weave a bit of identity through; depending on whether they find a "dissenting voice" from their significant caregivers. To say these children are ideologically radicalized would still be inappropriate. It's more about the fact that they are extremely vulnerable and traumatized. In addition, the identity development of these children is still a principally open process that changes with new experiences - especially in adolescence, when young people can position themselves and reflect on it. They should be given this chance. However, the longer we hesitate, the more unfavorable the conditions become.

And the jihadist-Salafist movement can benefit all the more. There are already social media campaigns such as "Your sister in the prison camp". Radical Salafists use these women and children as a mobilization topic by which they can strengthen themselves again, nourish their black and white image and legitimize their militancy. This extends to demonizing the Kurds and the West. Historical myths are also created that have the potential to work through generations and to have a significant impact on future lines of conflict. The psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan spoke of the origin of "chosen glories" and "chosen traumas" in this context. Spirals of hatred, trauma and retribution and victim narratives continue. In the worst case, the children and young people lost in this way will in a few years' time become the "later mercenaries" of the warring regional powers or turn directly to groups close to "IS". We should do our part to counteract this by bringing back women, children and men. The adults should be brought to justice in this country.

What can be expected in terms of children's mental health?

It is nice that you ask directly about the mental health of the children, because this should be understood much more broadly than a mental illness for which one or more diagnoses would be given. Can a child who grew up in the IS area and in the camps under such circumstances really be healthy? The prerequisites for mental health are that a child can explore his surroundings without excessive fear, be curious, have his or her experiences, play and learn. It is important that children can trust people and grow up feeling that they are well protected and cared for by adults. How can that be possible under the potentially traumatic conditions? The Al-Hol camp is a permanent crisis area. How should a child feel safe there, sleep peacefully and grow up healthy? Many children are in a permanent state of internal alarm and fear. This was already the case during the period of "IS" and the acute war situation with air strikes and flight. Under the conditions of a camp like in Al-Hol, it is hardly possible to really relax, to recover and to develop well.

At the same time, we must not assume that all children with a connection to Germany - should they come back - will consistently appear seriously ill. This will not show itself in full complexity in the first medical or psychotherapeutic conversation, but often only over time. What the suffering, what the trauma consists of, and what it has changed in the children takes time to be understood and treated. Many children will have developed "defense mechanisms" to cope with extreme situations that are age-appropriate for them. This can also include being very withdrawn and suspicious and not trusting an adult. Professionals should not be tempted to conclude that silent children are healthy or resilient children. It is often expected that traumatic experiences are accompanied by unregulated acting out, which is triggered in certain situations. While this is common, the “no problem” breastfeeding children can sometimes be even more at risk for their health. For example, depression and suicidality are common consequences of such experiences. You need to be sensitive to what is really going on in the inner world of these children.

It would certainly be reasonable to assume that most children bring with them complex traumatic stresses - at least until it is proven otherwise. It was often not just a single, concrete extreme situation that the children experienced, but the whole thing was long-lasting and multi-layered. Especially with children who are a little older. The sense of time, identity, body and the ability to establish trusting relationships can all be badly damaged. The longer the children stay in the prison-like camps, the further their overall condition will deteriorate. First of all, children and young people need security and an environment that supports them, gives them time and tries to understand them. This would also mean that their emotionally significant caregivers are safe - regardless of whether they are expecting a prison sentence or not.

Which factors are important for the successful rehabilitation of children and their mothers?

There are already structures, specialized agencies and networks in Germany that are prepared to work with returnees, so that we are actually on the right track. The essential thing, however, will be that we win over the families of the returnees and also directly the mothers with the children for a binding cooperation. It would be best if they could identify with the rehabilitation from the start and take responsibility for it. The problem, however, is: the more time goes by, the greater the despair and also the loss of trust among families and women willing to return. Some are turning away from this concern again.

In any case, it is beneficial that there are now interfaces between the security area and the rehabilitation area in many federal states. There are, for example, the return coordinators; and at least for Berlin we can say that the establishment of this office with funds from the BAMF was an extremely wise decision. The way of working as practiced in Berlin is very promising; especially with regard to a coordinated, coordinated approach to setting up aid networks. (You can find more information on return coordinators in the information service article "How the BAMF coordinates the handling of returnees".)

Here, however, all actors involved need a great deal of clarity about their own role and the associated professional ethical and professional law principles. As a specialist in social work, family help or psychotherapy, you always have to keep in mind that your own work with clients takes place in a triangle of public safety, client focus and the helper system. You always move in a context that is also shaped by security aspects. At the same time, the security authorities must also be able to think about the helper system and its legal principles to a certain extent. So that the women and their children can get on the right path, professional cooperation in the help and safety network is important - in particular, that the actors involved do not work against each other, but that everyone tries to make the best possible contribution in their role. This will certainly also include the willingness to deal with communicative disorders, social distance or cultural differences.

The primary goal of all those involved should be to achieve voluntary participation by the returnee. Returning mothers should also be taught the benefits for themselves and their children. This will easily be possible with some of the returnees, and it may be difficult or impossible with others.

Another point that has to be taken into account for successful rehabilitation is the social reception room into which the women and children come. Whether it is part of the family of origin or a residential facility as a new environment where the mothers and their children can begin to find their way into a new life. Many of the mothers will be in pre-trial detention anyway, followed by legal proceedings and, if convicted, imprisonment or suspended sentences. Here, too, it is important to consider what this means for the children and how they can be supported in dealing with this situation. In general, however, it would be counterproductive if the women and their children were repeatedly fixed on their status as "IS" returnees in the long term or even experience discrimination and stigmatization. The rehabilitation offer should be realistic and realistic enough to allow variations, translations and adjustments to be made in the course of the accompaniment.

Which actors should be involved in the process and which qualifications do they need?

This is a very complex question, and we would like to emphasize a few more aspects at the level of multi-professional cooperation: As mentioned, three parties are always involved in rehabilitation: the client, specialists and the police / justice system.

Important actors in addition to the security and judicial authorities are initially the child and youth emergency service or child protection officer at the responsible youth welfare office when accepting the returnee; then contact for the health sector and of course the civil society specialist institutions for deradicalization and exit support. These actors should work with the returning women and their families to start the rehabilitation process. First of all, that means ensuring that the arrival and the first few weeks are well covered and that a rehabilitation plan with professionally recommended measures is drawn up during this time. Everyone must know their own role in this and this must also be made transparent to the other actors.

Ultimately, everyone involved in rehabilitation should have a basic idea of the motives and experiences that may have led people into "IS" and how participation, witness and trauma can be combined in the biographies. There should also be sensitivity to what the children may have experienced and what this may mean for their development. In general, all actors, including the security authorities, should also keep an eye on the best interests of the child. This also includes basic knowledge about child development, trauma, developmental disorders and family dynamics.

It is beneficial if case conferences can take place at regular intervals, but the core group should be kept manageable. Such case conferences are first and foremost a formalized liaison between security authorities and those who are responsible for initiating rehabilitation services. It is about creating favorable conditions for deradicalization and social integration, but of course also about early detection and management of risks.

The case conferences should only bring together those who either work directly with the returnees and their children and families of origin or who create the interface, for example in the health or education sector. We also think that a representative for the health sector is part of it from the start, because health care is very central, especially for children. The interface to health care should help to ensure that the returnees and their children are adequately connected to the care and receive appropriate diagnostic, medical or therapeutic services. This can significantly support the rehabilitation process. This can be the connection with a pediatrician or a social pediatric center, but also the mediation of psychotherapy or a connection in the social psychiatric care system. However, for example, doctors or psychotherapists who deal directly with returnees and their children should not (have to) take part in case conferences because they have to protect patient protection and should not come under pressure to talk about their patients.

This is a complex setting when you work at the interface between public safety and rehabilitation. There may well be conflicting interests, assessments and expectations of the security authorities and rehabilitation actors. It is all the more important that the moderation of such case conferences is respected by all sides, has confidence and is professional and neutral. This can be a government agency, but in the best case it has a little equidistance to all sides. It must also be able to weigh up to whom and when what information is passed on and when case conferences should also be called extraordinary. Experience and qualifications in the area of coordination and management of such a complex multi-professional system are definitely of value, especially when it comes to the tension between public safety and client centricity.

About the interviewees

Claudia Lozano, Dr. phil., is a research associate in the model project "Nexus: Psychological-Psychotherapeutic Network Justice and Extremism" in Berlin. She studied sociology at the University of Buenos Aires and did her PhD in Latin America research. Your thematic research areas include a. the expansion of new religious movements, cultural and religious identities and differences, and violence against women. In addition, she focuses on psychoanalytic social and cultural theory and psychosocial counseling.

Kerstin Sischka, Dipl.-Psych. & M.A., is a psychological psychotherapist and psychoanalyst (DPV / IPA / DGPT). For 20 years she has been scientifically and practically involved in projects to prevent extremism. In 2018, together with her psychoanalytic colleagues, she set up the Extremism and Psychology Unit (FEP). In cooperation with the Violence Prevention Network (VPN), FEP realizes two projects: "NEXUS - Justice and Extremism" and "TRIAS - New Paths of Cooperation". Sischka has been involved in setting up a psychological-therapeutic work area at VPN since 2019.




   Commonly, Hijra (literally emigration) refers to the relocation of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to the later Medina in the year 622. Following on from this historical model, in the context of "IS" Hijra is referred to as the relocation of followers from their country of origin to "IS" in Syria / Iraq designated


see. Gudrun Brockhaus (2014): Attraction of the Nazi Movement, Essen: Klartext-Verlag, and Griffin, Roger Griffin (2007): Modernism and Fascism. The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler. New York: Houndmills.


    So far, Syrian "IS" fighters have been tried in the local courts of the Kurdish autonomous government. Foreign fighters would have to be brought before an international court whose case law would also be internationally valid. Its establishment is not in sight.