Returning Children of Foreign-Fighters: What is To Be Done?

By Karin Thomas

April 23, 2018

Historically, terrorist groups located in the North Caucasus have posed serious threats inside and outside the region. However, in the last few years, these groups have diminished in numbers and strength, with many of the fighters leaving Russia to join the Islamic State (IS). After IS collapsed, fighters and their families began returning home. The resulting threat posed by potentially radicalized returning children as well as avenues to mitigate that threat have largely been ignored by experts: effective rehabilitation programs must be offered to all returning children and must be tailored to individual needs and to the unique makeup of the North Caucasus region. These programs must also be regularly evaluated to determine effectiveness.


Perhaps the most widely-known terrorist organization with activity in the North Caucasus is the Caucasus Emirate, founded in 2007. However, the organization has grown steadily weaker since the death of its founder in 2013. One reason for this is that multiple key Caucasus Emirate leaders instead pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. This loss of key leadership made it difficult for the organization to effectively function. What’s more, an estimated 2-5,000 Russians were fighting for IS as of 2015. Other assessments estimate Russian fighters in IS at 3,400 as of 2016, with 35%-40% hailing from Dagestan and Chechnya.1 Fighters leaving the North Caucasus, in combination with the presence of Russian security forces actively working in the area – mainly to suppress unrest during the Sochi Olympics – means that terrorism in the North Caucasus today is not the internal threat it once was.

In 2015, there was a marked rise in the number of foreign women children traveling to Iraq and Syria, along with an increase of births of foreign children in Iraq and Syria. Reports from a variety of sources indicate that IS recruited and kidnapped children, training them to fight, act as suicide bombers, and execute prisoners. Estimates of the number of children recruited range from 800 to 1,000, and other sources estimate that 350 Russian children reside in Iraq and Syria alone. However, in recent months, Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov has worked to return women and children from Syria to the Caucasus and other neighboring regions in Russia and Central Asia. Indeed, last November, The Caucasian Knot reported the return of 44 women and children to the city of Grozny alone.

Policy Implications for the North Caucasus: Returning Children

The return of potentially radicalized fighters and their families is one of the largest threats facing the North Caucasus today. To address this, Russia has introduced rehabilitation policies and programs that largely target returning women and children; men are instead sent to prison, along with some women.2 This policy discourages experienced, older fighters from returning to Russia and instead motivates them to relocate to other countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. Largely due to this policy, Russia has fewer returning fighters than Western Europe.

There are many examples of rehabilitation programs for children and adolescents affected by war. Although many of these are located in Africa, some aspects may be applicable to programs in the North Caucasus. Some programs offer housing and education prior to sending children home, while others offer different services, such as psychological help and family reconnection. An evaluation of one such program found that psychotherapy is associated with a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety in adolescent survivors of war and displacement.3 Another organization asserts that children are likely to rejoin an armed group if they are not successfully reintegrated back into their families and communities. Due to this risk, current promising practices stipulate that children must be reintegrated into society as soon as possible and programs should focus on teaching children community priorities and values. Despite the existence and success of such programs, there is growing concern among the international community that these typical strategies will not suffice to reintegrate returning children from IS because of their extreme religious and political indoctrination.

Upon return to Russia, it is unclear whether participation in these kinds of rehabilitation programs and reunification with family will effectively reintegrate children back into society and prevent future radicalization. If children and adolescents are unable to reintegrate into society, they may become motivated to use the skills they learned in IS and begin to rebuild terrorist networks inside Russia. The re-creation of these networks will increase the threat of terrorism significantly, both inside and outside of Russia. Effective rehabilitation of these individuals through a comprehensive model that is tailored to individual needs and incorporates relevant aspects of other programs may decrease this risk.

In the short term, a pilot site may be placed in Grozny, to which many of the children are returned. This rehabilitation program must be effective, tailored to individual needs, and administered over a period of time that is long enough to have a lasting effect.4 This program should be mandatory for all children, adolescents, and young adults returning to the North Caucasus. Ideally, this program will begin with a risk assessment that will determine appropriate psychological and psychosocial supports, as modeled after de-radicalization programs in Kosovo. Individuals with the highest risk should be placed in longer, more rigorous programs. For example, placement in a long-term residential program instead of outpatient treatment may be necessary in some of the direr cases. However, if the family member’s home is far from the program site, the participant should be offered a residential stay until they successfully complete the program. Further, the program should differentiate services according to the age of its participants. For example, it is more beneficial for young adults than for younger children to receive job training. The education component should also be tailored to age categories as well as competency level.

In the long term, programs should be located in regional centers and added as needed, depending on the number of participants. These programs should work with communities to build inclusivity for the participants as well as provide education and psychological assistance. A way to do this may be to offer government funding and grants to the community organizations best suited to the task. Another component of the award could be training and technical assistance on specific topics that would best prepare these organizations for the task ahead. Further, these programs must be evaluated to determine effectiveness and subsequently altered on the basis of these evaluations. Successful rehabilitation programs could not only mitigate violent extremism among returning youth, but they can also aid in improving mental health, education, and employment. A pilot program such as the one outlined above may provide a path to long-term deradicalization for returning Russian children, adolescents, and young adults. The Russian government – with the state budget as it currently stands – may not be likely to fund such a program, but it is important that Russian authorities consider doing so nevertheless. While expensive initially, a program such as this one, if effective, brings economic benefits in the long-run. For example, instead of reviving terrorist groups and causing destruction, these youth would have a chance to be productive members of society.


[1] Jean-Francois Rattle, Assessing the Terrorist Threat in Russia After the Islamic State, PONARS Eurasia, February 13, 2018,

[2] Jean-Francois Rattle, Assessing the Terrorist Threat in Russia After the Islamic State, PONARS Eurasia, February 13, 2018,

[3] Bolton P, Bass J, Betancourt T, Speelman L, Onyango G, Clougherty KF, Neugebauer R, Murray L, Verdeli H. Interventions for Depression Symptoms Among Adolescent Survivors of War and Displacement in Northern UgandaA Randomized Controlled

[4] Previously cited research (Bolton et. al, 2007) that effects of treatment were measurable at 16 weeks. Due to the extreme religious and political indoctrination in IS, practitioners may want to increase the number of weeks in treatment.


Karin Thomas is a Senior Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. She holds an M.S. in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in Criminology and Russian from the University of New Mexico. She has previously worked as a criminal justice researcher in
West Virginia, Alaska, and New Mexico, focusing on topics such as justice reinvestment and sexual assault. She has successfully completed internships at the Hudson Institute in the Center for Political-Military Analysis as a Research Intern and at the U.S.
Department of State. Karin was a Fulbright Scholar in Russia from 2013-2014 where she taught a variety of English and cultural classes in universities and communities in Yoshkar-Ola, Belgorod and Syktyvkar.


The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.

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