Author: Aleksandre Kvakhadze, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation
The issue of female Georgian citizens participating in the Syrian conflict – despite its importance – has highly limited coverage in Georgian media and has not been an issue of public debate. Nevertheless, the existence of female Georgian citizens who have travelled to the Middle East and lived in the territories controlled by various Jihadi groups creates security implications for Georgia.
Despite the lack of reliable information, there are several reported cases of women travelling to the Syrian conflict. The most well-known case was when a 17-years-old girl from Pankisi moved to Syria with the aim of marrying ISIS insurgent Beka Tokhosashvili. Despite the protest of the girl’s relatives, she eventually moved to Syria with the support of the militant’s family. Another notable case was when two ethnic Azerbaijani women from Karajala, Ana Suleimanova and Diana Gharibova left their families and joined ISIS in 2015. Also, the wife of the prominent Chechen IS-associated field commander Ahmed Chatayev, Aina Margoshvili was a Georgian citizen from Pankisi gorge who was residing Syria and Iraq along with her husband. These few cases indicate the existence of a severe problem, and the exact number of Georgian jihadi women is most likely higher.
Little is known about the motivation of women and their function in Syria. As far as the cases of North Caucasian women suggest, their vast majority was inspired by their husbands. In other words, obedience to husbands was a key factor contributing to the migration to Syria. However, the factor of indoctrination and the idea of “pure Sharia” in IS-captured territories should also be taken into account. Moreover, the large and relatively safe territories in Syria and Iraq, with their favourable conditions for civilian life and functional infrastructure, might have inspired Georgian foreign fighters to bring their families to the conflict zone. There are no reported cases of female combatants from Georgia. In the majority of cases, the primary function of Caucasian women in Syria was dealing with household issues and taking care of their children. However, there are reports of several Chechen women participating in IS-affiliated Al-Khansaa al-female armed groups.
Following the rapid dislodging of IS from its largest settlements, foreign non-combatants have found themselves deprived of a sanctuary. The author’s fieldwork in Pankisi Gorge suggests that the majority of Kist IS fighters sent their family members to the relative safety of Idlib province in Syria, under the protection of non-IS Caucasian armed groups. Some of the family members of IS rebels have disappeared after the heavy airstrikes conducted by the anti-IS coalition and they have not contacted their relatives. Similarly, tens of North Caucasian women might have been captured by Iraqi or Kurdish forces.
The presence of Georgian women who have travelled to Syria and Iraq presents a potential security risk for Georgia due to a number of reasons. Firstly, women have proved to be skilfull recruiters in previous jihadi conflicts, capable of indoctrinating younger women and recruiting “jihadi brides” for arranged marriages with jihadi militants. For instance, the former British punk musician Sally Jones has recruited hundreds of women to IS. Secondly, female jihadists are particularly vulnerable to being recruited as suicide bombers, especially if they were widowed during the armed conflict. The evidence of Chechen suicide bombers suggests, that the vast majority of them were driven by a sense of revenge. Furthermore, within several years of being in IS-held territories, women undergo indoctrination, which makes their reintegration into society highly complicated.
Data on women who have returned from Syria does not exist in available sources. Georgian legislation criminalizes the participation of its citizens in armed groups recognized as terrorist organizations. Such legislation discourages women from returning to Georgia. Nevertheless, there are several factors which should be taken into account:
- Tracking and identification of women, who spend some time in Syria is highly difficult and almost impossible, especially, if they did not take part in combat.
- Disillusioned women could be used as an effective tool against radicalization in their ethnoreligious communities. The case of women from North Caucasus indicates that majority of them no longer share the ideology of IS and some of them even attempted to escape from the conflict zone when they realized that the reality of life in Syria is distinct from what was promised by their husbands or other propagandists. The interviews or public speeches of disillusioned women could discourage many young girls from travelling to the conflict zones and taking parts into jihad. Some of the women were also frustrated after the death of their husbands, which was followed by their forceful marriage with other IS militants.
- Aside from adult women, there also are underaged girls taken by their parents to the territory of jihad. Unlike their parents, they do not travel to Syria willingly, therefore they should be considered as victims rather than perpetrators. Such cases have not been reported yet, but they should be treated differently from adults.
- The issue of psychological rehabilitation is crucial. Aside from indoctrination, female participants of jihad live in a highly stressful environment which definitely should causes a deep psychological impact on them. Nowadays, Georgia does not have the experience to work with such women.
The participation of women in the jihadi conflict is a complex issue and a relatively new phenomenon for Georgia. A lack of sources and materials does not allow us to have a clear picture of this process. Focus on fieldworks conducted among ethnoreligious groups affected by this problem, as well as the analysis of case studies of female foreign fighters from other countries could shed light on this problem and be helpful in understanding the problem.