AKTAU, Kazakhstan — The young woman said she thought she was going on vacation in Turkey, but instead found herself in Syria, tricked, she said, by her husband, who joined the Islamic State. She herself, she said, never subscribed to ISIS teaching.
But back in Kazakhstan, government psychologists are taking no chances. They have heard that story before. They have enrolled the young woman, Aida Sarina — and scores of others who were once residents of the Islamic State — in a program to treat Islamist extremism.
“They want to know if we are dangerous,” said Sarina, who is 25 and has a young son.
Unlike virtually every Western country and most of the rest of the world, Kazakhstan is welcoming home women like Sarina — albeit warily and despite the lack of proof that deradicalization programs work — rather than arresting them if they dare show up.
At the treatment site, the Rehabilitation Center of Good Intentions, the women are provided nannies to look after their children, fed hot meals, and treated by doctors and psychologists, testing the soft-touch approach to people affiliated with a terrorist group.
For Sarina, it is a far cry from her previous life in a fetid refugee camp in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria, a human refuse heap of thousands of former Islamic State residents despised by most of the world.
Having somebody now ask how she felt was amazing, she said. “It was like your mother forgot to pick you up from kindergarten, but then remembered and came back for you,” she said.
Rather than treating the women as criminals, the professionals at the rehabilitation center encourage the women to talk about their experiences.
“We teach them to listen to the negative feelings inside,” Lyazzat Nadirshina, one psychologist, said of the method. “Why is that negative feeling bubbling up?’” she said she asks her patients. “Most often, it is the feeling of a little girl angry at her mother.”
Set up in January to quickly process scores of women whose radical ideas might only ossify if they were thrown in prison for long spells, the center’s services are not so much for the benefit of the women as the society they will soon rejoin, organizers say.
The Islamic State recruited more than 40,000 foreign fighters and their families from 80 countries over its quick arc from expansion to collapse, from 2014 until this year. US-backed Kurdish militias in Syria still hold at least 13,000 foreign ISIS followers in overflowing camps, including at least 13 Americans.
US diplomats have been pressuring countries to repatriate their citizens, though without much success.
“Governments are not big fans of experimenting with this group because the risks are too high,” said Liesbeth van der Heide, an expert on Islamic radicalization at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.
What’s more, she said, studies of deradicalization programs going back decades have failed to show clear benefits.
Governments have tried it on neo-Nazis, members of the Red Brigades, and IRA militants, among others, with mixed results. “Does it really matter if you go through a rehab program?” she said. “We don’t know.”
Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, said deradicalization programs offer no guarantees but are an alternative to indefinite incarceration or capital punishment.
The program lasts about a month. The women meet individually and in small groups with psychologists. They undergo art therapy and watch plays put on by local actors that teach morality lessons on the pitfalls of radicalization.
“It’s a success when they accept guilt, when they promise to relate to nonbelievers with respect and when they promise to continue studying,” said Alim Shaumetov, director of a nongovernmental group that helped design the curriculum.