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ISIS Repatriations in North Macedonia

ICSVE Panel Discussion featuring

Marija Mihajloska Jankulovska, Executive Secretary of the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reintegration of FTFs, Government of the Republic of North Macedonia

Anne Speckhard, Director ICSVE

September 07, 2021, 11:00 AM EST 

This event was held live via Zoom

In 2020, the North Macedonian parliament adopted a holistic approach toward rehabilitation and reintegration of its approximately 40 citizens, primarily women and children, whom the government will repatriate from the prisons and camps in Northeast Syria, run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). North Macedonia was hailed for this effort, one which has still yet to be undertaken by countries in Western Europe and others with larger numbers of ISIS men, women, and children still in Syria. The rehabilitation and reintegration plan also covers people convicted on terrorism charges who are set to be released from prisons in North Macedonia in the coming months and years, as well as ISIS men, women, and children who have already returned to North Macedonia. North Macedonia’s “whole of society” plan includes the participation of prosecutors, intelligence agencies, social workers, health authorities, and many other stakeholders who are best able to address both the risks and needs of the returnees. The plan has also been commended for the role it carves out for civil society organizations and for the special focus it places on the needs of returning children – those who were brought to Syria by their parents and those who were born there.

As the plan proceeds, the challenges will be many, ranging from stigma from community members that alienates returnees and poses an obstacle to reintegration, to understaffing and under-education for professionals expected to participate in the programming but who do not have experience working in the national security realm. How North Macedonia addresses these challenges, as well as any unforeseen roadblocks, will serve as an example to other countries around the world which have yet to put in place their own comprehensive plans for repatriating, rehabilitating, and reintegrating ISIS men, women, and children. So too will North Macedonia’s successes demonstrate to the world the possibilities for effectively dealing with their citizens who left to join ISIS.

On September 7, 2021, join ICSVE director Dr. Anne Speckhard and Marija Mihajloska Jankulovska, the executive secretary of the inter-agency working group on reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters in North Macedonia, for a conversation regarding the country’s plan for and headway in repatriating, rehabilitating, and reintegrating their ISIS men, women, and children.

Mrs. Marija Mihajloska Jankulovska was born on 16 September 1984 in Prilep, Republic of Macedonia. She has completed her academic degree at the UACS School of foreign languages -Department for business communication and correspondence and mastered international relations and diplomacy. In 2019 she has obtained her professional education in Inter-Agency Coordination in CVE/CT at the prestigious United States Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, in Newport, USA. Her 13 years of career as government officer in the General Secretariat of the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia (public relations department), marks professional commitment and dedication to completing serious government multi-agency national and international assignments, projects and policies. In October 2018, she has been deployed in the Office of the National CVE/CT Committee of the Republic of North Macedonia to act as focal point for international cooperation and partnerships, project management and evaluation, institutional capacity building, negotiating, fund raising, and advising and supporting the National CVE/CT Coordinator(s). In December 2019 with the decision of the Republic of North Macedonia, Mrs. Mihajloska Jankulovska has been appointed Executive secretary of the Government Working group for reintegration and member of the expert team that has developed National plan for reintegration of returning foreign terrorist fighters and the Standard operative procedures for 22 institutions in charge to implement the National reintegration plan of the Republic of North Macedonia. She fluently speaks English and Serbian and uses Spanish and French.

Dr. Anne Speckhard is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years years, she has in-depth psychologically interviewed over 250 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (and also interviewed their family members as well as ideologues) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 250 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally.  Since 2020 she has also launched the ICSVE Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project interviewing 25 white supremacists and members of hate groups developing counternarratives from their interviews as well. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS.  Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to TerroristsBride of ISISUndercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her research has also been published in Global Security: Health, Science and PolicyBehavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political AggressionJournal of African Security, Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human SecurityBidhaan: An International Journal of Somali StudiesJournal for Deradicalization, Perspectives on Terrorism and the International Studies Journal to name a few.  Her academic publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website Follow @AnneSpeckhard

This is the twentieth discussion in this series of panels discussing ISIS Foreign Fighters and terrorist rehabilitation. The previous panels can be found at the following links:

Issues of ISIS Prisoners & Repatriations in a Time of COVID

Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?

Can We Repatriate the ISIS Children?

Terrorist Rehabilitation in the Dutch Prison System

Into and Back Out of ISIS: An ISIS Defector Speaks Out

Fighting ISIS Online: An Introduction to Breaking the ISIS Brand

Talking Terrorist Propaganda with a Pro

Terrorism Prevention, Intervention, and Rehabilitation with Juveniles

Community-Focused Interventions Against Terrorism

Are We Losing a Valuable Feminist Project in the Middle East?

Rescue Me: A Conversation with the Yamout Sisters re Prison Rehabilitation

ICSVE and Parallel Networks Team Up to Fight Violent Extremism

The Journey Back – Turning Away from Extremism and the Road to Hope and Healing

Asking Incels: An Insiders Account of the Involuntary Celibate Community

Understanding Q-Anon

Professor Arie Kruglanski and the Three Pillars of Radicalization

Childhood Abuse, Military Service, and White Supremacism

Interventions for White Supremacists

White Supremacists Speak: ICSVE’s Latest Research Report

Chat Log:

00:20:35 Ibitoye Olukosi: Hello Professor Anne. I am happy to be part of this.

00:25:24 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: welcome everyone! So proud to have Marija joining us today to share their experiences on this important topic

00:26:22 Ahmad El-Muhammady: Thanks Anne.

00:28:21 Ibitoye Olukosi: The Radical Religious Militants: Are they Christians or Muslims or what religion do they profess?

00:30:01 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: She is referring to ISIS

00:30:24 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: but of course there can be religious violent extremists of many other religions

00:30:43 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: and in this case ISIS claims to be the only and true Islam which most would not agree with.

00:31:54 Ibitoye Olukosi: Thank you Professor Anne

00:32:38 Thomas M.: Did states (such as the US) who rescinded citizenship/passports from FTFs/allies negatively impact initial internal diplomatic/political efforts of Northern Macedonia, to repatriate such individuals?

00:33:08 Thomas M.: North Macedonia*

00:33:49 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: great question, given UK stripped all dual passports and even some who did not have but they deemed able to obtain second passports, i.e. Shamima Begum.

00:34:00 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: I wasn’t aware US also stripped dual citizens

00:34:08 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: we will ask her this after she finishes

00:34:44 Thomas M.: Great, thanks. Hoda Muthana is a great example of that here, domestically, a “wife” from Alabama – my home state.

00:35:37 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Hoda Muthana has not been stripped of her citizenship. Instead the US has claimed she was never a citizen, despite she was born when her diplomat father was out of diplomatic status.

00:36:37 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Adam her son has naturalized American grandparents, is innocent of any crime, yet languishes in the camps

00:36:43 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: thank you

00:37:55 Jeffrey Allan: What criteria does Macedonia employ for the repatriation of ISIS family members? I am thinking specifically of children. Is there an age limit? How do the repatriation requirements of your country compare to other European nations?

00:38:22 Anouk Heili: Can you clarify if and why less women than men returned? Or did less women join from the start? Any data on this?

00:38:26 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Thanks jeffrey, we will ask your question

00:40:19 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Anouk great question, we will ask it. I can say that usually FTF women include about 25% of total tops, so that can account, but also our interviews make it clear that women found it very difficult to return given they needed men to help them, risked rape with smugglers, didn’t always have access to funds, etc.

00:41:55 Roland Gjoni: Thanks Marija, do you have any information about radicalisation of Albanian speaking Muslim communities in EU member states and what is Macedonia doing about it?

00:43:55 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: thanks Roland for this question. One thing I know Marija has said to us and supported by actual cases and our research also is that some Balkans second generation European citizens actually end up radicalizing back in the Balkans, i.e. spread it FROM europe to the Balkans. Case example being the doctor’s son in Vienna… but we will ask Marija this also.

00:44:49 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: the Macedonian doctor’s son whose son grew up in Austria turned out to be a killer

00:50:37 Judy Hanson: Are there non-muslims (from any country) who joined ISIS just to have something to do, or to fight against Assad, and then became muslim?

00:52:58 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Judy there are many who came to Syria after converting to Islam and of these they were easily convinced by ISIS and others that they needed to take hijra, i.e. move to live in lands ruled by sharia

00:53:39 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: ISIS required everyone joining them to follow their interpretation of Islam and they declared all others non Muslims and “takfired” them as they can be killed

00:55:40 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: there were many from the Balkans who said that watching Assad’s atrocities were intolerable to them because as Muslims they had also suffered under Serbs so they went to help without the intent to join ISIS, but if in our sample they eventually joined ISIS, sometimes to stay alive…

00:55:51 Thomas M.: @Judy, you might be interested in looking into the foreign fighters who joined Kurdish-aligned groups in north east Syria/northern Iraq. Quite a few of these individuals were agnostic or Christian and fought alongside primarily non-muslims. However, it may fancy your interests.

00:57:01 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Good point Tom, many former vets, those who wanted military careers but couldn’t achieve it or just out of solidarity went to fight with the Kurds and these would be of many religions and many democratic socialist in political leanings.

00:57:07 Pipsa Sopenpera: Does the FTFs also include women?

00:57:43 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: they went to fight ISIS. Adventure probably part of the motivations. Our Singaporean colleagues did a study of it

00:58:28 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: some have been prosecuted on foreign fighter/foreign conflict laws like Marija mentioned being passed in North Macedonia as it often doesn’t distinguish which group was joined.

01:04:07 Giulia De Santis: Is there a specific reason why religious communities are not involved in these intervention measures?

01:04:07 Aizat Shamsuddin: Clearly, a lot of efforts and resources on part of the government.

I’m wondering what’s the reaction of the general public?
How effective is the deradicalisation program i.e. recidivism rate?
How the government engages with the civil society in P/CVE?

01:06:04 Colonel Karmveer Singh Tanwar (Retired): Anne, do we have cases wherein fighters got recycled into terrorism activities?

01:06:39 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Thank you Giulia and Aizat for your questions. I will add them to our list for Marija

01:07:17 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Col yes of course we find some fighters go right back into it, or go to prison disengage, begin to deradicalize then fall right back into it and are dangerous later!

01:08:06 Search for Common Ground: What are the criteria for evaluation of the R&R programme?

01:08:50 Dr. Lisa McConnell: what specific training skills were the social workers given? What concerns did they raise?

01:08:50 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: good question on evaluation criteria. I will ask that also. thank you.

01:10:26 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Thanks Lisa, they were very concerned with how radicalized the women would be, if the children could speak home language, were literate, what kind of trauma treatment might work, if religious issues were raised how to work with imams locally etc.

01:11:13 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: what kind of life they had faced under ISIS and also in the camps, and did they want to be repatriated and what the women told us they needed and wanted in terms of support on return, some women expressed desire for psychological support before return home

01:11:59 Dr. Lisa McConnell: how were the concerns alleviated

01:13:19 Rositsa Dzhekova | Bulgaria: What is the specific role of civil society organisations in this? Are they officially mandated partners to whom referrals can be made for the provision of specific services/counselling/deradicalization programs, etc.? Thank you.

01:15:54 Aizat Shamsuddin_KMU Malaysia: Do we have a centralised database indicating how many FTFs from which nationality, etc.?

01:16:47 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: We will pose these questions to Marija in a few minutes

01:18:36 iPhone: Is there a breakdown in terms of gender and age among those 156 RFTFs?

01:19:02 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: yes I thought it was on her slide, we will put her slides up with the presentation on the website

01:19:11 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: with her permission

01:19:47 iPhone: Many thanks

01:21:06 Anouk Heili: Could you explain why women are separated from FTFs? Are women directly not considered/assumed not to be FTFs?

01:21:54 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Thanks Anouk, researchers often lump them together, but many are starting to refer to family members of ISIS members instead, but its thorny as some women served ISIS in hisbah, as nurses, judges, etc.

01:22:47 Teona Aslanishvili: 1. Are women and children never subject to criminal prosecution? 2. If you can already speak about repatriated children and their progress with reintegration, what programmes/approaches would you single out as particularly effective?

01:23:21 Judy Hanson: In Spring 2015, the Danes welcomed back their fighters, to repatriate them and so they would not feel disenfranchised. I do not know how long this approach continued. Perhaps it was easier at the beginning of the was.

01:24:02 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Women are prosecuted if they can find evidence of criminal activity, but that as Marija pointed out is difficult

01:24:16 Dr. Lisa McConnell: what resources were lacking as far as repatriation?

01:25:12 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: there is a very famous case recently tried in Germany of a returnee who lied and said she was glad to be home, hated ISIS etc. when in fact she was ISIS his bah, tried to return, participated in killing a Yazidi child while in ISIS, and thanks to our FBI and German BKA she was caught trying to return and she has now been prosecuted where previously she was seen as a victim

01:25:45 ICSVE – Anne Speckhard: Danish law as with many Scandinavian countries has a hard time prosecuting returnees

01:26:49 Dr. Lisa McConnell: how would you improve the vetting process to prevent similar events from occurring?

01:31:45 Dr. Lisa McConnell: I realize they have grand expectations for the future. What expectations does the government have of the returnees? How are expectations managed and choice and accountability accounted?

01:36:29 Aizat Shamsuddin_KMU Malaysia: Out of curiosity, is Macedonia also impacted by recent displacement of people from Afghanistan?

01:38:49 Thomas M.: @Aizat, last I heard North Macedonia had agreed to house ~450 Afghan refugees/asylum seekers.

01:38:59 Aizat Shamsuddin_KMU Malaysia: Thanks

01:39:45 Ibitoye Olukosi: Has Macedonia considered transitional justice for victims of violent extremism?

01:46:00 Colonel Karmveer Singh Tanwar (Retired): Thanks Anne and Marija…..wonderful meeting and great learning…. the detail plan presented to organize repatriation of just 159 FTFs indicates strategic culture of Macedonia……Regards

01:46:06 Thomas M.: Thank you so much Marija, great work!

01:46:16 Aizat Shamsuddin_KMU Malaysia: Thank you

01:46:33 Search for Common Ground: Thank you

01:46:40 Ibitoye Olukosi: Thank you

01:46:50 ICSVE- Kate Strezishar: Thank you!

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