ISIS defectors: Why they sometimes walk free

Kurdish news channel K24 this week broadcast an interview with Marlin Stivani Nivarlain a 16-year-old Swedish girl who had just been rescued from ISIS in northern Iraq. In the video clip, Nivarlain tells the interviewer that her time with ISIS was “really a hard life” and explains how she went about trying to secure her escape.

Interviews with female ISIS defectors are rare and, as such, news outlets around the world have been quick to cover the possible implications of the teenager’s rescue. Amid all this, a debate has emerged on social media comments forums as to whether Nivarlain, who is white, is being treated differently because of her ethnicity.

The argument is that, if it wasn’t for the color of her skin, she’d be depicted as a terrorist by the media, and immediately thrown in jail. In seeking to determine whether there is any truth to these assertions, it helps to look at the recent past, which unambiguously says otherwise.

Generally speaking, the way Western law enforcement agencies treat supporters of ISIS — whether they are female or male, have attempted to join or failed to join, have remained with the group or left of their own accord — correlates to their individual stories and not their skin color, as is being claimed.

Take, for example, the three teenaged girls who disappeared from Aurora, Colorado in October 2014 before being intercepted at Frankfurt Airport in a joint German-US operation. Upon their return to the US, they were able to go home without being charged for terrorism-related offenses.

We don’t know their names, but what we do know is that the three girls were not Caucasian: two were of Somali descent, and one Sudanese.

In contrast Shannon Maureen Conley, a 19-year-old Caucasian convert to Islam — again from Colorado — was arrested a few months earlier in July 2014, prior to getting on a Turkey-bound plane in Denver. Now she is serving four years in jail for material support of a terrorist organization.

Like Conley, the Aurora girls were radicalized and, like Conley, they had posted their pro-ISIS views on Facebook. However, the judicial response to each of these cases differed greatly.

Beyond this, there are numerous other instances of non-Caucasian women who left ISIS and were treated (for the most part) as victims, and not terrorists. Among them is Congolese-born Sophie Kasiki, who was, upon her return to Paris, interrogated by French intelligence officers and held in jail for two months. Today, she is facing charges for kidnapping her child — but not terrorism.

By examining the big picture it becomes clear that, for most Western security services, questions of ethnicity are redundant when it comes to assessing a suspect’s potential threat.

Instead, individual cases are dealt with on an individual basis — and rightly so. Indeed, British interior minister Theresa May has indicated that the UK will deal with former members of jihadist organizations, whatever their gender, on a case-by-case basis, potentially showing leniency to some.

This is important because, in doing so, governments may be able to tap into an unlikely asset in the war against ISIS: defectors who want to (and can) relate their stories of disillusionment.

Just this week, the US-based Carter Center held a meeting that brought together religious scholars, community leaders, academics and policymakers from around the world to discuss how to effectively challenge ISIS propaganda. One of their key points of consensus was that those who leave the organization behind have great potential as weapons in the war of ideas — indeed, “they should be viewed as an opportunity.”

Such a position is by no means novel: one of the most commonly accepted principles in the countering violent extremism community is that those who leave can play a crucial role in de-radicalization. Whether it’s in the U.S., Europe, or Middle East, talking to someone who has had real-world experience in an extremist organization resonates with people — especially young people — much more than lectures given by those who have never “been in their shoes.”

It is critical that law enforcement agencies continue to take an extremely nuanced approach towards dealing with people that leave groups like ISIS.

While it may at first seem to be the more intuitive option, we mustn’t simply write them all off as terrorists and throw them in jail.

Charlie Winter is a Senior Research Associate at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, where his research focuses on transnational jihadist movements and insurgency. Mia Bloom is Professor of Communication at the university. The views expressed here are their own.

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