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Austrian Teenager Who Joined Islamic State 'Wants to Come Home' — But Fears the Consequences

Experts say Samra Kesinovic could face retaliation from the fighters for speaking out about her unhappiness with her new life in Syria.

by Sally Hayden
Oct 13 2014, 5:58pm

Image via Interpol

An Austrian teenager who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State in April has told her family she wants to come home, but is afraid she will be unable to do so because of her association with the jihadist fighters. 

Samra Kesinovic, 17, made the trip with a friend, 15-year-old Sabina Selimovic, and the pair are now thought to be living in Raqqa, the group's stronghold in northern Syria. Both girls are also believed to have got married and possibly be pregnant.

Austrian officials have been widely quoted as saying the girls have expressed their desire to return to their families, but are fearful of the consequences. Kesinovic is said to have contacted her family regarding her situation, though it is unclear whether Selimovic has also done so.

Now, counter-extremism experts say the girls could face severe punishment from IS for speaking out, amid claims that other foreign fighters who have revealed their dissatisfaction have been tortured.

The pair are of Bosnian origin, and are thought to have been recruited at a local Vienna mosque. Last month rumours that one of the girls had died spread on social media, but now those appear to be false.

In a letter to their families upon their departure from Austria, the girls said they were prepared to die as jihadists. "No point looking for us: See you in paradise… We will serve Allah and die for him." Photos of them wearing burkas, holding Kalashnikovs and posing with masked jihadists later circulated online.

Samra Kesinovic before her journey to Syria. Image via Interpol

Speaking to VICE News on Monday, Karl-Heinz Grundböck, spokesperson for the Austrian government's Ministry of the Interior, said that he could not comment on the specific case but insisted that "there is no law preventing Austrian citizens from travelling to Austria." 

However, he added that the girls would receive no help to return and could face arrest if they did so. 

"Generally speaking, people who went to this region and want to return can hardly be supported by the Austrian authorities due to the given situation. In all cases of returnees (actually we count a number of more than 60 in Austria) there is a judicial investigation with regard to membership in a terroristic organisation."

Section 278b of the Austrian Penal Code criminalises the leading of and participation in a terrorist group, and stipulates that the sentence, if convicted, is imprisonment for a term of one to ten years.

The country's ministry of the interior estimates that more than 140 Austrians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State.

Erin Saltman, a senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, a UK-based counter-extremism think tank, said that young girls often get carried away by a romantic notion of how life might be in a war zone with "a real man, a jihadist." She told VICE News it was unsurprising that the reality doesn't live up to their expectations.

"It's important not to actively create impediments to them returning," she said.

It is often more difficult for women to return than for men, because "they've entered a situation where they have very few rights." For those who do manage to come back, Saltman says, "the change of environment will be a huge shock to the system. They will be almost certainly displaying symptoms of PTSD."

She quoted a rough estimate that one in nine will continue to pose a threat, meaning that it is important to continue to monitor those that return, and that due process must be followed in regards to whether they face imprisonment.

Saltman said she believed that all returnees should be required to participate in a deradicalization program, and that with proper help could fit back into society, and even go on to help others recover. "Former extremists are often the best people to deconstruct ideologies, and deradicalise people who come back," she added.

Kesinovic as shown on an Interpol handout

Last month a man representing a group of 30 British IS fighters contacted King's College London's International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, according to The Times. He told researchers that the men wanted help to come back to the UK without facing imprisonment, explaining: "We came to fight the regime and instead we are involved in gang warfare. It's not what we came for but if we go back [to Britain] we will go to jail."

Some of the men have allegedly been tortured since speaking out, and Saltman said she feared the girls could now suffer similar treatment from the militants.

The teenagers are among a number of Western women known to have traveled to Syria to become jihadi brides.

A 20-year-old Scottish women called Asqa Mahmood made the trip from Glasgow last November, and actively tries to recruit other women through social media. In a blog post written in June under the name Umm Layth, she said: "There is no way you can make this easier for your parents… The first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do. Your parents are already worried enough over where you are, whether you are ok and what's happened. How does a parent who has little Islamic knowledge and understanding comprehend why their son or daughter has left their well-off life, education and a bright future behind to go live in a war-torn country. Most likely they will blame themselves, they will think they have done something. But until they truly understand from the bottom of their heart that you have done this action sincerely for Allah's sake they will live in hope that you will return."

On April 9 she emphasised the pressure on girls and women to get married as soon as possible after they arrive. "If you are married then you will be given a house… It's most appropriate and better for the sisters to get married sooner… There's only so long one is treated like a guest and until your morals kick in and you realise how much of a burden you are upon people. The reality is that to stay without a man here is really difficult."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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