Concentration of ISIS supporters in Syrian camp created hell-hole and threat

More than 50,000 men and women from all over the world joined ISIS. This included 5,000 supporters from European countries.

Women walk through al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria April 1, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/ALI HASHISHO)
Women walk through al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria April 1, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/ALI HASHISHO)
Clashes broke out over the weekend between members of the ISIS religious police, or hisba, and security forces in the giant Al-Hol camp in Syria. The clashes were a long-time coming because thousands of ISIS supporters have been concentrated at the camp over the last eight months without almost any attempt to sort the worst offenders from the civilians and provide a means to rehabilitate some and punish others.
In one of the twists of irony of the anti-ISIS war, more than 80 countries signed on to fight ISIS alongside the US, but none of them seem interested in investing in winning the peace, rebuilding the areas ISIS was removed from or handling the detainees that resulted from defeating ISIS.
This may be partly the result of narrow self-interest. More than 50,000 men and women from all over the world joined ISIS. This includes 5,000 supporters from European countries. Some of them were killed in battle between 2014 and 2019, but tens of thousands survived.
When ISIS was defeated in March in Baghouz near the Euphrates, it appears the last of the “caliphate” told the men and women to surrender and reconstitute elsewhere, rather than all become “martyrs.” This was a strategy, and it has worked quite well for them.
While many of the men were detained in several Syrian camps by the Syrian Democratic Forces, some 70,000 people ended up in Al-Hol camp, with around 90% women and children.
According to various data, 41% of the camp is Syrians and 30,000 of the residents are Iraqis, whereas 14% come from other countries. Out of a total of 11,000 foreign nationals, there are 7,000 children from foreign nationalities, according to Relief Web.
The US says there are 450 French citizens in the camp, out of some 800 Europeans in total, and 1,200 adults from other countries. In all, the camp is supposed to be about 45% children. The US estimated that 50,000 of the camp’s residents were under age 18. Human Rights Watch says that there are people from 50 countries in the camp.
Add all this up and what you get is a camp that is mostly Syrian and Iraqi, but which is about half children, and has a plethora of other nationalities in it. While not all are ISIS supporters, it is clear that many of the Iraqis and other foreigners are likely people who came to Syria to support ISIS.
How they all ended up in Syria is not always clear. Some might have fled fighting in Iraq with their husbands. Others were kidnapped, especially members of the Yazidi minority – some of whom are believed to be held in Al-Hol, including children who were kidnapped in 2014. The other foreigners in Al-Hol are women who came to join their husbands or to support ISIS from around the world. Some of the children – probably thousands – were born during the period of ISIS rule.
There is a debate about how many of those in the camp should be described as “ISIS members,” and how many as innocent civilians. Since children are not responsible for the ideology of their parents, it’s easy to narrow down the number of clear ISIS supporters to a number in the thousands among the adult women. But even a few hundred core ISIS supporters is too many if they are well organized – and it appears they are.
In recent months, an avalanche of articles came out warning that Al-Hol is a “ticking bomb,” a headline and quote used in two different articles. Reporters who went to the camp were met by children chanting slogans against the “unbelievers,” and texts from one ISIS supporter in the camp included language about attacking the “kuffar,” the ISIS and religious extremist term for non-Muslims.
Members of the US coalition called it a “wicked problem,” and the Pentagon even had an inspector-general report from the summer noting that security was barely able to deal with monitoring the outside of the camp, let alone police within it.
And yet despite reports that women ISIS members were organizing a religious police, lashing and attacking people – even burning alive those they considered not ISIS enough – little was done.
A SEPTEMBER report noted that cell phones were being smuggled in to coordinate attacks. Violence and stone-throwing had increased since August. ISIS was doing what it had done in areas it ran in Syria, segmenting its elites from the “commoners” who were from Syria and Iraq. The foreigners can be found among both the elites and the victims. An Indonesian woman was allegedly beaten to death in July.
Turkmen women were severely beaten on September 30, allegedly by Russian-speaking ISIS supporters. A girl was found murdered, her neck broken in several places, in early September.
It boiled over on the weekend when clashes broke out between women, described either as protesters or armed ISIS supporters, who were shot by security forces. According to reports, several were wounded, including four foreign women, Louisa Loveluck of The Washington Post tweeted.
The facts are known about Al-Hol. The numbers in the camp, the number of children and women from different countries. Researchers and reporters have also had access to the camp for months, interviewing a multitude of foreign nationals, whether from Spain, Australia, Holland, Sweden, the UK, Russia, or the 575 estimated Tajik women and children.
The problem is that the SDF carries out “minimal security,” according to the US inspector-general report. There are “uncontested conditions to spread ISIS ideology.” But the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve apparently lacks the resources to deal with this because the US has been trying to draw down forces in Syria. So everyone relies on “third-party” accounts of humanitarian organizations.
The US Central Command knew months ago that ISIS would “likely attempt to enlist new members from the large pool of internally displaced persons.” ISIS wants to establish a safe haven at the camp. And yet the US, the other members of the coalition and SDF have an additional 16 IDP camps they could re-organize to put the worst ISIS supporters in one place and not subject the others in Al-Hol to the abuses.
However, the real story of Al-Hol is that it was easier to just dump the women who fled Baghouz into the camp. No one wants responsibility for the camp, because if any foreign countries try to police and secure it, they will be responsible for what happens – even dealing with riots and shortages. So everyone prefers to look the other way. See no evil, hear no evil, is easier than trying to deal with the emerging problem.
There is a bizarre way that the anti-ISIS Coalition deals with the SDF: it works with them to fight ISIS, but doesn’t want to work with them on plans for the future because it views them as a non-state actor. Only states can put people on trial or really administer Al-Hol. So since there isn’t a state then there is a temporary solution.
That also means none of the wealthy European states from which ISIS members came want to take back their citizens from Al-Hol. They go so far as to pretend it would be “rendition,” according to recent articles in the UK. For some reason, it’s not a problem for an ISIS supporter to leave the UK to travel illegally into Syria, but to bring them back is a problem. To take care of them in Syria is also a problem. To put them on trial is impossible.
That leaves the worst ISIS supporters all concentrated in one place. For a while the sexism of observers thought that women supporters of ISIS were probably not a threat. But they are a threat, to each other and to others and to the children. There is evidence for this because they have murdered each other and harmed children and spread extremist messages. Women played as much a role in some ISIS crimes as men, and in some countries there were more women supporters of ISIS then men, showing they were a key to radicalization. This was the case in Kosovo, for instance.
Al-Hol may be a key to the future of ISIS. It will help spread the ideology and continue to hellish conditions that ISIS seeks to put people under. Every murder in Al-Hol is preventable. Yet no one wants to prevent it because so far the coalition has not realized that stabilization and the long-term defeat of ISIS also means dealing with Al-Hol and isolating the extremists from others.
This is largely because the coalition eschewed dealing with IDPs and civilians from the start of the campaign, preferring local authorities deal with them. It never had a plan for what to do with ISIS detainees, or a good method for working with its own partner states to facilitate trials or return. Al-Hol is the result.