Amid deteriorating humanitarian and security conditions inside al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria, foreign-born Islamic State (IS) fighters are being held with their families while the world decides what to do with them.
When Baghouz in eastern Syria, IS’ last stronghold, fell to coalition forces in early 2019, the jihadist group appeared to be on its last legs. Yet recent reports suggest that the battle to eliminate IS is far from over.
In August, a Pentagon report said the group was ‘resurging’ in Syria, a determination that Mazloum Kobani Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that run al-Hol camp, agreed with in September.
Meanwhile, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on fighters to free detained jihadis and their families.
Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF’s press office, claimed on 30 September that IS “militants have stepped up their regrouping efforts through women in the camp,” and warned that it could be “dangerous in the future unless governments take responsibility for their citizens”.
Thousands of IS fighters and their families are detained in makeshift prisons in Syrian and Iraqi camps. Al-Hol is one of the biggest camps in north-eastern Syria, located on the outskirts of the town of the same name.
Built to accommodate 40,000 people, the camp currently holds around 70,000 people, 11,000 of whom are reportedly foreign women and children who lived in IS’ so-called caliphate. An estimated 7,000 are children under 12.
The International Rescue Committee, a global non-governmental humanitarian aid and relief organization, said al-Hol’s residents face a ‘purgatory-like existence’. Foreigners, including Algerians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Moroccans, Russians, Tunisians, Turks, Uzbeks, Brits and Swedes, are prevented from leaving the camp except for emergencies.
As of July this year, around 240 children had died in the camp or on their way to the camp, which is plagued by shortages of food, water and medicine.
The conditions in the camp, which include overflowing latrines, sewage around the tents and drinking water tanks that contain worms, have raised humanitarian concerns. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported seeing young children with skin rashes and emaciated limbs sifting through garbage and deaths from diarrhoea and flu-like infections.
Many of the camp’s inhabitants arrived recently, although some reportedly said they had been there for over a year. Some have been transferred or moved, and among those with links to IS are non-IS-affiliated displaced Syrians or Iraqis.
Reporters and researchers who have been to the camps and interviewed foreign women from IS-controlled territories said those they spoke to wished to be repatriated and were prepared to face the repercussions.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, has also called on states to repatriate their citizens, calls that have largely been ignored. Only a small number of citizens have been taken back, with governments citing security risks and complications around verifying children’s citizenship.
There is also doubt whether returnees would be convicted in a court of law, as many of the women did not commit violent acts even though they adhered to the IS ideology.
The United Kingdom has gone so far as to strip IS followers of their British citizenship, the high-profile case of Shamima Begum being one such example. The United States has, conversely, brought home a number of its citizens who fought with IS, several of whom are awaiting trial, while pressing European countries to repatriate their citizens linked to the terror group.
The complications go beyond citizenship and repatriation, however, as many of the women still adhere to IS’ radical ideology. Cecilia Uddén, a Swedish journalist who visited al-Hol in May, told Fanack that a number of women refuse to denounce some of IS’ worst actions such as throwing homosexuals off rooftops.
According to international law, the detention-like conditions in al-Hol contravene prohibitions on collective punishment, and detention during wartime must be done on a clear legal basis. Detainees have the right to challenge their captivity before a court, according to HRW.
International standards may have been further breached through the denial of basic aid. The SDF lack the resources to manage the overcrowded facility, the population having soared since the fall of Baghouz, although deteriorating conditions in the camp were reported as far back as January when approximately 23,000 people joined the camp over a two-month period.
Yet donors are reluctant to support the IS-affiliated population and claim aid might be used to enable indefinite detention.
While aid organizations are present in the camp, they keep a low profile, and some suggest, according to Uddén, that Kurdish authorities restrict their entry.
The same Pentagon report from August said that local movements inside the camp have been difficult to monitor, but there has been acknowledgment that IS ideology has spread ‘uncontested’.
Experts argue that shortages in essential aid have fuelled radicalization, and hard-line IS women patrol the camps and try to replicate the caliphate’s version of sharia law, the most immediate danger of which has been to other women in the camp.
Uddén said those who are “super radicalized” take revenge and impose their own judgments on others.
“There are punishments, there are murders. It is rumoured that some of the Chechen and Tunisian women are the most radical, so they have set up their own Hisbah [IS moral police],” she said, adding that the bodies of those killed have allegedly been buried outside the camp or under their tents.
“I spoke to the Swedish women,” Uddén recalled. “They were on the one hand terrified of these radicalized women, on the other hand terrified of the guards who they said would come to the tents at night and raid them looking for telephones, beat the women and children and steal their money.”
When riots broke out in the camp on 30 September, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed the women involved were working undercover as Hisbah, using light firearms.
The Autonomous Administration is pushing for an international tribunal for IS fighters and their affiliates, an endeavour supported by the Dutch government. However, Uddén fears the world will forget about al-Hol “unless there is a huge media campaign”. This has been lacking as the coverage has yet to move beyond reporting on the deplorable conditions in the camp and the residents who remain in limbo. Hence, a galvanizing force to keep attention on the camp has not been there.
Al-Hol is also caught up in geopolitical instability between the Turkish government on the one side, which is threatening to occupy Kurdish land on the Turkish-Syrian border, and the Syrian regime on the other, which wants to reoccupy all Syrian territory.
Uddén called the situation a “ticking time bomb”, noting that IS women are educating their children away from the main schools and that these children may feel they need to honour their father’s name and take revenge in the future.
In an open letter to Western governments, national security experts have also expressed concern about the potential blowback from abandoning foreign-born fighters and their families in Syria.
Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, echoed a similar sentiment, writing, ‘By returning citizens to their countries of origin and holding them accountable for their crimes, European and other countries can demonstrate the values that separate nations that respect human rights and the rule of law from terrorist groups like IS.’
Abandoning ‘homegrown extremists’ would reinforce a West versus Islam narrative and feed jihadist propaganda, he argued.
The situation in al-Hol continues to develop away from the eyes of the international community as governments delay taking action to determine the fate of the foreigners held there, which could make the potential ramifications even more volatile.