ISIS Fighters’ Children Are Growing Up in a Desert Camp. What Will They Become?

AL HOL, Syria – Viewed from a helicopter, the massive encampment holding the wives and children of dead or captured Islamic State fighters is a sea of ​​white tents over the desolate landscape of drought-stricken northeast Syria.

From the ground up, the human dimension of this tragedy was noticed. As a convoy of armored vehicles traveled down a dusty road, children stood at the fence amid the piles of rubbish. Some waved goodbye. A boy, in a faded “Star Wars” shirt, stood with his hands clasped behind his back. Another, in an oversized polo shirt, held up a star folded from paper.

Al Hol is a detention camp for those displaced by the war by IS – guards do not allow residents to step out of its gates. About 93% of the 55,000 people here are women and children, about half under the age of 12. While most have Iraqi or Syrian mothers, thousands of people from around 51 other countries, including European nations, have been reluctant to repatriate them.

The world’s attention has largely turned since the last major area of ​​the Islamic State was here collapse in 2019. But leaving behind are tens of thousands of children who grew up in brutal and highly radicalized circumstances. They were surrounded by tough, warlike women; When the boys grew up to be teenagers, they were sometimes transferred to wartime prisons for warriors.

“We have seen violence and we also know that we have a large population of children,” said Daoud Ghaznawi, who oversees the administration of services in the NGO’s camp. is getting bigger. militias control the area. “If it continues like this, nothing good can come out of it.”

Human rights groups and the military have sounded the alarm about the dangers of leaving the captive children of ISIS members languishing in the desert: In addition to the cruelty, the dire conditions are dangerous chance to forge them into a web of violent and angry extremists. world.

The camp for women and children is part of a cluster of facilities in northeastern Syria overseen by a Kurdish-led militia that includes nearly two dozen prisons holding about 10,000 adult men – Suspected IS fighters have proved more difficult to repatriate and pose the problem of an outbreak.

At the end of 2018, Al Hol hosted about 10,000 refugees and others displaced by the war. But early the next year, when the US-backed coalition besieged Baghuz, the remaining ISIS stronghold, the women and children fleeing or surviving were separated from the men and sent to Al Hol. Its population increased sevenfold.

For years, the State Department has urged countries to repatriate their citizens, as the United States has done. Doing so is politically unpopular because of the prisoners’ association with Islamic State, and even their young children are often seen as dangerous. But women and children dripping have left.

Iraq, the country with the most, is going slow: Many Iraqis hostile to allowing ISIS families return. At a Middle East Institute Conference Last week, Timothy Betts, the State Department’s counterterrorism operations coordinator, said Iraq has repatriated some 600 ISIS fighters and 2,500 others from Al Hol – about a tenth of its citizens here and in a smaller detention center.

This month, France repatriates 16 women and 35 children, including some orphans. About 165 French children and 65 women are believed to remain. Many European countries are particularly reluctant to take back men, fearing that under their legal system their detention would last only a few years.

Meanwhile, security inside Al Hol is deteriorating. There have been about 25 homicides this year. While the available data is inaccurate, the rate of homicides has increased since late spring, including one murder last week and a woman who died. beheaded last month. Hardline ISIS women, self-appointed religious police, believed to be responsible for many murders as retaliation for violations such as talking to camp management.

A fact-finding mission, led by South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, has visited the facilities in recent weeks, inviting a New York Times reporter on the tour. rare official of a high-ranking US official.

The situation here could soon get worse. Turkey considers the Kurdish-led militia that controls northeastern Syria to be linked to a separatist terrorist group. The militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, is the main US field ally fighting ISIS in Syria.

Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, attack the SDF in 2019, destabilize the fragile region; it has signaled an intention to do so again soon.

If there is another Turkish attack, US officials believe hundreds of thousands of people living in the border area could be displaced, adding to the chaos. They also fear that the SDF guards and related internal security forces at Al Hol will redeploy personnel on the front – as happened in 2019 – and possibly lose control of those captured by ISIS.

“If a Turkish attack did in fact happen, we would likely have ISIS 2.0,” Brig. General Claude K. Tudor Jr. of the Air Force, the commander of the Special Operations task force working to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said during a helicopter flight accompanying Graham to Syria.

Warning that militants could try to regroup through mass prison break-ins, he added, “We think ISIS is looking to attack another prison or do something in Al Hol.” .”

The SDF’s control has become fragile. Standing in the sweltering heat on the rooftop of a prison administration building in nearby Hasaka, General Amuda, the head of an SDF commando unit, a designated partner force of the United States, and user using a pseudonym, described a notorious ISIS attack there. January.

A two-week battle ensued, killing dozens of SDF guards and hundreds of captured IS fighters. He relayed the attack in vivid detail, pointing to bullet-riddled buildings and a place where he said fighters burned two guards alive.

Later, when the US military tried to determine who had been killed or escaped, it became clear that the militia did not have a comprehensive record of those arrested. The Hasaka prisoners also included hundreds of teenage boys who appeared to have trained from Al Hol as they grew up; Other teenagers were sent to rehabilitation centers deemed incompetent.

“The militia in control doesn’t have a particularly accurate picture of what’s going on telling you what you need,” said Charles Lister, director of the counterterrorism and extremism program at the Middle East Institute. know. “We’re doing nothing to stop the current generation of detainees from wanting to continue fighting if they get out, and create a crucible for the next generation.”

Dr Abdulkarim Omar, the regional government’s head of external relations, said children who were taught between the ages of 12 and 14 had to be separated because they could pose a threat or give birth to babies. for IS. He denied that teenagers sent to prisons for lack of space in rehabilitation centers were housed with resilient fighting adults.

Of the approximately 10,000 arrested adult males accused of fighting for ISIS, about 5,000 are Syrian; 3,000 are Iraqi; and 2,000 from about 60 other countries, officials said.

The majority of those 2,000 are from countries in the Middle East or North Africa, including Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. About 300 people are Russian, while more than 250 are from Western countries and Europe, officials said.

Al Hol is similarly divided. The main camp holds about 47,000 Syrians and Iraqis. An annex houses 8,000 wives and children of ISIS fighters from other countries. They say about 66 babies were born each month last year.

In 2022, the US military plan to spend $155 million in Syria to train and equip the SDF, along with related work such as fortifying IS prisons. US Department of State and Agency for International Development plans to spend $852 million on humanitarian assistance in Syria and assisting refugees in neighboring countries.

Pentagon funds have supported security and infrastructure, including metal detectors at Al Hol, and the interior fence is expected to be built this month to allowing guards to close areas of riots or raids to clear up smuggled weapons. The US military is also recording biometric data, such as DNA, of adult male prisoners.

In Hasaka, Major General. John W. Brennan Jr.commander of the task force fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said that countries that do not want to repatriate their ISIS citizens should at least pay the SDF to stay.

Mr. Graham also suggested that the United Nations could establish an international tribunal to prosecute Syria’s ISIS members; The breakaway region is not a recognized sovereign state with a legal system. But he noted that people had come up with the same ideas during a similar visit four years ago and compared the situation to the fake calm after World War I.

“Most people think the war with ISIS is over,” Graham said. “They don’t think about how you repair the damage. What do you do with the prisoners? How do you give young people better choices? That’s why they put out the numbers on the war – they just keep repeating.”

Most children in Al Hol don’t go to school – there aren’t enough of them, and some women refuse to send their children to school. Mr. Ghaznawi said two schools were recently forced to close; They had stopped recruiting camp residents as support staff, he said, and were repeatedly attacked.

Kathryn Achilles, Save the Children of Syria’s advocacy, communications and communications director, said they operate six “temporary learning spaces” at Al Hol, including one being rebuilt. recently after a fire. They teach a basic curriculum in English, Arabic, math, and science. But the violence is on the rise, she said, continues to hurt the children.

“These children did not choose to go to Syria or be born there, and they are caught in a spiral of violence that is punishing them for the sins, or perceived sins of their fathers,” she said. “The SDF is in charge of keeping these people. These children are caught in the system, but what they need is to return home.”

Linking improved camp security to quality of life, Mr Ghaznawi downplayed the incidents where children in Al Hol hurled stones at reporters because of children acting restless, but added it could become should be worse.

“We have a young population that is getting older and older, and going from having acts of violence to eventually having more and more ideologies associated with ISIS,” he said.

Sangar Khaleel Reporting contributions from Iraq.

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