During its heyday in 2014-2015 Islamic State (ISIS) conquered, and ruled over, great tracts of Iraq and Syria. It took four years, but the US coalition, relying heavily on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), slowly but surely won back ISIS-held territory, squeezing its fighters into an increasingly tight enclave. The final battle took place on Saturday, March 23 2019, in the village of Baghuz on the banks of the Euphrates, on Syria’s eastern border.
But just before the last stand, tens of thousands of ISIS supporters, almost all of them women with their children, fled the battleground. Kurdish officials directed them to a camp for displaced persons set up some 300 kilometers to the north at al-Hol. And there they have remained, a mixture of Syrians, Iraqis and foreigners from around the world who had been attracted to the extreme Islamist concepts espoused by ISIS.
At the end of September 2019 the population of the al-Hol encampment stood at just under 70,000. Living conditions are appalling. The tents were freezing cold in the winter and have been swelteringly hot this summer, with temperatures rising as high as 50 degrees Celsius. In the early months latrine facilities were primitive, much of the water was contaminated and medical care was limited. As a result child deaths soared. In the nine months to August 31, 2019, 406 deaths were registered in the camp, of which 313 were children under the age of 5.
Some relief is being provided by relevant UN organizations. For example UNICEF and its partners are now trucking in nearly 2 million liters of water every day, and have installed tanks, showers, latrines and water purification units. But the gap between the funding required and the funding provided by relief organizations is currently more than $25 million. It is likely to grow, because the prospects of shipping out the inhabitants and closing the al-Hol camp are negligible.
The Kurdish authorities overseeing the camp have pleaded for the non-Syrians to be allowed to return to their own countries, but only a few states – including Kazahstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – have repatriated their citizens on a large scale. Western governments have refused to take back any except a few young children.
The problem for the Kurdish authorities runs much deeper than providing half-way decent living conditions for 70,000 women and children. Al-Hol is situated in the north-eastern region of Syria which has always been a Kurdish occupied area. Now the Kurds have established a semi-autonomous self-governing region there known informally as Rojava, and formally as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). It is not, however, a sovereign state, and the US-led coalition and other governments will not treat it as such. They will not collaborate with the Kurds on effectively managing the camp, nor with putting on trial the hard-core disruptive elements among the women who, faithful to their ISIS beliefs, have been imposing strict Sharia law on others and administering punishments, including death, on those who refuse to submit. ISIS sympathizers regularly torch the tents of women deemed infidels.
On September 3, 2019 the New York Times reported fights between camp residents, some women attacking or threatening others with knives and hammers. Twice, in June and July, women stabbed the Kurdish guards who were escorting them, sending the camp into lockdown.
On September 30, the Daily Telegraph reported that a female ISIS supporter was killed and seven others injured during an exchange of gunfire over a secret Sharia court set up in al-Hol. A group of female ISIS supporters ordered several other women in the foreigners’ section to be flogged for refusing to attend an informal Koranic studies class. Kurdish guards intervened, and opened fire after one of the ISIS members pulled out a pistol that had reportedly been smuggled into the camp.
Former Syria adviser to the Pentagon, Jasmine El-Gamal, described the situation at al-Hol as “a full-blown security threat.” For the leaders of ISIS, however, al-Hol represents a golden opportunity. It is a hub from which regrouping of the organization as a whole is already under way.
“We started to notice that the new arrivals were very well organized,” says director Mahmoud Karo. “They organized their own moral police. They are structured.”
Beneath a cloak of secrecy, the radical women inhabitants have continued to enforce the draconian laws of the former so-called caliphate. They police women’s allegiance to ISIS, punishing those suspected of wavering in their support.
“The camp is the best place to develop the new ISIS,” says Karo. Tracking down the perpetrators is difficult. The women, cloaked in niqab, are nearly impossible to identify. They change tents frequently to avoid capture.”
A Pentagon report in August warned that a drawdown of the US military presence in the area has allowed “ISIS ideology to spread ‘uncontested’ in the camp.”
Growing extremism in al-Hol runs parallel to signs of ISIS resurgence elsewhere in the region. ISIS attacks in northwestern Iraq, just over the Syrian border, are becoming more frequent.
At al-Hol ISIS is master-minding its resurgence while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. With only a few exceptions, the governments concerned have dumped the problem into the lap of the Kurds. While finding minimal resources to ease the humanitarian problems of housing 70,000 women and children, they persistently ignore the equally pressing security issues that are fomenting inside the camp
On both humanitarian and security grounds al-Hol is a problem demanding the world’s immediate attention.