The Islamic State has largely taken over control of a huge camp in northeast Syria, and there’s no plan for what to do with the 70,000 people there (including more than 50,000 children). The United States and Europe must immediately address this urgent national security and humanitarian crisis, before a new caliphate is established while we watch.
After the fall of Raqqa and the coalition defeat of the Islamic State’s strongholds, President Trump announced that “100 percent” of the caliphate had been destroyed. But the tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters and family members left over were herded into massive fenced internally displaced persons (IDP) camps with little aid, security or supervision. Separate from the IDP camps, which house mostly women and children, more than 2,000 Islamic State fighters sit in a network of makeshift prisons. The entire system is managed by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are under-resourced, understaffed and allied with a United States that is eyeing the exits.
In the largest IDP camp, called al-Hol, the Islamic State now exerts more influence and control than the few dozen SDF guards stationed there, according to U.S. officials, lawmakers and experts. Islamic State women have created a morality police corps inside the camp, enforcing sharia law and even conducting brutal executions, officials said. The Islamic State is recruiting from the camp, smuggling fighters in and out and using it to plan attacks in other parts of Syria, officials told me. If it’s not already effectively Caliphate 2.0, it soon will be.
“The IDP camp al-Hol is quickly becoming a mini-caliphate and a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me. “The security footprint around the camp is incredibly weak, and the camp is being run by ISIS types under our very nose.”
About 11,000 of the 70,000 mostly women and children in al-Hol come from countries outside of Iraq or Syria. Most of those countries have refused to take back their citizens, leaving them in squalid conditions that make Islamic State recruiting easier. The United States has taken back 21 Islamic State IDPs and is prosecuting all those who traveled to Syria as adults. But most European countries have refused; some have even stripped Islamic State members of their citizenship.
“The European response when it comes to ISIS fighters has been pathetic and dangerous,” said Graham. “When it comes to al-Hol, the red lights are blinking. We ignore it at our own peril.”
Trump, frustrated with Europe’s stance, actually threatened to “release” thousands of Islamic State fighters to Europe, which was likely a joke. But absent some action, they could get there anyway. Officials told me that al-Hol residents affiliated with the Islamic State have already shown up in different parts of Syria and Turkey.
A new Defense Department inspector general’s report said the Islamic State is actively recruiting inside al-Hol. The IG said repatriating its residents is critical to addressing that problem. “The SDF’s inability to provide more than ‘minimal security’ at the camp has allowed the ‘uncontested conditions to spread of ISIS ideology’ there,” the report said.
The security and humanitarian crisis in al-Hol is made worse by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria and the uncertainty of the U.S. commitment there. The Trump administration has been vague about its plans in Syria, partially because Trump’s officials know the president could pull the plug on the entire operation anytime. But that ambiguity undermines the American leadership needed to address this crisis.
“If the president wants to be successful in countering ISIS, he’s got to swallow the hard reality of what’s necessary and commit a lot more. And his officials have to find the courage to raise this with him and with the public,” said Charles Lister, counterterrorism director at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The stakes now are so high, we can’t continue to whisper about the realities of how bad things are.”
In addition to repatriating family members, the international community must address how to keep the hardcore fighters locked up and come up with a prison system that doesn’t depend on the SDF alone. The United States must immediately increase security at the prisons and the camps. There must be some effort to deradicalize the children who can be saved. If all this isn’t done soon, the entire U.S. strategy to ensure the enduring defeat of the Islamic State will be rendered meaningless.
According to the United Nations, 65 percent of al-Hol residents are under the age of 12 and 20,000 are under the age of 5, meaning they were born in the first caliphate. If we allow these children to grow up in Caliphate 2.0, our children will be the ones we have to send back there to fight them someday.