Analysis |

Syrian Refugee Camp Becomes ISIS Incubator

Wives and children of ISIS fighters who are living in the al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria are carrying on the tradition of the organization, but most of them have nowhere to go

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Russian woman carries her child while queuing at a makeshift hospital in ‘The Annex’, at the al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria, in 2019.
A Russian woman carries her child while queuing at a makeshift hospital in ‘The Annex’, at the al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria, in 2019.Credit: Alessio Mamo / L’Espresso
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

At the eastern edge of Hasakah Governorate in northern Syria, the Islamic State human production plant is in full sing. There are about 60,000 people in the al-Hol refugee camp; about half of them are children and most of the rest women, in horrific living conditions. Sometimes they have no running water or electricity, and their health care is mainly "folk remedies" – in other words, they rely on improvised medications or on prayers, and fear dictates their way of life.

Last month, five women and one male aid worker were murdered in the camp, and the body of a decapitated woman was found in one of its streets. Since the beginning of the year, over 100 people have been murdered at al-Hol. Occasionally delegations from private aid organizations and the United Nations visit, compose dismal reports, plead for another aid budget and go back to where they came from.

These refugees don't have a place to go back to. Most are wives and children of Islamic State fighters, and were detained during the war against the organization and imprisoned in the camp. Most are citizens of Syria or Iraq, but thousands of them came from 60 other countries, both Arab and European. It is guarded by armed Kurdish forces, who along with a local Kurdish police force who are in charge of security outside the camp, but they generally don't enter al-Hol itself.

The camp is divided between the "ordinary" refugees and the Islamic State members, who are autonomous in their day-to-day lives. There are several schools at the site built by aid organizations or by countries, but many mothers said that they don't send their children there because "they learn things there that don't conform to the tradition and values that were practiced in our regions."

One mother said that she decided to teach her daughter by herself, in her tent, in order to protect her "from the deviant education in the school." The mothers explained that they are committed to remaining faithful to their husbands – Islamic State members who were killed in the war – and to teaching their children "the values of the organization and the religious interpretation it adopted." Even those who send their children to the schools discover that there is no uniform curriculum. In each of the huge tent encampment's neighborhoods, they teach according to dictates decided by those in power in that neighborhood.

Women and children gather in front their tents at al-Hol camp, in 2021.Credit: Baderkhan Ahmad /AP

There is one exceptional case in which 30 Islamic State children whose parents come from Finland receive lessons prepared by the Finnish school system, which include the Finnish language and core curriculum, that may help them begin a new life someday.

The initiative of teaching Finnish Islamic State children via remote learning began about two years ago, as the brainchild of Finnish educator Ilona Taimela. In a BBC interview, she said that the adoption of remote learning during the COVID pandemic inspired her to contact mothers in the camp and suggest the method to them. This was after Finland abandoned a proposal to bring the Finnish children there, partly due to legal issues with separating mothers from their children, but mainly because of the nationalist Finns Party's opposition. The party warned against "importing" young Islamic State members and their mothers, who would endanger national security.

The issue with the educational initiative is that the lessons were run by Taimela over WhatsApp and in direct phone conversations, but residents of the refugee camp are official barred from owning cell phones – even though many have phones that were smuggled in. There were sometimes long breaks between lessons, because the mothers feared being caught with the contraband. But at the end of the "course," the children were able to read stories in Finnish, and had learned math and English as well.

Most of the children are not as fortunate as the "Finnish children." Not only will their curricula not prepare them for any profession or a life in their parents' countries of origin; at this point, they can't even dream of returning to their homelands, with which most are unfamiliar or in which they have never lived. Aside from Iraq, which has begun to bring back several thousands of Iraqi families who were living in the camp, no country has expressed a willingness to absorb the Islamic State children and their mothers, if the mothers even requested to return to their homelands in the first place.

The most common argument against bringing the refugees back is that the children and their mothers are committed to the Islamic State ideology. They will want to avenge the deaths of their husbands or brothers in the war, and upon their return, they are likely to constitute a core group for Islamic State activity – if not immediately, then certainly after a few years. Rehabilitation and reeducation are long processes, and are not always successful, those who oppose the return of the families say. And in the meantime, they argue, we have to guarantee the welfare of our citizens.

At the same time, women who managed to be released from the camp and to return to their homes in Iraq and Syria have encountered hostility and ostracism. A video on social media shows a Syrian woman who grew up in the city of Raqqa and returned there. She said that neighbors and even relatives don't want to talk to her, and even cry out, "You're an Islamic State member." Other women said that grocery stores have refused their business, and that they even received death threats.

"I miss the al-Hol camp, where I felt safer than in my village," said one of them. Another one said that she was able to conceal the fact that she had returned from the al-Hol camp, but is afraid that someone may identify her and to reveal her past at any moment.

The solution to the harsh reality in the refugee camp is to disband it and return its residents to their countries. That apparently won't happen anytime soon. The lepers of the Islamic State will continue to nourish themselves in the camp, which has turned into the organization's incubator.

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