John Dunford and Jennifer Cafarella
ISIS has a unique and dangerous opportunity to exploit conditions in detention facilities and internally displaced persons’ camps across Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) do not have adequate resources to detain the suspected 9,000 ISIS fighters and 63,000 ISIS family members currently housed in a network of detention facilities and internally displaced persons camps. The Al-Hawl Camp alone is now over capacity by roughly 30,000 individuals and holds a combustible mix of ideologically committed ISIS family members and other civilians. Female ISIS members within the camp have attacked guards and other civilians. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assesses that ISIS is already networking within Al-Hawl. ISIS may attempt a breakout of both detained fighters and displaced persons as part of its 2019 Ramadan campaign and/or its wider resurgent campaign in Iraq and Syria. The US must urgently help the SDF adequately secure these facilities and process their inhabitants.
ISIS has a unique and dangerous opportunity to exploit conditions in detention and displacement facilities across Northern Syria
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March 2019 after seizing the last kilometer of ISIS-held terrain in the Euphrates River Valley. ISIS’s losses did not dismantle its human network, however. The SDF does not have adequate resources to detain 11,000 alleged ISIS fighters and manage a wider network of at least 12 formal and informal displacement camps that hold tens of thousands of civilians and ISIS family members. Over 63,000 ISIS family members and other civilians surrendered to the SDF in Eastern Syria between December 2018 and April 2019. The SDF relocated all of these individuals to the now overcrowded Al-Hawl Camp in Northeastern Syria near the Syrian-Iraqi Border, creating an urgent humanitarian and security crisis. ISIS likely intends to target these camps and prisons as part of its plan to resurge in Iraq and Syria. ISIS may choose to intensify these actions now during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends on June 4, in order to leverage their propaganda value for its 2019 Ramadan campaign.
The Al-Hawl Camp is already a de facto support zone for ISIS in Northern Syria
The SDF separated male ISIS fighters from the population using improved screening methods and processed them using biometric measures including fingerprinting and facial recognition. The SDF then transferred these fighters to prisons deeper in SDF-held terrain. The SDF did not apply the same level of scrutiny to the thousands of indoctrinated women and children concentrated in Al-Hawl Camp. Media reports have repeatedly noted that large numbers of women in the camp remain ideologically committed to ISIS. Some of them likely played tangible roles in security or military structures such as the ISIS Hisba Police. These networks have attacked guards and burned the tents of less committed detainees in Al-Hawl. Their activities may be part of a deliberate plan. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly ordered female members to surrender en masse to the SDF in February 2019, potentially with the intent to infiltrate facilities such as Al-Hawl Camp. ISIS and its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) previously exploited conditions to recruit and radicalize individuals in detention facilities such as Camp Bucca in Iraq.
The SDF lacks the capacity to control the presence of ISIS in Al-Hawl Camp
The Al-Hawl Administration is overburdened and lacks adequate housing, medical supplies, and access to clean water, according to the UN. The camp is also not secure. SDF Spokesperson Kino Gabriel noted that the SDF lacked visibility on the presence of ISIS in Al-Hawl as of April 2019. Authorities have separated foreigners into a separate area of Al-Hawl but Syrian and Iraqi ISIS family members can still mix with the wider civilian population in the camp, raising the risk of recruitment and indoctrination. ISIS could use a networked presence within Al-Hawl to support its resurgence in Northern Syria. Al-Hawl is located less than fifty kilometers from Hasakah City and Shaddadi – both major supply and logistics hubs for the SDF and U.S.-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition. ISIS could threaten operations by the SDF across Eastern Syria from Al-Hawl.
The challenges in Al-Hawl also threaten the security of Iraq
The Al-Hawl Administration announced an agreement with the Government of Iraq on April 11 to repatriate over 30,000 Iraqi women and children held at Al-Hawl. The SDF claimed that it will only repatriate individuals unconnected to ISIS but likely lacks the detailed vetting information necessary to do so. The Government of Iraq reportedly intends to house these returnees in a new detention facility that it will establish in Northern Iraq. The same challenges of indoctrination and networking faced in Al-Hawl would also apply to any such facility in Iraq.
The SDF faces a similar set of challenges maintaining its network of prisons for detained ISIS fighters
The SDF Foreign Relations Chair stated that the SDF is incapable of continuing to maintain its prisons without additional international support as of January 2019. Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) later assessed in March 2019 that the SDF could “indefinitely” run its existing detention facilities in the absence of challenges by “external actors” in Northern Syria. The SDF in particular likely assesses that it will not be able to sustain its detention operations in the event of a cross-border intervention by Turkey, which views the SDF as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The release of detainees could further disperse ISIS cells throughout Iraq and Syria
The SDF has released Syrian and Iraqi ISIS members to decrease its resource burden and gain support from local Arabs. For example, the SDF released several hundred ISIS fighters to tribal elders in Deir ez-Zour Province, Raqqa Province, Tabqa, Hasakah City, and Manbij in March 2019. These releases will likely allow ISIS members to reconnect with their prior networks and establish new cells. The SDF is under further strain due to the refusal of many states to repatriate their nationals who fought with ISIS. Thus far only a limited numbers of countries have repatriated some fighters and family members including Kazakhstan, Morocco, Macedonia, Sudan, Indonesia, Russia, Iraq, and Kosovo.
The additional threat of directed prison breaks by ISIS could overwhelm the SDF
ISIS is waging a capable resurgent campaign in recaptured areas of Syria that resembles the resurgence of AQI in Iraq after 2011. Syrian Kurdish Special Forces units prevented an attempt by 400 ISIS foreign fighters to break out of the SDF’s Central Prison in Malikiyah in Northern Hasakah Province on April 5. ISIS conducted a successful prison break in the Sosa Prison in Iraqi Kurdistan around December 11. AQI conducted at least eight major prison breaks a part of its own resurgence in Iraq between July 2012 and July 2013. ISIS can use each breakout to reintroduce hardened foreign fighters and experienced operational commanders back into its ranks and reinvigorate its insurgent campaign in Iraq and Syria.
The US can mitigate these risks through a combination of short-term and long-term support to the SDF that does not substantially change its commitment on the ground in Syria.
The US must take immediate humanitarian action including providing additional funding and material support to the SDF, UN, and other NGOs to help manage resources and provide desperately needed healthcare in Al-Hawl Camp. The current situation is a crisis that requires action for both humanitarian and national security reasons. The U.S. can both prevent the unnecessary loss of life in Al-Hawl Camp and prevent ISIS from leveraging its inhabitants to aid its resurgence in Iraq and Syria. These steps include:
The U.S. must provide additional biometric systems to camp administrators to help process the residents of the Al-Hawl Camp. The U.S. should assist in screening the camp’s population and detaining identified active members of ISIS. This step will allow the SDF to prevent ISIS from using the camp as a recruiting ground and safe haven for recruiters, support elements, and female fighters. It will also help address concerns from NGOs that assisting Al-Hawl Camp will help ISIS.
US forces in Syria should work with the SDF to establish additional security procedures inside Al-Hawl Camp that will provide access to all of the camp’s population to the UN and other NGOs. The US should consider deploying additional military enablers if necessary to achieve this goal.
The US and its allies can directly provide the necessary humanitarian supplies including water purification systems, medicines, and building materials for shelter and medical facilities through its convoys that regularly resupply the SDF via Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S. is currently providing material assistance to partnered NGOs to provide food, shelter, and sanitation services.
The US can make a leading contribution and urge coalition partners to help provide the $27 million that the UN has identified as needed to maintain Al-Hawl Camp for the “next few months”.
The US should act to make trauma counseling and other mental health resources available to the women and children in the Al-Hawl Camp.
The U.S. should ensure similar conditions at other such camps currently existing (or set to be established) in Iraq and Syria.
The US will need to work with the US-led Anti-ISIS Coalition to establish a unified policy towards ISIS foreign fighters. This could include the facilitation of an international tribunal or an agreement on repatriation. Repatriation is a complex legal issue that creates potential risks for host countries, but the lack of a uniform international policy will continue to be detrimental to the SDF.
The US will need to help the SDF build modern prisons and detention facilities to house foreign fighters until their trial in a tribunal or their home countries. The US should commit to this support as a key component of an enduring commitment to the SDF.
The US should lead an effort to build an international fund to support detention facilities and displacement camps over the long-term in Syria and Iraq.