US general warns of ISIS 'army in detention' in Syria camps

Children are also a concern as NGO says that about 7,000 are living at risk in camps

Al Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected ISIS fighters in the north-eastern Hasakeh province. AFP
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Prison camps for ISIS fighters and their families run by Kurdish forces in Syria represent an incubator for radicalism and could harbour “an army in detention,” the top US middle east commander said on Saturday.

Gen Michael Kurilla, head of the US military's Central Command, visited Ghwayran prison in the city of Hasakeh, scene of a violent prison-break attempt last year, which led to heavy fighting and hundreds of deaths.

"In visiting the detention facility, I saw the looming threat posed by this group of detained ISIS fighters," Gen Kurilla said in the statement.

Gen Kurilla also visited Al Hol camp, where at least 10,000 people have been living in squalid conditions, overseen by understaffed and poorly resourced Kurdish security forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Syrian-Kurdish authorities have pleaded with foreign governments to repatriate their citizens who are detained in the camps. At the height of the conflict, following the rapid takeover by ISIS of about a third of Iraq and Syria, as many as 20,000 foreigners are thought to have joined the group, from 85 countries, according to US estimates.

"Between those detained in Syria and Iraq it is a veritable 'ISIS army in detention'. If freed, this group would pose a great threat regionally and beyond," he added.

The SDF, supported by a US-led coalition, spearheaded the fight against ISIS in Syria, driving the group from its last redoubt in the country in 2019. In Iraq, the US backed an Iraqi elite force known as the Counter-terrorism Service, while rebuilding the Iraqi army and attempting to sideline Iran-backed militias who were also involved in fighting. Coalition forces also worked alongside Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

In Syria, tens of thousands of people, including relatives of extremist militants, have been detained in the years since in camps run by the Kurdish authorities, including the notorious Al Hol camp, where about 10,000 foreigners are held.

Save the Children in December warned that about 7,000 children of suspected foreign terrorists were "trapped in desperate conditions and put at risk on a daily basis" in overcrowded detention camps in northeast Syria.

SDF commanders and administrators at Ghwayran prison described the detainees as "unrepentant, subject to further radicalisation to violence, and a ticking time bomb", Centcom said.

Kurilla also visited the Kurdish-run camps of Roj and Al Hol, where relatives of suspected terrorists are held.

Children in Al Hol "are in daily danger of indoctrination to violence", Centcom said, adding that teenagers with foreign parents "expressed a desire to return to their country of origin".

Gen Kurilla urged the "repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration of the camp residents back into their countries and communities of origin", calling Al Hol a "flashpoint of human suffering".

ISIS were ousted from Iraqi territory in 2017 but retain sleeper cells in desert and mountain hideouts in both Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Suspected ISIS militants killed three truffle hunters and kidnapped at least 26 others in northern Syria on Saturday, a war monitor said.

The fight against the terrorists "is a fight for security and stability of not only Syria and Iraq, but the entire region", Gen Kurilla said.

"We absolutely cannot allow a resurgence of ISIS."

Updated: March 12, 2023, 6:33 AM