Women loyal to ISIS reinforce radical ideology in Syria's Al Hol camp

ISIS supporters hold Sharia-style trials in the lawless camp, where a refugee was recently stabbed for criticising the extremist group

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It was not an inevitable situation, experts say. A lot could have been done to prevent the crisis in Al Hol, starting with foreign governments who could have taken back and rehabilitated their own radicalised citizens.

Al Hol camp in north-east Syria houses 64,000 people. More than half are children who have been out of school for five years or went through the ISIS education system while living under the group's self-proclaimed caliphate.

Many of these children know no other life than one under ISIS: where their mothers are forced to cover their faces, and some coerce other women in the camp do the same, holding improvised Sharia-style trials when anyone does not comply with self-imposed rules that govern daily life, beyond the reach of the Kurdish guards.

Riddled with waterborne and respiratory diseases, acute malnutrition and diarrhoea, dozens of children die each year: This is Al Hol camp.

'An insane thing to do'

"Al Hol is about survival. It's about keeping it moving. Some women there are trying to recreate another so-called caliphate. They make sure that the conditions under ISIS live on and part of that is to police other women," Amarnath Amarasingam, extremism researcher at Queen's University, told The National.

“A lot of the women tell their kids that the Kurds guarding the camp killed their father. The guards then get pelted with stones when they go in to check for contraband. A child threw a rock at our fixer’s head when we were last there. But, I wouldn't interpret all this through the lens of radicalisation. They are very young, bored, angry and struggling,” he said.

Syrians to be removed from Al Hol

Syrians to be removed from Al Hol

Not all the women at Al Hol are staunch ISIS supporters, and not all children are on a path to extremism, but it is impossible to truly know where their sympathies lie, Mr Amarasingam said.

In October, Kurdish authorities released hundreds of ISIS fighters from Al Hol camp. Among those were 2,000 foreigners, including about 800 Europeans whose governments refused to repatriate them.

"When we look at ISIS, at least during the insurgency, a number of supporters were coerced or intimidated. They may spew the ideology in the camps because they do not want to lose their protection, not because they genuinely believe it," said Mary Beth Altier, clinical associate professor at NYU's Centre for Global Affairs in an online discussion at the United States Institute of Peace Resolve Network 2020 Global Forum in November.

"Just a few months ago, an Iraqi male refugee was stabbed to death by women for critiquing ISIS while standing in a food line.

"First and foremost, the children are victims. Non-Iraqi or Syrian children who grew up in the caliphate may not know their native language, or may not be good at it. This further stigmatises them and reinforces trauma when they return home," she told The National.

Al Hol was repurposed in 2016, sheltering a mixture of refugees and hardened ISIS members.

“It’s an insane thing to do,” Mr Amarasingam said, referring to the mix of ISIS supporters and displaced people in the camp.

"Just a few months ago, an Iraqi male refugee was stabbed to death by women for criticising ISIS while standing in a food line," he said.

With a shortage of guards and insufficient resources to ensure the day-to-day safety of camp occupants, the psychological and security situation is worsening.

We won the war. Now what?

“Another direction could have been taken a long time ago. The issues being dealt with now are the direct responsibility of western and other governments in central and south Asia, which washed their hands of the issue,” Mr Amarasingam said.

Both experts highlighted the established networks of psychological and sociological services in western countries, which combined with de-radicalisation programmes could have been easily tailored to help the children reintegrate into their societies.

“The problem we see repeatedly is that we don't think about what comes after military victories. We don’t think about the displaced people, what we are going to do with them, or how to bring them home, or detain them humanely and securely so that they’re not stabbing one another,” Ms Altier said.

Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration

Continuing to house 64,000 men, women and children in the squalid, prison-style conditions of Al Hol has potentially catastrophic consequences.

Long-term, inhumane detention breeds resentment, which could have a radicalising effect, Ms Altier said.

“The longer individuals are held, the more likely they are to be stigmatised by the communities on which their reintegration depends and the more difficult it is for them to envision an alternative life for themselves outside terrorism.”

Pro-social ties and a sense of community and purpose help disengage them from these extremist behaviours and aids in de-radicalisation in the long-term, she said.

“We typically think of terrorists and their supporters as deeply committed to their involvement, but many are deeply disillusioned and looking for a way out. They just need alternatives,” she said.

Ms Altier’s comments are based on a USIP report on Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration.

The long-term detainment and failure to repatriate people has reverberations in the West, which fanatics can capitalise on to further their message.

Ms Altier says that governments' lack of ownership towards their citizens in Al Hol could be used by radicals, in the UK for example, to further spread their message.

"They'll say that the unwillingness to take these individuals back is just further evidence that the state does not consider these Muslims 'British' and simply as 'second-class citizens," she said.

For now, hope is scarce but the situation can still be salvaged to some degree, she said.

“There could have been optimism if governments had planned for the detention and reintegration of these individuals, but the window of opportunity seems to have left and I'm afraid the international community has moved on.”

Although some governments believe they can wash their hands of radicalised citizens in Al Hol – who now pose a threat to the region, and perhaps the wider world if their status is not resolved, there are still tens of thousands of innocents in the camp.

For more than 30,000 children under the age of 12 who are detained, this is an issue that simply cannot be wished away. They now face a gruelling winter, forgotten by the world and still exposed to one of the most violent ideologies of modern times.