Inside the Syrian camp – ticking time bomb for another wave of Islamic State violence
Article RadarTHIS ARTICLE CONNECT:
- Islamic State ISIS is an Islamic extremist terrorist organization controlling territory in Iraq...[+]
Affected Countries: syria;
The al-Hawl Camp close to the Syria-Iraq border is no ordinary refugee camp. It is the remnants of what still remains of the Islamic State. It holds 72,000 people, most of whom are still supporters of the former terrorist group.
Thousands of their tents spread out into the desert horizon, and the camp is swathed in heat, dirt, and dust. Patrolled heavily, this camp is what the Kurdish security guards call “a ticking time bomb.”
As we enter the gates of al-Hawl, we are greeted with angry shouting. Women pick up stones, aiming them at us, as armed soldiers hold them back. A young boy stands before us proudly, exclaiming: “When the Islamic State returns, I want to be a part of it. I don’t want to be a doctor or an engineer. I want to be an attacker, an assassin!”
Although officially defeated by the Syrian Democratic Forces in March, the inhuman ideology of the Islamic State lives on in this camp.
It is now six months since the last stronghold of the Islamic State, the village of al-Baghuz, was liberated by Kurdish fighters.
“We have destroyed ISIS,” US President Donald Trump declared earlier this year. The group — which over the last few years enslaved and raped thousands of Yazidi girls, executed civilians and placed their severed heads on a stake, and attacked the center of several European cities — was finally defeated. It was a moment as hopeful as it was deceptive.
And as ISIS slowly fell, so did the news coverage. The world and the public started to devote themselves to other conflicts, which is why hardly anyone noticed what actually happened to the tens of thousands of followers of the Islamic State who remained.
While up to 14,000 fighters were locked away in prisons, their wives and children — among them 11,500 foreigners from 54 nations — were sent to al-Hawl. They are now guarded by 450 Kurdish fighters.
“We control the fences, the walls that surround the camp,” explains one of the soldiers. “But inside, the Islamic State continues to rule the camp.”
Recently, a video posted online showed people clapping enthusiastically to a black ISIS flag hoisted in the center of the camp. The soldiers told us that two people were killed with knives at night and that several women and children disappeared without a trace. In some tents, security forces also found explosives and guns.
The Kurds claim they lack the money and troops to fight effectively in the camp and that they are always expecting an attack.
In September, the underground ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on his followers in an audio message to storm the prisons and camps of the detained terrorists: “Make an effort to save your brothers and sisters! Destroy the gates and walls behind which they are imprisoned,” he said.
As we walk through the camp accompanied by four soldiers with assault rifles, we see families living under torn tarpaulins and children urinating next to freshwater pipes. Again we are surrounded by veiled women, they scream at us: “Let us go, you pigs! Enemies of Allah!”
Many stretch their right index finger into the air, the sign of the Islamic State. “God will avenge us, we will return! We are proud of our martyrs, they are our brothers!”
A lot of the women have smartphones, which they use to communicate with relatives on the outside. Many have smuggled large sums of cash into the camp, with which they can buy food and clothing at small stalls.
We want to know what they think of the foreign ISIS fighters. “We know many fighters who came from Europe. They were very good. We are proud of them,” some of them tell us.
To meet some ex-ISIS fighters personally, we sit down with Ali (not his real name). He is German, fled to join the group in 2014, and has since lost his left leg in an attack. “When you entered, you were classified either as a suicide bomber or as a fighter. I was a fighter,” Ali remembers.
He asserts that he broke with the ideology of the Islamic State and actually only came to Syria to provide humanitarian aid. Then, he tells us how ISIS gave him a house in Tal Afar, a city in northwestern Iraq.
There, ISIS warriors killed and raped women and sold them as slaves on the market. Does he understand that people are afraid of him? “Yes,” he responds.
Back in al-Hawl, we talk to a young mother, whom we call Aisha (also not her real name). She came to Syria in 2014 to be with her husband, a German ISIS fighter, Fared Saal.
“I was 19. I was in love,” she says. Saal became internationally known in 2014 when a video showed him crouching between the corpses of Syrian soldiers and civilians and ridiculing them.
“My husband never told me about his work,” says Aisha. “He always said, ‘This is none of your business.’ I still love him. He is the father of my children.”
The young mother tells us that she had already fled the Islamic State with her children in 2017 and surrendered to the Kurdish fighters. That is why she is being persecuted and threatened by the other ISIS women in the camp today.
Going to Syria, she says, was the biggest mistake of her life. “I saw burned bodies, a baby coming out of a dead mother’s womb. At some point, you become cold, numb. But this is war. You have to be clear in your head, otherwise, you will break psychologically.”
Her only goal is to get out of this camp: “A day here in this hell camp is worse than a year in prison.”
So what will happen to Aisha and the tens of thousands of other women and children in al-Hawl? Nobody knows yet.
The Kurds want to deport international ISIS supporters, but most countries are refusing to take their citizens back again. There is no aid or funding. The Red Cross recently described the camp as “apocalyptic,” and the US Department of Defense writes of “minimal security precautions.”
But the result of leaving them in al-Hawl could allow ISIS to continue to spread its ideology undisturbed. In the end, it looks as if this camp could potentially become the nucleus of a new war — the beginning of the resurrection and revenge of the Islamic State.