AL-HOL, Syria – Chain-link fence surrounds the al-Hol camp for ISIS-affiliated families in eastern Syria. The camp is a sprawling tent city with a population much bigger than the eponymous town next to it. It houses families of ISIS fighters in sections for Syrian, Iraqi and foreign citizens, as well as displaced people who were living in ISIS territory.
When Turkey invaded northeast Syria last month, Kurdish-led forces guarding al-Hol reduced their presence there to head to the border and fight. Since then, neither the forces nor the fence can keep the ISIS families inside, according to a Kurdish official responsible for the foreign section of the camp.
“We can’t control them,” Elul Rizgar told InsideOver. “The fence around the camp is weak.” Some ISIS families are escaping al-Hol in the chaos that followed Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria, including foreigners who still cling to ISIS ideology.
The Al-Hol camp is in the Hasakah province in a desert area near the Iraqi border. The latest UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for October puts the population at 68,744 people. Some healthcare providers stopped operations in the camp due to the conflict between the SDF and Turkey, but food, water and winter preparation services are continuing, according to the report. In previous months, the camp suffered from contaminated water, dirty bathroom facilities and other poor living conditions.
The residents are divided into Syrian, Iraqi and foreign sections, in part to keep the different nationalities from fighting each other. The majority of the residents are women and children, but some men live in the Iraqi and Syrian sections. Male ISIS fighters are in prisons elsewhere in northeast Syria. Soldiers in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who are both Kurds and Arabs staff the camp’s security centres and the checkpoints leading up to it.
In October, Turkey began its long-planned military operation against the Kurdish-led and US-backed SDF that controls most of northeast Syria after defeating ISIS there. Turkey considers the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) – a Kurdish group that leads the multi-ethnic SDF – to be the
Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group in Turkey. Turkey plans a “safe zone” penetrating Syrian territory where it seeks to remove the YPG and also resettle Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, which Kurds say is an attempt at ethnic cleansing.
Turkey, along with its Syrian rebel allies, attacked the SDF after the US announced it would remove its troops from Syria, where they were supporting the SDF against ISIS remnants. The US later sent troops back to Syria.
‘Security situation getting worse’
Faced with fighting a NATO army and receiving unclear support from the US and the Syrian army, SDF and Kurdish Asayesh security forces reduced their presence around al-Hol following the Turkish attack. There were 400 SDF and Asayesh members near al-Hol before the war with Turkey, but now there are only 300, according to Rizgar.
“The security situation has been getting worse since the Turkish invasion,” said Rizgar, sitting in her office near the camp entrance. “The residents have been burning tents and killing each other.”
The weak fencing around the camp is allowing residents to escape, according to Rizgar. “They can cut it and go through,” she said. The escapees make use of the largely barren desert area around al-Hol, and are also assisted by ISIS sleeper cells in the area.
“They escape through smugglers and ISIS sleeper cells outside the camp,” said Rizgar. “They walk, then they go by car.” Numbers on the total number of escapees since the conflict with Turkey vary, but some foreigners have escaped, raising the risk that they’ll return to their home countries and carry out attacks. Mahmoud Kro, a Kurdish official in the camps department in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which is the autonomous government in SDF territory, said that 120 individuals have escaped al-Hol since the Turkish invasion. “120 people escaped – Syrians, Iraqis and foreigners,” Kro, in Hasakah, told InsideOver via WhatsApp. “Around 40 foreigners of different nationalities.”
A similar number of people tried to escape but were arrested, according to Kro. In late October, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that German, Turkish and Uzbek ISIS families tried to escape al-Hol, but were arrested. There have been other successful escape attempts since the war with Turkey broke out, according to the SOHR.
Rizgar said that 120 families escaped in the same timeframe, but were arrested in the Hasakah province and returned to the camp. She said others escaped successfully, but that she is unsure of how many total individuals.
Regarding ISIS fighters in Kurdish prisons in Syria, US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey said that more than 100 have escaped since the US withdrawal announcement and Turkey-SDF war.
US President Donald Trump as well as Syrian Kurdish leaders have repeatedly asked European countries to take back their citizens from Syria who are accused of joining ISIS. Few have returned so far, though. Some countries, like Austria, Denmark and Albania have taken back some children of alleged ISIS members, according to the UN report. The UK also took back some children in November.
“Infidels have to have their heads cut”
Two SDF guards watch the fence allowing access to the foreign section of al-Hol, where residents of Pakistani, Russian, Tajik, Dutch and various other nationalities live. There is a small market staffed by Russian women near the entrance. Most of the women wear the black full-body cover that ISIS demands, but some now show their faces. Many ask for their picture not to be taken.
The level of Arabic-language knowledge varies among the foreign residents. Some barely speak it, while others can converse in standard Arabic, which is derived from the classical Arabic used in the Quran. The children here dress as Syrian youth do. Their future is unclear as the offspring of parents whose countries largely do not want them back.
Many of their mothers still share ISIS’ extremist ideology. Aysha Mohammed Amin came from “Turkistan” – the name some Chinese Uighur Muslims use to refer to their homeland– to Syria in 2014 to join ISIS with her husband. She is the mother of two children and arrived in the camp in February from Baghouz – ISIS’ last Syrian stronghold.
Amin said that life under ISIS was “free” from the repression she faced in China.
“The Islamic State gave us freedom for the hijab and to educate our children in a good way, thank Allah,” she told InsideOver in Arabic. “The hijab was forbidden in Turkistan…and we couldn’t read the Quran there.” Muslims in China face considerable repression, and more than a million are currently in internment camps.
Amin’s beliefs go far beyond wearing Islamic clothing and reading the Muslim holy book, however. She said she agreed with ISIS’ brutal punishment of people they deemed to be non-believers. “If they are infidels, they have to have their heads cut,” she said when asked if she witnessed anything bad in ISIS territory.
Many of the women maintain that life under ISIS was good, raising the risk that escapees will continue ISIS activity once they are out. Shugufta Parawir moved from her native Pakistan to ISIS territory in Syria in 2016 to follow her husband. In February, she came to al-Hol by way of Baghouz.
“Women had more respect and had to cover,” she told InsideOver in English on life under ISIS. “In our country, women go out uncovered and exposed.” “Women should only expose themselves to their husbands.” Adding to Kurdish officials’ fears, some residents have a lukewarm view of Turkey. Um Zahra, from the desert Anbar province in Iraq, said she fears both Turkey and the Syrian government taking control of the camp, but that the former would be better. “We fear them both, but Turkey would be better than the (Syrian) regime because the regime would kill us,” she told InsideOver.
In the town of al-Hol next door, some residents fear the glutton of ISIS members so close by. “They’re all ISIS,” Mohammed Qasim, a barber on the town’s main street, told InsideOver. “The camp scares us.”
‘A danger to the whole world’
Kurdish commanders repeatedly said they may need to abandon al-Hol if a war with Turkey came to fruition. Now that they are fighting Turkey, the top SDF commander Mazloum Kobani said that fighting ISIS is a “second priority.” But officials in al-Hol say they are committed to staying and guarding the ISIS-affiliated families as best they can. Rizgar said the families continue indoctrinating children, and that if they aren’t in al-Hol, will carry out attacks elsewhere. “Here there is also terrorism,” said Rizgar on why they continue protecting the camp. “They hit us here or there.” “They’re a danger not just to us, but to the whole world, especially Europe.”