During its heyday in 2014-2015, the Islamic State group conquered and ruled over great tracts of Iraq and Syria. It took four years but the US coalition, relying heavily on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, slowly but surely won back ISIS-held territory, squeezing its fighters into an increasingly tight enclave. The final battle took place on Saturday, March 23, 2019, in the village of Baghuz on the banks of the Euphrates, on Syria’s eastern border.
But just before the last stand, tens of thousands of ISIS supporters, almost all of them women with their children, fled the battleground. Kurdish officials directed them to a camp for displaced persons set up some 220 kilometers (140 miles) to the north at Al-Hol. And there they have remained, a mixture of Syrians, Iraqis, and foreigners from around the world who had been attracted to the extreme Islamist concepts espoused by ISIS.
At the end of September 2019, the population of the Al-Hol encampment stood at just under 70,000. Living conditions are appalling. The tents were freezing cold in the winter and have been swelteringly hot this summer, with temperatures rising as high as 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit). In the early months, latrine facilities were primitive, much of the water was contaminated and medical care was limited. As a result, child deaths soared. In the nine months to August 31, 2019, 406 deaths were registered in the camp, of which 313 were children under the age of 5.
Some relief is being provided by relevant UN organizations. For example, UNICEF and its partners are now trucking in nearly 2 million liters (530,000 gallons) of water every day, and have installed tanks, showers, latrines, and water purification units. But the gap between the funding required and the funding provided by relief organizations is currently more than $25 million. It is likely to grow because the prospects of shipping out the inhabitants and closing the Al-Hol camp are negligible.
The Kurdish authorities overseeing the camp have pleaded for the non-Syrians to be allowed to return to their own countries, but only a few states – including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan – have repatriated their citizens on a large scale. Western governments have refused to take back any except a few young children.
On September 3, 2019, The New York Times reported fights between camp residents, some women attacking or threatening others with knives and hammers. Twice, in June and July, women stabbed the Kurdish guards who were escorting them, sending the camp into lockdown
On September 30, The Daily Telegraph reported that a female ISIS supporter was killed and seven others injured during an exchange of gunfire over a secret Sharia court set up in Al-Hol. A group of female ISIS supporters ordered several other women in the foreigners’ section to be flogged for refusing to attend an informal Quranic studies class. Kurdish guards intervened and opened fire after one of the ISIS members pulled out a pistol that had reportedly been smuggled into the camp.
Former Syria adviser to the Pentagon Jasmine El-Gamal described the situation at Al-Hol as “a full-blown security threat.” For the leaders of ISIS, however, Al-Hol represents a golden opportunity. It is a hub from which regrouping of the organization as a whole is already underway.
“We started to notice that the new arrivals were very well organized,” says director Mahmoud Karo. “They organized their own moral police. They are structured.”
Beneath a cloak of secrecy, the radical women inhabitants have continued to enforce the draconian laws of the former so-called caliphate. The police women’s allegiance to ISIS, punishing those suspected of wavering in their support.
A Pentagon report in August warned that a drawdown of the US military presence in the area has allowed “ISIS ideology to spread ‘uncontested’ in the camp.”
Growing extremism in Al-Hol runs parallel to signs of ISIS resurgence elsewhere in the region. ISIS attacks in northwestern Iraq, just over the Syrian border, are becoming more frequent.
At Al-Hol, ISIS is masterminding its resurgence while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. With only a few exceptions, the governments concerned have dumped the problem into the lap of the Kurds. While finding minimal resources to ease the humanitarian problems of housing 70,000 women and children, they persistently ignore the equally pressing security issues that are fomenting inside the camp.
On both humanitarian and security grounds, Al-Hol is a problem demanding the world’s immediate attention.
Tasneem al Moustafa, the girl with Romanian origins and citizenship, is now in custody of the Kurds. Kurdish leaders acknowledge that “the girl was in a very bad condition” and say they are waiting for the Romanians to discuss!
Iraq offers to try foreign IS suspects, for a price
Iraq has offered to put on trial hundreds of accused foreign jihadists in Baghdad in exchange for millions of dollars, potentially solving a legal conundrum for Western governments but sparking rights concerns.
Western countries have been rocked by fierce public debate over whether to repatriate citizens who joined the Islamic State group, which held swathes of Iraq and Syria for years before losing its last speck of land last month.
Iraq has submitted a proposal to the US-led coalition that fought the jihadists, offering to try and sentence foreign IS suspects in exchange for operational costs, three Iraqi officials told AFP.
“These countries have a problem, here’s a solution,” one said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to give details to the press.
The source said Iraq had proposed a rate of $2 million per suspect per year, a calculation based on the estimated per-capital detention costs in the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison.
“We made the proposal last week but have not gotten a response yet,” the source added.
A second official said Iraq had requested $2 billion to try the suspects as “one of several options”, and could ask for “more money to cover the costs of their detention”.
– ‘Special tribunal’? –
Iraq has already tried several hundred IS foreign jihadists and handed down death sentences to around 100, none of which has been carried out.
Other IS suspects have been condemned to life in Iraqi prison, including French nationals.
Detainees from as many as 52 countries could be tried by Baghdad under the arrangement, a third Iraqi official told AFP.
“Iraq proposed to the coalition setting up a special tribunal to try foreigners. There’s been a constructive beginning to those discussions,” the source said.
But establishing the court could be complicated, the official said, with questions over whether international funding for it would preclude implementation of death sentences.
The source added that Iraq proposed the arrangement to the US-led coalition as a whole because it was simpler than negotiating with individual countries.
Transferring foreign fighters to Iraq for trial appears to resolve a thorny legal debate for Western powers.
On the one hand, the Kurdish-run administration in northern Syria has said it does not have the capacity to try all foreigners, calling for an international tribunal to be established there.
But it is not an internationally recognized government, so jurisdiction is dubious.
On the other hand, repatriation is a politically-fraught issue, and governments fear they may not have enough evidence to convict IS members who claim they did not fight.