A ticking time bomb: Meeting the ISIS women of al-Hol
A pregnant woman was reportedly beaten to death this week in a Syrian refugee camp housing tens of thousands of people displaced by the war against Islamic State where they live among the militants’ wives and children in conditions described by international agencies and reporters who have visited the camp as harsh, dire, and even apocalyptic.
The woman, identified as 30-year-old Sodermini by ANHA news agency, was six months pregnant, and originally from Indonesia. On July 28, her body was discovered in a tent and taken to a hospital run by the Kurdish Red Crescent, where an autopsy determined she had suffered tremendously before she died.
The Indonesian government said it is investigating the circumstances of her death, and the woman is believed to be among about 50 Indonesian adherents to Islamic State living among about 70,000 people in the camp. It’s not known yet who killed her or why.
Children have died in the camp, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said recently that, despite the efforts of international NGOs to treat people with war wounds, infections, or who are suffering from malnutrition, the humanitarian needs in al-Hol remain “tremendous.”
Last month, Kurdish analyst and journalist Mutlu Civiroglu visited al-Hol camp and other areas managed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the de facto government in northern and eastern Syria. He found al-Hol to be a “ticking time bomb” – dangerously overcrowded, too large for the Kurdish internal security police force called the Asayish to control, and full of children deeply at risk of becoming the next generation of ISIS fighters.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Defense Post: To start, tell me about the camps. Who runs them? How many people are there –how many women, men and children? How many are believed to be ISIS adherents and their families? How many are civilians?
Mutlu Civiroglu: According to the U.N. over 70,000 people live in al-Hol Camp. UNICEF estimates that more than 90% of them are children and women. Nearly 20,000 of the children are Syrians. According to Kurdish officials I spoke with, in total there are about 30,000 ISIS women and their children from 62 different countries. They are mainly in al-Hol but also in Ain Issa and Roj camps.
The whole of al-Hol camp is very crowded. Over 70,000 people live there. Considering the very hot summer, the camp residents live under very tough circumstances.
We were there one day when it was very hot. The sewage water was outside, on the surface – a very unhygienic environment and invitation for disease and illness. There are not enough doctors or health centers, according to the people we spoke to.
Security-wise it’s very risky because it’s over-crowded, hard to control. A few weeks ago an Asayish officer was stabbed. A 14-year-old Azeri girl was killed because she was not covering her hair, according to the people on the ground. I had to go to the camp with strong protection after this incident. It’s like a ticking bomb. The Kurdish administration runs the camp but UNICEF [the U.N. children’s agency], UNHCR [the U.N. refugee agency], the Red Cross, World Health Organization, and other intergovernmental organizations are there to support them, from what I could see.
Abdulkarim Omar, head of foreign relations in Jazira canton, told me that including Syrians and Iraqis there a total of 30,000 ISIS women and children under their control and around 12,000 are foreigners (muhajirs) and 8,000 of them are children. Of course male suspected ISIS members are kept in prison in different locations. Currently some 6,000 ISIS fighters are under SDF control: 5,000 are Iraqi and Syrian, and the other 1,000 are foreigners from 55 different states.
TDP: How are they separated?
The ISIS families are separated from the rest of the Iraqis and Syrians. There are wires separating them from the rest of the refugee community in the camp, and their location is known by the security and Asayish forces.
TDP: Do they live more or less freely within the camp or are their schedules and movements restricted?
The camp residents were allowed to go out for shopping until recently, but several escape incidents took place, and some ISIS women were taken out by smugglers, so the camp administration recently banned residents from going out. Instead they set up a new market inside of the camp, called Baghuz market. The administration is more strict now.
Their movements have to be restricted because of the killings. I was told the Russian women did that [killing of a 14-year-old Azeri girl] – by Russian I mean women from Chechnya, Dagestan, the Muslim republics of Russia – so their movements are more restricted and security is tightened after these incidents. Some camp residents have complained that because they’re not allowed out of the camp, the prices became more expensive and they’re having a hard time living because things are more expensive now. But they also acknowledge that by the mistake of some of the ISIS wives they’re all suffering.
I was told that kids are encouraged by women to throw stones at the camp officials. This also creates pressure on the security forces to be more careful.
TDP: What is the food and water supply like? Medicine? Sanitation? Are international organisations helping with humanitarian needs?
Based on what I saw I think there is enough water, but because the camp is overcrowded it causes problems especially with the water and in the summer. The Red Cross, WHO and UNHCR are there to provide help in addition to the Kurdish administration. They are also in-camp hospitals and health centers being built and mobile health centers set up by the Kurdish Red Crescent, so I don’t think there is a very desperate need, but because of the large number of residents I’m sure from time to time food and water is becoming a problem. International organizations and the local government are there trying to do their best.
However, Kurdish officials are asking for more support from the international community in terms of medicine, hospitals, water and cleaning materials. They also want countries to take back their citizens so that the population of the camp will be reduced.
TDP: There were some reports recently that some women escaped – do you know how? What is internal security like?
I was told the same thing and also read that some people in the Asayish are involved in taking the women out of the camps, but Kurdish officials strongly denied that and said it’s propaganda and their members would never be involved in such a thing because money is nothing for them, and they do this because of their values.
But the way different sources explained it to me is this: The women were allowed to leave the camp before for shopping, and since they all have the black burqa on, they look alike, and when they leave, they never come back because their families arrange a smuggler who is waiting for them in the town. Once these women go out of the camp they change their clothes and they are smuggled out. Since the camp is very large it’s not possible to have 100% control. That’s why the camp administration has now stopped allowing the women to leave for shopping. According to sources it’s arranged by families who pay a large amount of money to smugglers.
Internal security is tight. There are many Asayish forces guarding the camp, and the main gate is also a checkpoint. Before you reach the camp you pass through several checkpoints on the road from Hasakah. After you enter the main gate there’s another gate that’s also well-protected, and visitors are strictly controlled. When you’re inside they give you protection so stabbing incidents won’t happen. With me I think there were four people guarding us.
But again, because of the large area and a huge number of residents it’s not very easy to control the camp, and since you don’t know what’s inside of the tents or what kind of weapons they might have it’s not 100% safe or secured.
TDP: Do the families seem to be repentant?
I observed mixed feelings. Some were defiant; for example an Egyptian woman was cursing us. She was using bad language and was very aggressive towards us, and was chanting pro-ISIS slogans. Also Russian-origin ISIS wives were very aggressive, so you see that they’re very motivated by what they’re doing. Some Turkish ISIS families seemed defiant, but at the same time I saw some Azeri women look very regretful. They seemed willing to go back home.
One Tajik woman showed me drawings by her child, saying her son drew their home and they want to go home. And you see people saying they were deceived, especially Dutch and Belgian ISIS wives, they say they believed everyone was equal but realized that the rich lived better lives, and the emirs paid money to smuggle their families out of Baghuz before the SDF took control, but these women ended up in these camps in very tough circumstances.
They were criticizing Baghdadi, saying he was in Libya living a good life but they are like this [in al-Hol], and they want their countries to take them back. When I pressured ed them, saying they had many opportunities to leave and that they came to Syria willingly, they said they are ready to be in prison in their countries, but at least their children would not live in camp conditions. They hoped even when they are in prison, their families will be able to take care of children. They were well-aware that they might spend long years in prison, which I found very interesting.
Because of the tough circumstances in the camp I think going home is a common desire. But to me the most important thing was that the vast majority of the camp residents are children, and especially children under 12. They are on the dirt, they play in dusty alleys – no playground, no sanitizing, under the sun – I think no child should be living under those circumstances, no matter what their parents did. Children have nothing to do with this, so they need to be given the opportunity to play and be a child, to flourish. They need help to get out of this trauma and be de-radicalized and rehabilitated, and the camp is no place for that. They need expert support and psychological support.
I am hoping that the governments will understand that children desperately need help, because if they stay there they will be brainwashed by their mothers. In a few years these children are going to be core ISIS members, so there’s a danger waiting for societies if these kids are not helped as soon as possible.
TDP: Do you think there’s a realistic possibility of a tribunal? Why in North and East Syria rather than the International Criminal Court, or trials in Iraq for foreigners, as with some French citizens who already have been sentenced? The Autonomous Administration isn’t recognized as a government, so how would sentences or verdicts given by the tribunal have any force in international law?
The Autonomous Administration feels like they’re under pressure because there are thousands of ISIS fighters, their wives and children. It’s a heavy burden for them to carry so they need the international community to help them. Especially after the Turkish statements about a military operation inside Syria, there are concerns that such a move may help these people to flee from the prisons and camps. But so far very few countries have taken back their citizens so the problem remains on Kurds’ shoulders and they feel like they need to do something.
The idea of an international tribunal is a step in this direction to push the international community to do more to share the burden with them.
Currently the administration is not recognized officially but a tribunal can be different. The legal experts in International Forum on ISIS conference agreed that there is a base for establishing a tribunal in Rojava because there is already a judicial system, legal experts, lawyers and with the support of the international community a tribunal could be established and it would be a good way to start to find a solution to the huge problem of post-caliphate ISIS.
Again, there are thousands of fighters under SDF control, many of their wives, and tens of thousands of children and they feel like they need to do something because so far the international community is turning a blind eye to the issue.
The caliphate was ended in March. Western countries are not open to the idea to expatriate their citizens. So the problem is with Rojava, with the Syrian Kurds. The attacks show the gravity of the situation, and since nothing is being done, Kurds and their allies feel like they need to take the initiative.
Iraq is motivated to do that in a way to clear its name that was ruined when it was overrun by ISIS. The Iraqi army fled from ISIS and left it for them. But at the same time, Iraq is also driven by the idea of revenge. Numerous ISIS members have already been executed.
The system in Rojava is more progressive and closer to Western systems and it is a better location for an international court because most of the fight was done in Syria. The caliphate’s heart was in Raqqa. Manbij is where the attacks against the West were planned. Kobani is where ISIS was first defeated and ISIS’s unstoppable advance was first prevented. Baghuz was the last remaining stronghold of the caliphate. They’re all in Syria. And the SDF, YPG, YPJ, Syriac Military Council are there so Syria is more suitable than Iraq considering these people have done the work, they have paid the highest price. These people defeated ISIS.
TDP: Are there plans to help the victims of ISIS?
There are some orphanages for the Yazidi children, de-radicalization centers for Yazidi children and other ISIS children, and some villages for Yazidi women who were not accepted back by their communities, but the resources are very limited in the Kurdish parts of Syria. Finances, expert advice and equipment are limited, so there has to be external support. The West especially should step in because the problem is very serious and requires a joint effort by Kurds and the West, especially the countries that are members of the international Coalition. The camps have the support of the international, humanitarian organizations but mainly Kurds are running them. There are great efforts, but it’s not enough.
TDP: Do you see any sign that the International Forum on ISIS conference has influenced foreign countries to change their Syria policies? Will they leave troops in the north, will they take their citizens back?
Such international forums are good venues to understand what’s happening on the ground and hear what people people on the ground – activists, experts, military and political leadership – say. It’s very important. There were representatives from the U.S., France, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other European countries, as well as South Africa. It’s important that people from different backgrounds come and learn about the situation in Syria, ISIS captives, operations against ISIS families, and also share with the local people what their countries think about it. So it’s a good platform for them, and when these people go back they talk to the public, media and think-tanks. I’m optimistic that they’ll have an impact in their own countries.
I think the countries that have a military presence in northern and eastern Syria will continue; I don’t foresee any significant change in the plans of these countries, specifically the U.S., France, Germany and others. They’ll be there because they all know the ISIS threat is not fully resolved yet. The caliphate is ended but the danger, the ideology is there, the support base is there, sleeper cells are there. CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie and Ambassador William Roebuck’s recent visit shows that the Coalition gives the same importance to Rojava.
The world has almost forgotten Syria. International foreign policy priorities change so rapidly that Syria does not have the same spot it used to have, but ISIS is a global problem and it hasn’t been fully resolved. The resolution needs a global effort. Taking back citizens from Syria is one way of doing that, because the more people who stay there, the more is it is a ticking bomb.
All countries should repatriate their citizens, and they should try these people in their countries. If not, they should support the idea of helping to set up a tribunal in Rojava so that these people can be brought to justice and pay the price for the atrocities they committed. But I think the world is still turning a blind eye, although recently I see more awareness in terms of countries taking back at least the women and children and sentencing them in their own countries instead of keeping them in Syria.