HASAKAH, Syria – The Syrian Democratic Forces is struggling to secure thousands of Islamic State adherents languishing in prisons across northeast Syria, a situation made worse by the Turkey-led invasion last month that has overwhelmed the supply lines and forced the redeployment of guards to the front lines.
During a visit to a detention facility for ISIS prisoners on Tuesday, November 12, a small contingent of guards kept watch over hundreds of men crammed into large rooms. The prisoners are wearing orange jumpsuits indistinguishable from the ones they forced captives to wear before executions that were broadcast on social media. Two thousand of them are sick of wounded, according to the prison warden, Hussein, yet he says they are still dangerous men.
In another area of the prison, the guards cautioned us not get our faces near a small opening in a secure door. We could take pictures, they said, but these men were the ones who attacked a few months ago, and they were dangerous. In that incident, one man pretended to be dead and others rushed the guards when they went to retrieve the body. Ten men escaped the cell but not the prison, they said.
Prisoners were able to overwhelm the guards because the SDF had redeployed some of the guards miles away to the front lines when the Turkish military and affiliated rebels fighting under the banner of the Syrian National Army invaded northeast Syria on October 9.
The SDF was ill-prepared for the invasion because they had a relationship with their Coalition partners that was based on trust and a mutual understanding: the SDF and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) contingent would fight ISIS and keep watch over captured fighters and their families, and the U.S. would keep troops at the border to deter Turkey.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had for months been threatening to invade the area in order to oust the predominately Kurdish YPG, which Ankara considers inextricably linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. Some senior SDF figures are former PKK, but the YPG was nonetheless the Coalition’s best hope to destroy ISIS, which once controlled an area the side of Great Britain across Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Despite the coordination between the SDF and the Coalition on the ground, two staff members told us there is no money from the Americans for the detention center.
The prison was put together about four months ago and holds 5,000 men, including 3,700 captured in Baghuz, where ISIS made its last stand in Syria seven months ago. The others are from battles in Raqqa, Tabqa and Manbij. Their wives and children are held in camps nearby, but most of the men say they don’t know where.
The situation in these facilities is not sustainable, and the Islamic State gestated in prisons like this. A senior U.S. State Department official on Monday said “it is a ticking time bomb to simply have the better part of 10,000 detainees, many of them foreign fighters, and tens of thousands of family members in a situation that is not all that secure.”
The ISIS prisoners are in an information blackout, so they aren’t supposed to know about the incursion, or that their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed on October 27. Nonetheless, one man told The Defense Post that the prisoners began to feel hope again “about a month ago.”
“That’s when you [journalists] began showing up,” said the man, who identified himself as Bassem, originally from the Netherlands.
There are some indications the prisoners are coordinating their stories: two men told us they were given only a piece of bread and seven dates to eat every day – a claim we were later told was untrue, but had no other explanation for. Two also said the last time they saw their families was on February 26, the day they were captured near Baghuz.
The Defense Post agreed not to reveal the names or faces of any guards we met at the prison, or to give its exact location. We also agreed not to take photographs of the outside areas for security reasons, but guards said it had already been fired on, and another nearby site was attacked in a car bombing.
Putting more pressure on the security situation is the worsening humanitarian crisis: the prison needs about 2,000 liters of water a day. That used to be piped from wells in areas have become the front line of the war with Turkey. The wells were bombed and the line destroyed, so now the water has to be delivered. A tanker truck marked “drinking water” was parked outside when we arrived. Food is also a problem, and Hussein said some guards are buying food for the prisoners out of their own supplies.
People are also in desperate need of medical treatment. The stench from the few hundred men crammed into the meshfah, or clinic, is overwhelming. We spoke to a Syrian man and three foreign fighters through medical masks.
Bassem, the Dutch-Egyptian man, was visibly injured and two other prisoners carried him to a bed just on the other side of the fence separating us. He said he hadn’t been able to walk since he was hit in a Coalition airstrike in Raqqa in 2015. Before that, he worked in construction, mostly building houses, he said.
He said he and his family were captured by the SDF and U.S. troops outside Baghuz on February 26, but, like many other ISIS prisoners interviewed since the city fell, he said wanted to leave the self-declared caliphate sooner but there was no safe way to flee. The routes out were filled with landmines, he said.
“We have actual fighters in here,” said Basil, a Syrian from Damascus who acts as a middle-man between guards and the other prisoners. He also insists he was a civilian, but before joining ISIS he defected from the Syrian army.
ISIS is notoriously full of “chefs”: so many ISIS captives over the years have claimed they were only cooks that it’s become something of a meme among people who watch the group.
Despite Basil’s insistence and the near impossibility of none of these thousands of men not being fighters, no one we spoke to admits to being a militant. Isaac, from London, worked with cars before he joined ISIS. He has a scar on his temple that he says is from a skull fracture, and claims he woke up in Shaddadi after three months in a coma and was somehow later brought to Baghuz. There are large gaps in everyone’s stories, mostly in how they got from one place to another, and why they were all in cities with big battles in which they somehow didn’t fight.
Lirim Sylejmani is one such man. He’s an American citizen, originally a refugee from Kosovo, who got to Islamic State via Canada, Kosovo and then Turkey. In a private interview away from the other prisoners, he couldn’t account for how he managed to survive in ISIS territory for four years without working. He insisted he survived on handouts from “other brothers,” after joining ISIS for free housing and being trained as a fighter but never firing any shots in battle. He said he was an engineer but couldn’t find work.
The men we spoke to all also say they are ready to face punishment in their home countries, if they will have them. Yassif says his wife, Mandy, and their five children shouldn’t be punished for what he did.
“I made a mistake,” he said.
Isaac, the British man, says he hasn’t heard from the U.K. government. He claims to have been interrogated by Americans, and know that other prisoners from the United Kingdom with another citizenship have had their Britishness revoked, but he has no other nationality to cling to. Instead, he advocates a “diplomatic solution,” similar to what the United States “did with the KKK.”
None of the men’s home countries seem to want them back. This week Turkey started to deport foreign fighters, some of which it said were from Denmark, France, German, Ireland and the U.S. Some countries, mostly in Eastern Europe but also in Africa and Asia, have taken back citizen children whose parents were killed in the war. The U.S. brought home an American woman who claims her husband duped her into traveling to Syria.
Part of the problem is none of the men will admit to crimes. Traveling to Iraq and Syria was illegal in few jurisdictions when Baghdadi proclaimed the “caliphate” in 2014, and most countries don’t have a offense similar to that in the U.S. of “providing material support for terrorism” that could keep someone off the streets for decades.
Rehabilitating ISIS members
Rostam, 37, is from Anbar. He also insisted he never even pledged bayyah, or allegiance, to Baghdadi – a requirement for someone to actually join ISIS – but was forced to live under the group’s command in Iraq and then was later brought to Syria.
In an interview in another part of the prison, Rostam shook my hand. The guards had three of his paintings on display – one depicting warplanes flying over Kobani – where Kurds in 2015 halted a bloody six-month ISIS onslaught with the help of U.S. airstrikes – one of a family walking in a forest, and one of a young boy who has become a symbol of civilians harmed during Turkey’s attack on northeast Syria. That Rostam had access to this image, which was taken after the boy and several other civilians were possibly exposed to white phosphorus in a Turkish airstrike, suggests he may not be subject to the same information blackout as others.
That’s because Rostam exemplifies the idea of rehabilitation. In his telling of the story, he was an artist “before ISIS” and cobbled together a small tank from bits of cardboard he found in the prison. The guards took his tank away, so he made soldiers. Then someone understood.
Rostam’s face lights up when he talks about his art. He says when the guards first brought him paint supplies, he was overjoyed that he could do something beautiful. “It’s like a new beginning,” he says.
“Some people don’t have the courage” to do what he did, he says, because art depicting human forms is subject to punishment under ISIS’s interpretation of Islam.
Anbar province fell under ISIS control early in the war, and at least 70% of it was part of the group’s territory by June 2014. It’s difficult to know how many people were eager to take up the black flag and who was just trying to survive.
“Not everyone had the same ideas under Islamic State,” he says, insisting again that he was just a civilian. “We were victims of war.” He has a wife and two children in Iraq who he hasn’t seen them for more than five years, and he wants to go home.
The guards later insisted Rostam did fight. Nonetheless, Hussein, the warden, thinks Rostam could be a model for others. He wants to start an art therapy program, turn an outside yard into a place for recreation, and implement de-radicalization programs. He’s worried that the invasion will push closer, because the guards will have to defend their lands at the expense of unleashing ISIS on the world again.