After losing its last territory in Syria on March 23, 2019, the Islamic State quickly reclaimed global attention with the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21 and a video tape of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on April 29. The jihadi movement is now shifting focus to its ISIS branches, or “provinces,” in Africa, Asia and Europe. Baghdadi signaled ISIS’s expansion by formally embracing two Sunni extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. But the Islamic State’s human core—more than 100,000 fighters and their families, including children—remains clustered in the rubble of its former “caliphate” in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, they are detained in makeshift prisons, a hospital and refugee-style camps in the desert of northeastern Syria. USIP Senior Fellow Robin Wright made a rare tour of northeastern Syria to interview men and women who were part of the ISIS caliphate and to assess the risks posed by the post-caliphate crisis.
What’s the big picture in the former ISIS caliphate?
The world faces the most complex post-war challenge in decades in dealing with the dregs of the Islamic State—physically, politically and psychologically. No one had correctly estimated the tens of thousands who eventually surrendered or were captured as the caliphate collapsed. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed militia that fought ISIS, took some 9,000 prisoners. Around 2,000 are foreign fighters from dozens of countries, ranging from the United States to Russia, Tunisia to China and Morocco to the Maldives.
The Syrian Democratic Forces had to create “pop-up prisons”— converting an unused school, an oil storage facility and other small compounds—to hold all the fighters. The prison I visited at Dashisha was crude and understaffed. It was filled with 1,500 fighters in four days. Each cell contained more than two dozen men crushed together and sitting on the floor. I visited a local hospital at al-Shaddadi [south of al-Hasakah] that had to take in hundreds of badly injured ISIS fighters. The Syrian and Iraqi fighters were six to a room; the foreign fighters were crammed into the basement. The main basement room had close to 70 men lying on mats; the stench from infections was overwhelming. The Syrian Democratic Forces were paying for their food and care by reducing the pay of their own soldiers. For the SDF, neither the prisons nor the hospital are sustainable without more international help and collaboration in figuring out the future of these men.
One issue now is what to do with the prisoners. The SDF is a militia, not a state. It does not have the expertise, facilities, resources or staff to cope with so many men indefinitely. Many governments do not want to take back their citizens for several reasons: There is scant evidence of what crimes each fighter committed as the basis for charging or trying them. Some countries are even wary of jailing the ISIS fighters for fear they might infect the prison population with their ideology. Iraq has pledged to take back its 31,000 citizens—fighters and families—but it is already struggling to cope with more than 20,000 members of ISIS in Iraq.
What about the rest of the ISIS population?
After the fall of the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, in October 2017, ISIS fighters and their families fled down the Euphrates River—from town to town—until they reached Baghouz on the border with Iraq. The final battle for Baghouz began in early 2019. But neither the U.S.-led coalition nor the SDF grasped the numbers of civilians who had ended up in the farming hamlet. Besides the fighters, another 74,000 family members, mainly women and children, surrendered and were transferred to a detainee camp in al-Hol. Of those, 65 percent were under the age of 18; 23 percent were under the age of five. Some of the wives of fighters boasted that they are breeding the next generation of ISIS militants for the next caliphate.
The problem of what to do with ISIS families is also daunting. Many governments do not want them to return home since they would be free unless charged with crimes. Others come from countries, such as Libya and Yemen, that are basically failed states and have few mechanisms to cope with them. Some families do not want to return to their countries of origin—notably the Uighurs of China and the Chechens of Russia--because they are members of persecuted minorities. The secondary issue is how to deradicalize them after up to five years of living under the Islamic State and embracing its beliefs and practices. A few countries—Kazakhstan, Morocco and Oman—have taken a few of their citizens, but most Western governments, including many that were members of the U.S.-led coalition of more than 70 countries, have been reluctant to absorb either fighters or their families. The aftermath of the Islamic State caliphate has produced a humanitarian catastrophe that could linger for years—even decades—without greater international attention and resources. U.S. officials claim there has not been a post-war problem so politically fraught since the end of World War II.
You went to the al-Hol camp for ISIS families. What is brewing there?
The U.S.-led coalition, the SDF and international health and aid groups were all ill-prepared to cope with the numbers. When I visited al-Hol, women and children, most covered in filth and with few material possessions, were still being trucked in. They were divided by nationality: Iraqi and Syrian families on one side; foreign families from other countries in a separate area. There were initially not enough tents to hold them all; one Uighur woman from China, who had two small children, told me that they had slept out in the cold at night and were in desperate need of blankets. Again, the stench was overwhelming. The most hard-core women were also trying to re-create the caliphate inside the camp by enforcing ISIS rules or reprimanding women who talked to men or foreign reporters.
Al-Hol represents a humanitarian disaster with long-term consequences. The dilemma now is what to do with 74,000 people living in unsustainable conditions with limited international interest in supporting ISIS families? Is there any way to de-radicalize these women or prevent the radicalization of the children? Given the demographics – that the majority are children – this is the place that may well generate the next generation of ISIS. These people could be in this camp or others like it for decades. I’ve covered the Middle East since the 1973 war; I’ve seen the dreariest Palestinian refugee camps, the chaos of Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war, and I’ve never felt the depth of despair that I felt in al-Hol.
Can the former ISIS fighters be rehabilitated?
The most innovative project I saw was a home-grown rehabilitation program—with no significant resources—conducted by tribes for their members in ISIS. The SDF made a deal with the Arab tribes: In exchange for the tribes’ support in the fight against ISIS, the SDF would hand over tribal members for rehabilitation as long as the men were not implicated in major crimes.
I visited a pilot program in al-Karamah, a town of about 40,000 on the outskirts of Raqqa. It’s a conservative area where Salafism thrives; many of the men I saw wore the short thobes emulating the early Islamic era of the Prophet Mohammed. Rehabilitation was run by tribal sheikhs who preached rebuilding the community rather than destroying it. I interviewed two “graduates” of the program—one released a few days earlier and one freed in September 2018—and both claimed they would not go back to ISIS. But neither had a job or a means of supporting their families. So rehabilitation is possible, but it will work only with significant international support for the physical rebuilding of eastern Syria—and the same will be true for Iraq.
Physically, what do you see in northeastern Syria?
Life is beginning to return in shattered towns along the Euphrates River Valley. Schools are reopening. I saw little girls with pony tails carrying pastel backpacks en route to class. Women have shed the black niqab (which covers even the face) required by ISIS; they have reemerged from their homes. I saw women, without male escorts, headed to reopened markets or sitting with husbands having morning tea in the spring sun. This is a conservative, tribal part of Syria, so many women still wear headscarves, or hijab, but I saw women wearing bright red, purple and blue scarves and patterned dresses. Life is no longer literally black.
There also signs of reconstruction, often with very limited resources and even in devastated cities such as Raqqa. I was struck by one common sight: Massive tumbleweeds of rusted steel scavenged from the rubble of destroyed buildings. At several outdoor workshops, men were hammering the rods to straighten them for use as reinforcement rods—or rebars—to rebuild. I saw trucks ferrying them to sites for the foundations of new buildings. The destruction, much of it by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition that targeted ISIS facilities, is horrendous. But the destruction in Raqqa was actually not as pervasive as in Iraq’s West Mosul, which was the largest city under ISIS control. It is going to take many years, potentially decades, to rebuild the areas devastated by the war against the Islamic State.