More than three years after its military defeat in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is a downgraded threat thanks to the collective efforts of the U.S.-led global coalition that coalesced to defeat it along with Iraqi and Syrian partners. While the extremist group’s capacity has been drastically reduced and millions of people have returned home, ISIS has managed to continue attacks year after year despite no longer holding territory. Meanwhile, some of the most difficult human legacies — the challenges facing the people the ISIS conflict left behind — are still with us, with no end in sight.

A convoy of trucks carrying people to detention camps on Nov. 2, 2019 after they had fled areas held by the Islamic State in eastern Syria. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
A convoy of trucks carrying people to detention camps on Nov. 2, 2019 after they had fled areas held by the Islamic State in eastern Syria. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

While the number of people still affected by the conflict undoubtedly reaches into the millions, the nuances of each group are important when it comes to understanding their status and formulating a response to address their problems and the lessons learned to inform future action.

One of the thorniest problems ISIS has left behind is the thousands of displaced persons affiliated or perceived to be affiliated with ISIS, who are languishing in camps or outside their areas of origin in Iraq and Syria.

Unpacking the Human Legacies of ISIS Conflict

The human legacies of the ISIS conflict range from people who have no affiliation from the perspective of the authorities and the community (important distinctions) to others having perceived affiliation, whether they are an individual or an entire family or even tribe or sect, to others with actual affiliation, who are families of actual ISIS members. This piece will focus on displaced persons, not ISIS members and detainees.

There are many people that currently treat ISIS as if is it’s yesterday’s problem. That in and of itself is a problem. Some see what remains of the ISIS conflict as a security issue that the Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) can handle. Others think there are more important priorities, like Russia’s war in Ukraine or great power competition.

But ISIS is the problem of yesterday, today and tomorrow. We have a multi-generational challenge on our hands — not just when you look back on the history of extremism in this region over the past 30 years, but also looking forward at how the next 10 to 20 years might unfold.

As General Kenneth McKenzie, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, put it to a USIP audience in 2020:“The enduring defeat of ISIS has got to incorporate a way forward for the displaced persons and all the people that are at risk across the theater; if not, we are actually never really going to defeat ISIS and the problem is going to come back.” In fact, some of these issues are already present in Iraq and Syria: Thousands of fighters are still at large, more are in prison, while their family members are vulnerable or may present vulnerability, if unaddressed.

When it comes to displacement stemming from the ISIS conflict, there is no better encapsulation of the challenges we face than al-Hol. The al-Hol camp in northeast Syria is one of the most complex manifestations of the human legacies of ISIS, with about 57,000 people from 60 countries currently living there, mostly women and children. Between al-Hol and the nearby Rozh camp, there are roughly 40,000 children (thousands are orphans) among this displaced population.

How We Talk About al-Hol Impacts Resolving the Problem

Analysts, government officials, NGO leaders and members of the community have a wide range of descriptions for al-Hol, calling it a “ticking time bomb,” the “Guantanamo of the Middle East,” an “ISIS Depot,” “ISIS University,” or “the Caliphate,” among other names. Some use these references in an attempt to raise the urgency of the need to address the crisis, while others use it to state that the camp’s residents are dangerous.

These terms are de-humanizing and work against the very objective of trying to return and reintegrate these people back into society. How could we expect countries and communities to take these people back when they are described with these kinds of names? Media outlets calling all of them “ISIS families” and sharing videos that only show a partial view that could be demonizing and counter-productive does not help. We need to come together to adopt relevant terms and descriptions that at the very least prevent harm and help with addressing the challenge.

Security both inside and around the camp is challenging. Last year, there were more than two murders per week in the camp, leading to decreased access for humanitarian actors. Current and former residents of al-Hol report that they are afraid to sleep because they could be killed while sleeping; Iraqis seem to be targeted the most. News of sexual abuse is also spreading, which could cause tensions with communities of origin for these people. And reports of smuggling into and out of the camp deepens concerns about corruption and gaps in security throughout the camp.

Meanwhile, the camp has become a target for ISIS fighters that still operate in northeast Syria. Earlier this year, ISIS orchestrated an assault on the al-Sinaa prison where a number of their fellow militants were detained. The ensuing fight left hundreds dead and helped an undetermined number of prisoners escape, demonstrating ISIS efforts to resurge and free its members from detainment. In addition to the violence, the re-establishment of al-Hisba, ISIS’ police force, in al-Hol has contributed to an environment of fear and indoctrination.

There are different elements to the ISIS conflict: the ideology, the organization that operationalized the ideology and the enabling environment, which includes the people and circumstances that facilitated the rapid rise of ISIS. The enabling environment is what gives scale to the problem as well as the solution.

Key Tracks and Steps for Addressing Complex Displacement

Putting the dehumanization of the description aside, al-Hol and the broader issue of ISIS-related displacement is not a bomb that we can run away from. Rather, we must defuse and dismantle it. There are people, organizations and countries who are trying commendably to deal with al-Hol, but so far they have fallen short of meeting the magnitude of the problem.

There are several building blocks for approaching and responding to the challenges at hand. The goal is straightforward: We want innocent people to go home and those affiliated somehow to leave ISIS and not join other extremist organizations or be exploited by them.

Not everyone who is at al-Hol is ISIS. There are many displaced persons in al-Hol and elsewhere who just need to clear themselves of the stigma, charge or perception that they are affiliated with ISIS, and it’s among this group we can make the biggest and fastest gains.

In general, we need to scale up, speed up and deepen return and reintegration efforts. To do so sustained, consolidated and coordinated leadership across the spectrum of key stakeholders is a must. This includes preserving the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, as well as the continuity of policy and operational leadership in Iraq, northeast Syria and beyond. Elections and political cycles in Iraq and the countries in the global coalition have led to personnel turnover and long-term jurisdiction issues, and this has left no focal point that can lead or follow up on the displacement challenges.

By establishing as united a front as we had when fighting ISIS, we can begin the process of addressing the most complex human legacies of the conflict. The approach and response would take place in three main stages:

1. While people are still displaced in camps like al-Hol or outside a camp

A key step is to improve security inside the camp and prevent ISIS’s access to it. Continuing to presume that all those displaced in al-Hol are affiliated with ISIS, will keep things stuck. The children and many of the women in these camps are victims of ISIS and viewing them as such could open doors to solutions. A 73-old Iraqi returnee from al-Hol, whom I met in Iraq’s Jadaa Rehabilitation Center, told me his youngest son was about 12-years old when they were displaced almost eight years ago and is now serving a 15-year sentence for in an Iraqi prison. There are thousands of orphans and women who did not choose their husband or the lives they were forced into. Many of these people are victims and need help, not penalization. Communicating these nuances to communities that oppose returns could help removing barriers to return.

In Iraq and Syria, one possible way to accelerate the return and reintegration process is to vet displaced person based on lists from tribes. Tribal leaders from western Anbar — who participated in a USIP dialogue process on these issues and recently convened with government leaders and offered themselves as partners — presented the names of 650 individuals whom they want back and identified issues that are necessary to successfully reintegrate returnees. With training and support, this process can be scaled up in Anbar and brought to other provinces. This experience shows that community barriers can be overcome and that tribal, government and civil society leaders can work together toward the customized solutions that each locality requires. There are hundreds of tribal leaders and civil society organizations (CSOs) that could be leveraged in this effort.

2. While people are in a stage of transition, such as the Jadaa Rehabilitation Center in Iraq

There is a need for pragmatism to facilitate returns. While deradicalization is an excellent intended outcome, disengagement from violence is often more feasible. People can leave violence even if they hold extreme views.

Iraq’s national security council decided in April 2021 to return the 30,000 Iraqis in al-Hol and put a process in place that different international and local organizations support. Returning Iraqis would reduce al-Hol’s population by half. The Jadaa Rehabilitation Center south of Mosul serves as the transitional stage for Iraqi returnees from al-Hol. Provided by government and non-government institutions, the center offers shelter, health, education, psycho-social and legal services and, importantly, protection. According to data from the government of Iraq, as of the end of July, 606 families (2,467 individuals) had returned in five waves since May 2021, and 391 families have already left Jadaa in nine waves. The center has the physical capacity to provide up to 2,000 tents (currently using between 500-700 depending on caseload), but it would require more facilities and personnel for health, education and psycho-social support to absorb more cases. In all my meetings, Iraqi government officials were keen to show progress in their work and capacity, but also acknowledged need and welcomed further international assistance, especially around psycho-social support. The scale and sophistication of the latter need would rise if people who are still sympathetic to ISIS, even if they don’t support it, are returned.

The SDF has partnered with Syrian tribes to rehabilitate and return Syrians in al-Hol. Thousands of Syrians left the camp, leaving about 20,000 there still, as many of them are from areas under the Assad regime and in areas under Turkish control, presenting another barrier to return.

3. Once displaced persons have reached their final destination

Be it their home community, another community in their country, in prison (if they are charged) or another country all together, displaced persons will require immense support once settled. The nature, duration, and provider of that support will vary from location to location, and most likely from one family or even individual to another.

Programming focused on female-led households and direct cash support for children — conditioned on their going to school — can reduce economic and other vulnerabilities for these families and individuals. This not only offers more power and autonomy to the mother and child, but it also reduces the burden on relatives and the host community to support returnees.

Concurrently, supporting victims of ISIS in the host communities — such as through financial compensation — is key. Lack of compensation has been a barrier to return, and communities, including tribal leaders, have been insisting that returns from al-Hol could only happen after compensation is paid. As a result of USIP-supported dialogues in western Anbar, tribal leaders agreed to work on both returns and compensation in parallel, and not to make one contingent upon the other.

Reintegration needs to be expanded and adjusted based on more nuanced assessments. This will not be risk-free. ISIS, other armed groups (including pro-Iran ones) or organized crime organizations could exploit these families. Different groups may fabricate an incident in areas of return to then go retaliate by killing, applying pressure on these families and exploiting them.

Returnees in Syria face more dire conditions. An NGO leader in Raqqa told me, “Employers in our area are SDF, ISIS, Syrian regime, and drug dealers.” A man and woman from Raqqa and who lived in al-Hol, saw lack of education as their biggest problem. The man said, “Syrian children in Raqqa born in 2006 and after are uneducated.” The women added, “We, the parents, read and write, but our children are illiterate.” This demonstrates that while returnees are vulnerable, the communities they could return to already face their own immense challenges that could be exploited by ISIS or others.

Local CSOs can serve as key partners on the ground in this stage as well, providing government and non-government institutions with much-needed implementation capacity to scale up and sustain results, minimize abuse and provide early warning in case of an individual’s reversion back to violence. CSOs, tribal leaders, schools, religious leaders, media figures and others could work together to support each other, build community resilience and present a united front against ISIS and other armed groups. The millions spent in this area can save billions more in kinetic operations and humanitarian assistance down the road.

Reintegration is critical for consolidating the gains against ISIS and mitigating its resurgence. Scaling up support for Iraqi and Syrian communities will make us all safer. Seeing return and reintegration as an extreme threat could result in hesitation to facilitate returns. There are officials and community leaders who argue that since people may come back to an environment of no jobs and services, they would be vulnerable to exploitation, especially by ISIS. This could keep people stuck in camps even longer. But leaving them in the camps is not the answer. As one Syrian NGO leader from Deir ez-Zor told me, “Keeping people in al-Hol should not be an option, we know that prison and isolation produced radicalization in Egypt, Iraq and Syria.”

There are citizens from 60 nations just in al-Hol alone. Syria, Iraq and regional partners are struggling to help their own citizens return, and simply cannot absorb all of these displaced people. Other countries need to take their people home. Several Central Asian countries have implemented repatriation programs, and their varying approaches offer a trove of lessons for other governments to follow suit.

With persistence and methodical work, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Iraqis and Syrians cannot do it on their own though. The international community cannot do it for them either. It must be a joint, sustained effort, while the coalition responds to the rising threat of ISIS in Africa.

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