The Al-Hawl displacement camp in the city of Hasaka, Syria witnessed the murders of six people in May 2022 alone. These deaths increased the number of documented murders in the camp to a total of 24 since the beginning of the year, and the mysterious January 2022 killing of an aid worker in Al-Hawl posed an unprecedented threat to the humanitarian and medical organizations working to assist the more than eight thousand female jihadists and wives and widows of ISIS fighters living there. The camp, which is home to more than 65,000 people, is located near the Syria-Iraq border and represents a security challenge to these two states, and to the broader region, primarily because it hosts a large number of female ISIS affiliates.
The most recent killings are blamed on the hardline ISIS women residing in Al-Hawl. These so-called ISIS wives, who come from more than 60 countries around the world, have been living in the camp since the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the fall of its self-proclaimed caliphate in March 2019. Based on data from Save the Children, an estimated 7,300 children currently reside in the camp. According to the organization, these children have done nothing wrong and are in need in of protection. Despite this reality, some international actors have assumed that, in the absence of repatriation, these children will be radicalized to accept ISIS ideology by remaining ISIS-affiliates in the camp and instilled with the desire to avenge their fathers who were killed or taken prisoner during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the American-led international coalition.1
In an attempt to uphold ISIS ideology and norms within the camp, these women have formed their own religious police units known as “Hesba.” Hesba units do not hesitate to administer harsh punishment, including murder, to local and international aid workers as well as to other women in the camp who attempt to sever their ties to the terrorist organization. This parallel Hesba system represents the biggest challenge to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and their security forces guarding the camp.
In fact, AANES and human rights organizations fear the camp will create a new generation of radical militants and pave the way for an ISIS resurgence in the region. Their hypothesis is made more plausible by the fact that these ISIS women have repeatedly attempted to escape the camp and to communicate with the outside world using covert phones to access social media platforms. Relying on the informal Hawala-style transfer services abundantly available in the camp, they have also collected funds from jihadist supporters abroad.
According to a report issued by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Asayish—the security forces of AANES—have managed to thwart the escape of some 200 women of different nationalities with their children from the camp. However, while the SDF still maintains control over Al-Hawl and has even announced the dismantling of ISIS sleeper cells within, its ability to secure the camp was weakened by repeated clashes with ISIS militants that took place in early 2022 when ISIS conducted a brazen attack on an SDF prison to free incarcerated fighters. Following the attack, fierce clashes then took place in March 2022 between Al-Hawl guards and ISIS cells, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries. As a result of these security breaches, the camp has become more vulnerable to ISIS attempts to free female affiliates who could form an ideal nucleus for larger terrorist cells outside the camp.
Since the authorities in charge of Al-Hawl have now allowed Syrian and Iraqi citizens who have not been found guilty of crimes to return to their home countries, the key issue remaining is that of foreign jihadists prevented from returning to their countries of origin. Yet, in the face of severe security challenges, the international community continues to ignore the calls of AANES and the SDF which both demand the repatriation of foreign nationals. Many of the Asian and European countries of which these women are citizens have been very reluctant to take them back, arguing that enhanced vetting mechanisms must be put in place before repatriation can proceed on a case-by-case basis. Marie Dose and Ludovic Riviere, two French lawyers representing a number of women residing in Al-Hawl, said in a statement that France has turned down numerous calls for repatriation, including for the children of foreign fighters trapped in the camp.
A variety of states, including Albania, Germany, Russia, France, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, and some Central Asian countries, have taken small numbers of their citizens back from the camp, particularly women and children. However, western European countries have been particularly reluctant to repatriate their citizens, claiming that many of them still represent a threat to European security and agreeing only to repatriate orphaned children. These countries have also ignored the call of AANES to establish tribunals to try jihadists in Syria where the local authorities refrain from prosecuting non-Syrian nationals and only transfer some of them to other displacement camps such as Ain Issa and Roj. As for Syrian citizens, they are either tried or released following tribal mediation carried out by the region's elders.
While some EU countries have explored the possibility of prosecuting jihadists in Syria, obstacles seemed too great for this to be feasible given the risk of unfair trials and the likelihood of inadequate jail sentences. Imprisonment also poses potential difficulties as imprisoned foreign fighters could influence other inmates and radicalize them while in prison. Furthermore, once these fighters are released, they could attempt to rejoin ISIS.
Although most European countries now have legislation with an average sentence of five years of imprisonment that allows for the prosecution of returnees belonging to or supporting a terrorist group, European officials worry that bringing ISIS members home will create a huge burden for the security services which will be tasked with monitoring their activities. In the UK, the average sentence for membership in a terrorist group is seven years, and British authorities have also revoked the citizenship of several British nationals who traveled to join ISIS in the Middle East. France stands out among EU member states for imposing longer sentences as a Paris court sentenced a defendant to 14 years in prison for the crime of “association of wrongdoing in relation to a terrorist enterprise.”
As European countries still delay taking action, the SDF is left to deal with the deteriorating conditions in Al-Hawl as well as the aftermath of the cross-border military operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in October 2019. The Turkish operation and the volatile security situation in the camp have forced many international aid organizations to withdraw their services. Human Rights Watch has warned of dire living conditions in Al-Hawl which have forced residents to drink wash water from worm-infested tanks, leading children to contract skin rashes, severe diarrhea, and flu-like infections. Human Rights Watch also indicated that negotiations with the Syrian government on humanitarian access are often difficult. Indeed, many humanitarian agencies with agreements to work in Syria must obtain permission to access Al-Hawl through Damascus because the AANES is not an internationally recognized government.
These challenges are only exacerbated by the fact that Kurdish authorities do not have the resources or structures to look after the needs of the tens of thousands of people they currently guard. Additionally, the threat of a new Turkish offensive on the territory’s border is likely to create more mayhem in Al-Hawl just as it did in Ain Issa during the 2019 attack. A high-level UN delegation visited the camp recently, and after evaluating the situation on the ground, they warned of the threat posed by “keeping people in restricted and poor conditions” to the security of the entire region.
Cognizant of such risks, there is no doubt that the most effective solution to the problem of Al-Hawl—along with the Roj and Ain Issa displacement camps—is the repatriation of female ISIS affiliates and their children. States should bring these women home and develop and implement appropriate strategies to prosecute, rehabilitate, and reintegrate them. This is the only viable option to ensure that displacement camps in Syria do not become an everlasting embodiment of the ideology and practices of ISIS, fueling resentment and inspiring terrorism.
Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist, specializing in Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of the French Press Syndicate SNJ. You can follow him on Twitter.
1. Correction: This piece originally connected Save the Children's data to assessments about children becoming radicalized in Al-Hawl. These two claims have been disentangled.