“When we grow up, we will slaughter you,” say the children as they throw rocks at the woman reporter and run away. The children are ages 1 to 12. Several adult women can be seen in the background. They are covered head to toe in the black veils of ISIS.
One boy stops and speaks to the reporter directly. He appears to be about seven years old. “When I grow up, I will behead you,” he says. Why? Because she is a woman who does not follow ISIS ideology, a strict, anti-feminist code of conduct in which women are considered the property of men.
This shocking scene appears in a video captured by reporter Rola Al-Khatib and shown on the news channel Al-Arabiya. The scene occurred as she was walking in the Al-Hawl camp last month — a massive camp in North and East Syria that is called “The City of ISIS.” The children are being held there, with their mothers and caretakers. Tens of thousands of children are there being fed a steady diet of ISIS ideology, every single day, with little to no contact with the outside world.
In ten years, these children will become the next wave of so-called “Islamic extremism.” It is an inevitable reality. Unless the international community takes action to help them.
In his first address to Congress this week, US President Joe Biden asserted his admirable intention to end the “forever war” by withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan. But a solution to the “forever war” must address the children being raised on ISIS extremism.
Former US President Donald Trump announced the defeat of ISIS with a flourish in March 2019, when our forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), overran the last ISIS stronghold with the help of the United States and others. The recently-released New York Times bestselling book, “The Daughters of Kobani,” tells the story of the all-woman military unit that helped battle ISIS.
But ISIS was never totally defeated. It still lives. It’s just that now, it lives within the walls of the Al-Hawl camp.
Al-Hawl camp is a mammoth network of thousands of long-term refugee tents and a few permanent structures just east of Hasakah, in the democratic, autonomous region of North and East Syria. The camp has collected over 70,000 former ISIS soldiers, supporters, and their families, who came to Syria to fight from 57 different countries.
These ISIS detainees try to live in their tent city as if they were in the capital city of their caliphate. Despite the best efforts of the guards, the detainees still uphold their strict ISIS codes of conduct within the borders of the camp. Detainees who do not follow the code of conduct live in fear. Many have been killed by their fellow detainees for “unholy” behavior, such as criticizing or doubting the “caliphate.”
ISIS detainees in the camp continue to plan the resurrection of their “caliphate,” and dream of committing more atrocities in the name of their so-called “holy war.” ISIS members talk together, eat together, pray together, teach their children, and plan for their resurgence every day in Al-Hawl camp, as the Biden Administration strategizes to end the endless fighting against Islamic extremism. President Biden declared recently, “it’s time to end the forever war.”
The risk of ISIS resurrection is credible. In 2014, the organization had about 30,000 fighters from all over the world and was occupying a massive swath of Syria, about one-third of the country. They had swept through northeast Syria after the Syrian civil war, capitalizing upon a power vacuum left after the Syrian government withdrew its troops from the region. They invaded city after city, imposing their strict rule upon our region. The atrocities of ISIS included killings, beheadings, enslavement, property theft, forced conscription, child soldiers, and violence against women and children. It seemed to them then that their armies were unstoppable. It was only when our brave men and women of the SDF partnered with the US military and the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS that the black tide of ISIS was stopped.
Our fighters fought to reclaim their homeland. But more than that, they fought to oppose the brutal ideology of Islamic extremism. Our fighters were born of the movement for true democracy in Syria, the movement for democracy, equality, women’s rights, religious freedom, and ethnic plurality. The fight against ISIS was just an extension of the better world that many have been fighting for their whole lives.
When our forces captured the final town held by the ISIS “caliphate,” the town of Al-Baghuz Fawqani, experts and military strategists were surprised by how many people emerged out of the extensive tent city and tunnel network that ISIS had built there. The fighters were supported by thousands upon thousands of support staff, technicians and logistical staff, managers and workers. Also hidden from view were their families, tens of thousands of women and children. Some of the women were working as support staff, some were not. Some were being held as slaves. Most were true believers of ISIS ideology, but not all. When these tens of thousands of detainees were brought to Al-Hawl, no one thought they would be there for more than a few months — enough time to sort out who is or is not culpable. Now, they linger there.
Each ISIS detainee deserves a fair trial. Individuals must have a chance to face the evidence of their crimes. Those who were cooks and medics and janitors should face lesser charges than those with blood on their hands. But in the region of North and East Syria, which has faced a decade of war due to great power rivalry, death and devastation, economic hardship, a refugee crisis, Turkish occupation, and overall instability, there are few resources to conduct the thousands of trials that would be needed.
The SDF and the regional administration have been calling upon the international community to set up tribunals or to conduct trials in the region. Ilham Ahmed, Executive President of the Syrian Democratic Council, has been meeting with foreign governments to “find a sustainable solution for ISIS foreign fighters.” General Mazloum Abdi of the Syrian Democratic Forces said, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS “has a duty to continue support to our forces to eliminate the growing ISIS threat.” As the US Representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, I have been asking for the United States to offer help in processing the detainees. As early as June 2019, I wrote, “If we do nothing, we will soon see ISIS erupt again.” After all, ideas do not die by bullets.
We have called upon the international community to provide legal assistance and expertise to our own regional officials, in the absence of an international tribunal. Home countries of foreign fighters should be obligated to take back their own citizens, but so far most have refused. Re-education and re-integration programs, especially for the children and their mothers — often young women in their teens and 20s — will be necessary. Those who will not go to prison could be safely placed in smaller communities where they can reconnect with their other family members and travel the long road of de-radicalization from ISIS extremism. Much assistance is needed.
So far, not one country has offered significant help to the SDF in addressing the ISIS detainee crisis. The SDF is the only flood wall, the levee, that is keeping the rest of the world safe from ISIS. Yet the political arm of the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Council, has so far not even been invited to UN peace talks on the future of Syria. First steps to addressing “The City of ISIS” would be the SDC’s inclusion in talks on the future of Syria, as well as assistance in legal processing of the ISIS detainees.
We lost 11,000 men and women in the course of defeating ISIS. We do not want to be fighting this war again in ten years. The rocks thrown by children in Al-Hawl camp today will become the bombs of tomorrow.
It is admirable that Joe Biden seeks to end the forever war, and has made that a policy priority for his administration. But there can be no end to the forever war, unless we do something to address the crisis that is “The City of ISIS.”