ISIS is still international, and as such the ISIS issue remains international. So long as the al-Hawl detainee camp and other facilities housing ISIS detainees exist, ISIS will continue to exist.
The United Nations Special Representative for Iraq Jeanine Hennis visited North and East Syria’s infamous al-Hawl Camp as part of a joint UN/Iraqi delegation that went to the facility on June 5, 2022. “Keeping people in restricted & poor conditions ultimately creates greater protection & security risks than taking them back in a controlled manner” was what Hennis told the Rojava Information Center following her visit alongside the Iraqi government. Iraq has more citizens in the camp than any other country and has recently begun repatriating its ISIS detainee citizens on a consistent basis.
Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and ISIS-affiliated women and children remain in North and East Syria, trapped in legal limbo in different camps and detention facilities where the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has to provide security and services. Al-Hawl Camp, located near the Iraqi-Syrian border, is the most notorious of these facilities, having earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous places on earth.
A member of the Asayish Internal Security forces of the AANES stands guard at the al-Hawl Camp
It has been three years since ISIS was defeated territorially. Before that, it was easy to unite the world behind a military effort, led by local partner forces, to dislodge the organization from its territorial holdings. The international community accepted that the ISIS issue was an international one, and that it could not be avoided.
Since the liberation of Baghuz, most of the international community seems to have decided to ignore the ISIS issue entirely.
While about 2,500 Iraqi citizens were repatriated in the last year, including male fighters, women, and children, there remain 51 other countries whose nationals are in the camp. Only 1,955 third-country nationals have been repatriated since 2018, including 516 Europeans. Some European states have abysmally low repatriation rates, such as the United Kingdom, which has repatriated only nine citizens and has become famous for revoking the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, an ISIS detainee.
The attitude taken by most of the international community towards the ISIS detainees in North and East Syria has been one of indifference. Even as the region struggles with an economic crisis that provides excellent conditions for terrorist groups seeking to breed instability, continuing activity by ISIS cells that remain a military threat, and the immense burden of tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and families, most of whom are not Syrian, that has fallen on the Autonomous Adminstriation of North and East Syria.
The al-Hawl Camp is less of a camp and more of a city, inhabited mostly by over 55,000 ISIS-affiliated men, women, and children of different nationalities. Approximately 28,000 are Iraqi nationals, 19,000 are Syrians, and just over 8,000 are from outside of the region.
Since the beginning of 2022, there have been 23 murders in al-Hawl Camp. Most recently, an Iraqi woman was found decapitated in the Iraqi sector of the camp. Last year, a paramedic with the aid group Heyva Sor was shot and killed while providing medical care in the camp.
Basim Mihemed, the Kurdish Red Crescent paramedic who was murdered while working in al-Hawl Camp in 2021.
For years the institutions of North and East Syria and those of the United States have been reminding the international community of the importance of addressing the issue of al-Hawl and the wider ISIS detainee problem. Not only is it an immense economic and security burden for a region that has already been devastated by conflict, but the issue of ISIS did not stop being a global issue when the so-called ISIS “caliphate” was destroyed. ISIS remains a global threat.
The international community has not developed a plan to permanently address the issue, which would require both rehabilitation of local ISIS-affiliated detainees, as well as the repatriation of foreigners to their home countries.
North and East Syria gave over 11,000 martyrs in order to defeat ISIS. Many of the region’s cities were destroyed, leaving people displaced and the region in economic disarray. The region cannot handle this burden alone. According to General McKenzie of US Central Command, “Failing to address this now means ISIS will never be truly defeated.” A new generation of ISIS is growing up in legal limbo and economic poverty, under the same brutal ideology that the terrorist group once imposed on the region.