The Kids of the Islamic State
A lens on the thousands of children detained in northeast Syria’s al-Hol camp and the unanticipated humanitarian crisis brought on by the fight against terrorism.
The collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate in March produced an unanticipated humanitarian crisis for tens of thousands of children now detained in a desolate camp outside the city of al-Hol in northeast Syria. They were an unanticipated byproduct of the U.S.-backed campaign against the jihadi extremist movement. Some 9,000 Islamic State fighters were captured in Syria and are now dispersed in local prisons. But another 73,000 Islamic State family members also either surrendered or were captured in the final months of the five-year war. Today, more than 90 percent of the residents in the al-Hol camp are women and children.
Data on the Islamic State offspring is staggering: 65 percent of the residents of al-Hol are under the age of 12, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on May 29. More than 20,000 residents are under the age of 5, meaning they were born after the Islamic State swept across Syria and Iraq in 2014 to create the caliphate. “Distribution data suggests that there may be as many as 3,000 unaccompanied and separated children in al-Hol, some of them also taking care of siblings,” the U.N. agency reported. Hundreds appear to be orphans because both parents died in the fighting, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. A major problem is the poor education or outright illiteracy among the children. Roughly 11,000 of the kids aged 6 to 18 have not been exposed to learning for at least five years, the U.N. report said.
The women and children were originally trucked from the final Islamic State redoubt in Baghouz, a farming village on the border with Iraq, to the dusty camp with limited facilities and staff. The numbers overwhelmed relief groups, which have struggled to provide everything from food, tents, and blankets to field hospitals and measles vaccines. The camp, which is just around 1.5 square miles, is split into several sections: The largest are for Syrians and Iraqis, who account for the majority of residents. An annex holds all other foreigners, many of whom were considered the most militant and are under tighter guard. Families are housed in some 13,000 tents, but more are needed, the U.N. agency reported. Children have little to do except play in the camp’s dusty alleys. Like their mothers, many of the youngest girls still wear head coverings required during the Islamic State’s rule.
The kids of the Islamic State claim nationality from dozens of nations—from France to Russia, Morocco to the Maldives, Belgium to China, and including the United States. France repatriated five orphans of French fighters, Kazakhstan has taken back 156 kids. But few nations have volunteered to take back their citizens or their children. The kids, reared in the beliefs and practices of the Islamic State, carry its stigma. But, with no alternatives and no future, the ideas that fostered the militant organization fester among its children. The next generation may be the most enduring legacy of the Islamic State.