Families are trucked to al Hol on March 10. They came during and after the fall of Baghouz, a farming hamlet that was the final area under Islamic State control. Most had few belongings left.
Families are trucked to al Hol on March 10. They came during and after the fall of Baghouz, a farming hamlet that was the final area under Islamic State control. Most had few belongings left. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

Photo Essay

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.

Tens of thousands of children, the offspring of Islamic State fighters—including this one seen on March 10— have been confined to the dusty al-Hol camp in northern Syria since the caliphate’s collapse in March. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

Children gather outside to eat together on May 10. Many of the youngest girls in al-Hol wear head coverings even before puberty. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

The kids in al-Hol camp, seen here on March 10, come from dozens of countries on four continents. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

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.

Children sit together in al-Hol camp on March 10. Some 11,000 of the school-age kids in al-Hol had no education during the Islamic State’s five-year rule. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

International aid organizations want countries to repatriate their citizens, but so far, few have been willing to take back Islamic State families, seen in al-Hol on March 10. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

More than 20,000 children in al-Hol are under age 5—born during the Islamic State’s rule. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

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.

Destitute and without income, Islamic State families have allowed young boys to work, as seen at al-Hol camp on March 10. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

A child in al-Hol camp on March 10. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy

Children gather on March 10 in al-Hol camp, where they face few alternatives and an uncertain future. Robin Wright for Foreign Policy