In Overflowing Syrian Refugee Camps, Extremism Takes Root

The U.S. withdrawal could leave tens of thousands vulnerable to Islamic State indoctrination.

A detained French woman who fled the Islamic State walks with her child at al-Hol camp for displaced people in northeastern Syria on Feb. 17.
A detained French woman who fled the Islamic State walks with her child at al-Hol camp for displaced people in northeastern Syria on Feb. 17. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

On a scorching day in mid-July, the signature black flag of the Islamic State rose over al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria. In videos posted online, women and children can be seen cheering as the homemade flag flutters over the camp, which holds roughly 70,000 Syrians displaced by the country’s devastating civil war.

This is the sort of development that worries Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander of the U.S.-led military coalition to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. “The real danger to me is it’s the next generation of ISIS that’s being programmed right there in those camps,” he said in a recent interview. “I see this as the greatest long-term strategic risk to the overall global campaign against ISIS.”

Across the region, which is mostly controlled by the U.S.-led coalition and its local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an estimated 130,000 women and children are living in overflowing refugee camps like al-Hol. But while most of the focus is on the humanitarian crisis, U.S. military leaders such as Grynkewich see an ideological one as well, as the camps become hotbeds for extremist ideology even as U.S. forces are planning their withdrawal.

Since the liberation of the Islamic State’s last territorial stronghold, the Syrian town of Baghouz, in March, the durability of the U.S. military’s role in Syria has been a question mark. President Donald Trump’s administration maintains that the United States will draw down all but a few hundred troops from the country, but no timeline has yet been set for the withdrawal. Experts say an enduring U.S. presence is necessary not only to ensure that the Islamic State does not return but also to broker the uneasy peace between the SDF and the Syrian government, as well as with Turkey, which views the SDF as an existential threat.

But in leaving Syria prematurely, the United States would also be washing its hands of a growing security crisis: the tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters and family members living in camps across northeastern Syria, with few prospects for a return to normal life.

The coalition officially has no authority in these internally displaced person (IDP) camps, which are run by nongovernmental organizations and guarded by the SDF. But Grynkewich is particularly concerned about a population of female Islamic State fighters, which he said will seek to indoctrinate the other residents and create a new generation of extremists. In its effort to manage this population, the SDF sent the men to prisons, while the women and children—presumed noncombatants—were sent to IDP camps like al-Hol.

But some of the women sent to al-Hol actually fought for the Islamic State—and their presence in the camp puts its more moderate residents at risk of radicalization, Grynkewich said.

“So right now, there is a section of al-Hol that has a substantial number of what I would say are hardcore Islamic State ideologues who just happen to be women and happen to have their children with them,” he said, estimating that there are about 20,000 suspected “hardcore ISIS” members in the camp.

Al-Hol is the largest such camp by far and home to roughly 50,000 children under the age of 18, Grynkewich said. The camp’s numbers grew exponentially after the U.S.-led coalition liberated the final territories in Syria from under Islamic State control this year. Grynkewich acknowledged that the coalition severely underestimated the number of Islamic State fighters and families that were left in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

The conditions in the camp are “rife” for extremism to take hold, said Melissa Dalton, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing reports from people on the ground of “40-plus individuals stacked into rooms.”

“I think it has the potential to have very serious security and humanitarian repercussions for the region,” Dalton said.

Of course, the sheer number of people at al-Hol and other camps across Syria raises humanitarian issues as well. Those problems should be addressed first, Grynkewich said. But at the same time, the coalition is working with the United Nations and other partners to come to an understanding about how to approach the problem of extremism within these camps.

“It’s certainly not a military task to deal with, but it is a strategic risk globally for the coalition,” he said.

Collectively, the partners are looking at various options to tackle the risk of radicalization, including isolating the female combatants from the rest of the camp and potentially rehabilitation programs.

But first a key step will be to reduce the population of the camp itself. This is a tricky pursuit, as local communities and the international community are not inclined to take custody of their citizens associated with the Islamic State. However, the SDF has had some small successes—about 800 women and children from Raqqa and Tabqa were recently reintegrated into their villages, Grynkewich said.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, condemned the coalition’s lack of planning for what he says is a foreseeable problem—the large number of IDPs and foreign fighters that ended up in camps after the defeat of the Islamic State’s caliphate.

“It’s infuriating that we continue to hear from senior officials that they are suddenly picking up on this being a problem, when we really should have figured out five years ago when we started fighting this,” Lister said. “This should not have surprised anybody, but nobody seemed to have planned for it.”

Grynkewich drew a distinction between the problems at IDP camps like al-Hol and prisons across northeastern Syria holding roughly 11,000 Islamic State fighters. About 2,000 are foreign terrorist fighters, he said.

Grynkewich urged foreign governments to repatriate their citizens so they can be brought home and charged. The United States is leading the way, this month transporting an American citizen accused of fighting for the Islamic State back to U.S. soil from Syria in order to stand trial. North Macedonia, Kazakstan, Morocco, Bosnia, Kosovo, Italy, and Iraq have also repatriated hundreds of fighters, Grynkewich said.

“We just really need countries to own that problem rather than outsource it to the folks on the ground in northeastern Syria because they are certainly not equipped to deal with it long term,” he said.

Over the long term, some kind of rehabilitation program will likely be needed for the majority of Islamic State fighters held in these prisons, Grynkewich acknowledged.

In the meantime, the coalition is working to ensure that the SDF is properly equipped to manage the overflowing prisons. In June, 60 SDF members graduated from coalition-run correctional officer training courses meant to “professionalize” the guard force, Grynkewich said. In particular, the coalition is teaching “nonlethal means to control the prisoners,” with an emphasis on caring for human rights, he said. In addition, the coalition is trying to ensure that the prisoners get the housing, food, and medical supplies they need.

“One thing that you can guarantee is that if there is someone who isn’t in that irreconcilable category and they start reconcilable, if they are in horrible conditions and stuck in a confined area under horrible conditions with an irreconcilable, they will probably become irreconcilable themselves over time, unfortunately,” he said.

While Grynkewich said the coalition does send senior leaders “periodically” to check in on the prisons, the group does not itself have any real authority to enforce humane treatment.

While she has not heard reports of the SDF “making serious transgressions” in the prisons, Dalton indicated that may change if the U.S. military leaves.

“There is this question of how long will the U.S. be there and so how seriously should this be taken,” she said.

Experts sees no good solution to the problem of what to do with the growing population in the IDP camps and the prisons—particularly if the U.S. military departs as planned. Making matters worse is the fact that the United States has yet to lay out a clear vision for its role in Syria going forward, Lister said.

“If we are staying, albeit with a dwindling presence, there has to be a long-term plan, which will involve spending more money, investing in more infrastructure for these camps,” Lister said. “On the other hand, if we plan on leaving Syria, whether we are going to admit to that publicly or not, then we ought to be working extremely hard behind the scenes to find an alternative guarantor.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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