Syria’s AL-HOL — The kids are all throughout the vast refugee camp in this dry region of northeast Syria.
They are soccer players close to a sea of shabby white tents. They are dashing alongside a fence that is covered in debris and empty bottles. And as an armored U.S. military vehicle draws near, the protesters are raising their middle fingers and hurling rocks.
Nearly half of the 54,000 people living in the al-Hol refugee camp are under the age of 12. In late 2018 and early 2019, the majority of them came to this country with their mothers and extended relatives when the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State lost the remainder of its territory in Syria.
Officials from the State Department and the U.S. military are deeply concerned about the plight of these children.
The refugee camp, which was established in 1991 after the first Gulf War, has grown into a humanitarian catastrophe and a significant threat from international terrorism. The speed at which the camp expanded to include tens of thousands of relatives of suspected ISIS members and developed into a breeding environment for ISIS supporters and concerned officials in the Biden administration.
In an interview at the camp last week, Maj. Gen. Matt McFarlane, the U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria, stated that ISIS might “plant a seed” in one of those locations depending on the environmental factors and attempt to flourish and foment its extremist ideology.
McFarlane and other senior military figures went to the camp to learn more about how things were going. NBC News requested an interview with camp residents, but U.S. officials declined, claiming security reasons.
After the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) overcame the final ISIS stronghold in Baghuz, where the most extreme fighters had been holed up for months with their families, the situation at the refugee camp drastically changed three years ago.
While the majority of ISIS fighters were killed or taken into custody, their families were transported by bus to the refugee camp as a temporary holding location because there were no other options. It had been governed by the area’s autonomous administration since 2016.
Within a few weeks, the population grew dramatically from 10,000 to more than 73,000 people.
Currently, the camp is divided into eight parts and an annex for foreigners. About 27,000 Iraqi citizens are housed in four of the divisions. 18,200 Syrians are housed in the other half.
Around 8,000 people from about 50 nations are housed in the foreign annex. 1,500 Russian individuals make up the largest group, followed by 1,300 Chinese and 1,100 Turkish people. However, the annex also houses many other citizens, including those who left their home countries to join ISIS, including Australians, French, and Dutch people.
According to the relief organization Save the Children, the SDF started providing security to the camp in 2016, but as the population grew, conditions deteriorated until eventually criminal violence and terrible crimes by ISIS made it one of the most hazardous locations on earth per capita.
The SDF carried out an operation to remove ISIS members from the camp in September. They captured roughly 300 ISIS fighters over the course of 24 days, killed a few more, and seized weapons and explosives. There were a lot of ISIS commanders among the Iraqis. According to officials, dozens of ISIS goons were discovered residing in the camp’s most dangerous region, which housed Syrian nationals.
ISIS deployed hand grenades, explosives, and materials concealed in undeveloped caverns and holes to fight back during the Operation Hammerhead attack in September, which resulted in the deaths of two SDF forces and the injuries of more personnel.
According to McFarlane, “They may smuggle stuff in using water delivery and utilizing food deliveries.” “At times, it involves paying off various guards,”
In order to divide the camp into sectors and increase internal security, the SDF and the autonomous authority in the area are currently building high steel barriers and checkpoints around the camp.
According to McFarlane, overall violence has significantly decreased since the operation. Then, last week, two Egyptian females who were allegedly the victims of Islamic police were discovered beheaded in the international annex. Now, local authorities worry that violence might be returning.
The population is more susceptible to being enlisted or coerced into joining ISIS when living conditions deteriorate, according to McFarlane, who is in charge of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.
Northeast Syria has a decrease in temperature in November as winter approaches.
However, according to Jihan Hannan, the camp’s director of administration, there aren’t enough clothes for all the kids that live here. Basic winter need for the camp includes fresh tents, warm clothing, blankets, and kerosene.
Al-Hol is backed by more than 30 humanitarian organizations and agencies, but this year’s funding struggles are a result of several organizations diverting donations to Ukraine due to the conflict there, according to Hannan.
She claimed that one aid organization had forewarned her that it would stop supplying water to the camp by March.
ISIS might continue to try to encourage extremist violence using this atmosphere, these dreadful conditions, if we don’t address what you see behind us, McFarlane added. To continue constructing ISIS into a new caliphate, which they lost over the previous five years, as it is what they wish to achieve.
Thousands more others arrived at al-Hol, in addition to the ISIS families, to flee bloodshed from other terrorist organizations or the Syrian government. Instead, they discovered that survival behind the walls can be riskier.
Hannan declared, “Life is not safe here in this camp.
The commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, stated that bettering the conditions at the camp is “essential to accomplishing a durable defeat of ISIS.”
After visiting the camp, he issued a statement saying, “We’re dedicated to stopping the rebirth of the group.” The successful repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of camp residents back into their nation of origin must instead be the long-term objective.
Officials here know that repatriating the people to their home countries is the best option to combat the ISIS ideology because up to 60% of the residents are either ISIS combatants or sympathizers.
One official in the area stated, “They can increase security with fences, checkpoints, and raids, but they cannot halt the propagation of ISIS doctrine with so many people crammed into a tiny area.” “Separating them is the only effective countermeasure to that.”
With approximately 650 Iraqi citizens slated to depart the camp by the end of November, the Iraqi government has the most citizens at al-Hol and has been the most proactive in reunifying its people. 50 to 150 detainees and roughly 150 families are included.
The Iraqi government, according to McFarlane, “is enthusiastic about this and doing what they can to help preserve the momentum of repatriation,” adding that it has established rehabilitation and reintegration programs to enable people in doing so.
In recent weeks, other countries including Australia, Denmark, and France have returned some of their nationals, and other nations are in talks to do the same. However, many nations have been reluctant to admit anyone from the camp out of fear that they would disseminate the violent ideology of ISIS.
Recently, the Biden administration launched a diplomatic initiative to persuade nations to return their citizens, particularly women and children. However, one regional official claimed that the repatriations to date are a drop in the ocean and that, at the current rate, it could take five or six years to reduce the population to a level that is more manageable.
McFarlane declared that “this is a strategic issue that necessitates an international solution.” “Citizens from more than 50 nations of the world reside here. However, they can at least help by contributing some resources to meet the camp’s needs if they can’t do that or act quickly.
There are three phases of ISIS fighters in Syria, according to officials in al-Hol.
There are the active fighters, who the SDF regularly targets in raids with assistance from the American military and coalition allies. U.S. military officials in the area claim that while the organization is generally under control, they nevertheless pose a threat if no military pressure is applied.
The second group consists of approximately 12,000 captives housed in 28 separate jails around the nation, who are the ISIS army in waiting. Hasakah, the largest prison, has roughly 5,000 prisoners, including ardent ISIS fanatics. ISIS has divisions of soldiers prepared to battle inside Hasakah and the other jails, according to U.S. military authorities.
The young people growing up within ISIS, or the al-Hol children, are the last group. Organizations like the Cubs of the Caliphate actively seek out and train children. Officials in this country think that over half of the youth are already brainwashed, however, they are unable to quantify the number.
ISIS is undoubtedly attempting to prey on this group because they are aware of their need for it, according to McFarlane. “Undoubtedly, some of them are relatives of ISIS detainees who are also dispersed throughout northeast Syria.”
Since many of these children have never known a life outside of the camp or one unconnected to the terrorist organization, the vulnerable population is expanding. At least 60 babies are born here each month, though the number is likely higher because many are never officially counted.
Officials at the camp said these children need the education to help combat the influence of extremists, but many have no access to school.
Now thousands of children live every day vulnerable to the extremism around them, with officials here increasingly concerned they’re watching a generation who could be lost to terror.