NORTHERN SYRIA -- It is a country unto itself, and nobody knows what to do with it.
In a barren prison camp in northern Syria – tens of thousands of ISIS members are running what feels like a mini caliphate – abiding by the rules of the extremist terror group, and abiding by a brutal system of Islamic justice, which goes largely unchecked, and keeps the ISIS ideology alive.
Held captive by the Kurdish SDF, they are angry, desperate to escape and, the guards say, a ticking time bomb.
These people, mainly women and children, were mostly caught after the fall of the caliphate – fleeing from the final bastion in the town of Baghouz. The camp commander tells us they are the most fervent, the ones who were there till the end, and who still believe that the terror empire will rise again.
There are 71,000 people inside the Al Hawl camp including around 10,000 foreigners. English, French, Belgium, Russian, Chinese and more – their countries have refused to take them back, saying they are dangerous and would carry out attacks – the camp commander agrees, saying they’re beyond reform.
One of the controversial issues is what to do with the children of ISIS. They attend religious schools inside the camp so are being brainwashed, but others argue they are innocent. Some are orphans who have returned home, including one American, but others have nowhere to go. They will stay here and likely become radicalized, turning into the next generation of jihadis.
Inside the camp, the guards have no control – they are vastly outnumbered, so can secure the perimeter only. ISIS’s female morality police, the al-hisba, operate across the tented city. They have set up secret religious courts, and murder those who have broken their laws, mutilating some of their bodies and cutting them up. They’ve even found a 1-year-old baby beaten to death, but can’t explain why.
We tell the throng of gathered women across a flimsy fence about the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – one voice shouts at us in English, accusing us of being liars. They throw stones and we have to be wary of them swamping us.
One lady who seems to be a leader then silences them all and tells them not to speak. They turn their backs, gathering together, and go silent.
It is staggering what’s going on inside the camp. The reason it’s so lawless is they don’t have enough guards who number in the hundreds. It used to be around 1,000 but many had to go to repel the Turkish invasion, a story we hear repeated across Northern Syria. The U.S. withdrawal and the Turkish invasion is putting an immeasurable toll on camps and prisons like this.
When guards do need to enter the camp, to look for someone, or perhaps retrieve a dead body, they go in driving Humvees heavily armed with submachine guards. The women throng round them by the hundreds and prevent them from moving.
Authorities rely on informants inside the camps, the only way they can find out about attacks. When we were there, they had received reports of a bike bomb being prepared. At night, ISIS sleeper cells in the surrounding areas can slip into the vast camp, and smuggle things to them – guns, grenades, ISIS flags, money, one $65,000 cash shipment was intercepted. Many of the women need money to buy food. They won’t eat what the camp or aid agencies give them because they consider it infidel food.
The camp commander, a jovial and smiling lady, talks easily about the attempts on her life. There have been many. Just a few weeks ago, a mother and two daughters jumped on her, biting her, throwing gas on her and trying to set her on fire. Her drive home at night has been boobytrapped with IEDs by ISIS sleeper cells in the area. She says every day she looks terror in the eye
The one thing that could make this worse is increased fighting and instablility. And while the latest cease-fire on the ground between Turkey and Syria came to an end at 11 a.m. Tuesday without any huge fanfare, there have been repeated violations over the last week. The situation is hanging by a thread.
Already there have been numerous breakouts – 180 recently. Fortunately, the landscape is bare and it’s hard to get far. But reach the Sunni heartlands a few hours to the east, and they can join up with other ISIS remnants.
Baghdadi is dead, but these people are keeping his hatred alive.