The commander of all US military forces in the Middle East issued an urgent appeal to the international community after visiting the al-Hol camp for Islamic State detainees in northeast Syria on Friday.
Describing al-Hol as a “humanitarian disaster” and a “hotbed of human suffering”, US Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla urged governments around the world to repatriate their citizens from the camp “and rehabilitate them if necessary”.
More than 90% of al-Hol detainees are women and children, 70% of whom are under the age of 12, Kurilla noted in a statement after his visit on Friday. Most do not have sufficient access to running water and other basic necessities for life.
“ISIS seeks to exploit these horrific conditions. With around 80 births in the camp each month, this place is a literal breeding ground for the next generation of IS,” Kurilla said.
Why is this important: The four-star general’s visit marked the first time a US official has entered al-Hol camp and spoken to detainees, a military official told Al-Monitor.
Kurilla had already stopped at the camp in April during his first tour of the Middle East as commander of CENTCOM. US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-GA) also visited the camp in July, although that trip was not coordinated with Kurilla’s trips, the official said.
The general was accompanied on Friday by the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian forces, Mazlum Kobane. Other members of the US government were also present, according to a source well placed on the ground in Syria.
Al-Hol is the largest of more than a dozen makeshift facilities holding IS detainees in the Kurdish-controlled northeast of the country. Some 56,000 suspected family members of IS fighters continue to languish at the site more than three years after Kurdish-led US and Syrian forces defeated the jihadist group on the battlefield in 2019.
The majority of those in al-Hol were sent there following the mass surrenders of IS fighters and their families as a last resort during the battle for Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019.
“Most camp residents reject IS,” Kurilla said after meeting with inmates and camp security officials. “Many want to contribute to society. Many wish to return to their country of origin, re-enter the labor market and send their children back to school,” the commander said.
“There are women and children who can be reintegrated into society. They can and want to be productive,” he said, acknowledging that those he spoke to arrived in 2017, before the influx of prisoners in 2019.
Race against time: The CENTCOM chief’s moral plea comes as US defense officials continue to say ISIS is down, but not out.
In January, the jihadist group launched a bloody assault on the main detention center holding captured fighters in the town of Hasakah. The resulting battle left hundreds dead, including at least 300 Syrian-led forces.
The group continues to recruit from the population of al-Hol and likely plans attacks on other facilities that hold their fellow jihadists.
“ISIS views the detention centers where its fighters are housed as the population to replenish its army,” Dana Stroul, the Pentagon’s senior Middle East policy official, said at an event in Washington in July. .
“He sees al-Hol and al-Raj, and the youths in those camps, as the next generation of ISIS,” Stroul said.
Without US funding and the promise of military support, officials say the Kurdish-led guard force that runs the makeshift prisons would not be up to the task. Although some receive American training, the guards operate without American supervision. They are also underpaid, which exposes them to corruption, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported in June.
A series of killings and even beheadings of camp residents allegedly carried out by a network of IS operatives known as hisba have been discovered by security forces in al-Hol in recent years.
The violence in the camp has also driven out aid workers. The Norwegian Refugee Council temporarily abandoned most of its humanitarian work in al-Hol earlier this year “following an armed raid and beatings of its staff”, the US-led coalition United Told a Pentagon inspector general in June. The coalition did not specify who was responsible for these incidents.
Over the past two weeks in al-Hol, Syrian Kurdish-led forces said they arrested “hundreds” of IS members in US-coordinated raids on the camp’s maze of disparate tents.
US Central Command said the Kurdish-led operation rounded up “dozens” of ISIS operatives and disrupted an important “ISIS facilitation network, both in the camp and throughout the Syria”.
Four women bearing signs of torture were also found chained in tunnels at the camp earlier this week, CENTCOM said in a statement. At least one member of the local Syrian security forces was killed in an exchange of fire with IS in al-Hol on Thursday.
The latest sweep follows the arrest of some 130 suspected ISIS members in al-Hol between May and June this year, the US-led coalition reported in June.
Repatriation net: Kurilla on Friday praised Baghdad’s recent efforts to repatriate its citizens, noting that about half of the camp’s detainees are from Iraq.
The Iraqi government has brought back nearly 2,500 citizens from the camp since last year, including 683 people (including 203 children) as of June, according to the Inspector General’s latest report. Detainees have also been returned to Kosovo, Russia and other European countries in recent months.
“There is a need to accelerate this progress,” Kurilla said in the statement. “If Iraq repatriated, rehabilitated and reintegrated its citizens, the problem would immediately become much more manageable.”
Around a third of the camp’s residents are thought to be from Syria, posing an even bigger problem for the international repatriation effort. International law prohibits returning prisoners to governments that may violate their basic human rights.
And after: In the long term, US officials see repatriation as the only viable solution to the problem of IS detainees. The State Department is leading this effort, but it is unlikely to be resolved in the next two or three years.
For this reason, Pentagon and State Department officials have worked with congressional lawmakers to increase funding for the construction of new “purpose-built” facilities to hold ISIS detainees in more secure settings. and more human.
The US-led coalition brought in a new commander, Major General Matthew McFarlane, at a ceremony in Baghdad on Thursday.
Know more: Pentagon officials warn that Turkey’s stated plans to invade northeastern Syria and attack Kurdish-led forces will almost certainly bring IS jihadists out of their prisons.
Read Jared Szuba’s report here.