The Al-Hol Case: Left-Behind ISIS Adherents Pose a Unique Challenge
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
The Al-Hol Case: Left-Behind ISIS Adherents Pose a Unique Challenge
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
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For months, more than 60,000 women and children linked to ISIS have been held in al-Hol, a camp administered by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. This camp acts as both a facility for internally displaced persons and a detention center. It holds nationals from roughly 50 countries and has no clear legal status. Al-Hol is currently facing a humanitarian crisis, and some organizations have called for a significant increase in foreign aid to the camp. But the benefits of such aid will be fleeting until there is a clear plan to resettle the camp’s thousands of inhabitants and address the security concerns that they may pose. 

Roughly three dozen aid agencies, including the UN’s Refugee Agency and Children’s Fund, work in al-Hol. Ninety percent of the camp’s inhabitants are women and children. More than 11,000 of the residents are “foreign,” meaning that they are neither Syrian nor Iraqi nationals. 

Human Rights Watch recently detailed the deteriorating conditions inside the camp’s annex, where the foreign ISIS affiliates reside. In June, visitors to al-Hol witnessed “overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tattered tents, and residents drinking wash water from tanks containing worms.” Those in the annex have almost no freedom of movement. Security remains precarious, and Kurdish guards are being attacked by their detainees. Multiple reports show that some female detainees are terrorizing others in the camp. Women adhering to ISIS’s extremist ideology have set fire to the tents of others who are not sufficiently pious.

The United States has called on countries to remove their citizens from al-Hol and has provided some support to countries that are willing and able to do so. Countries like Kosovo have responded to that call, even though roadblocks to the prosecution and reintegration of ISIS affiliates remain. Some families of women and children held in al-Hol are suing the Australian government to force their return. But the vast majority of countries, particularly those in Western Europe, continue to look the other way.

In response to this inaction, multiple non-governmental and human-rights organizations have called for a surge in humanitarian aid for al-Hol. Indeed, if the conditions in al-Hol constitute in the foremost a humanitarian crisis, the necessary assistance is clear: Inhabitants need food, water, medical supplies, and other essentials. However, there are at least four serious challenges that need to be addressed before this aid will improve conditions in the camp. 

First of all, the capacity of the Kurdish forces to secure and administer the camp needs to be bolstered through additional security-sector assistance. Detainees need to be processed systematically, and those who pose a security threat should be separated from the rest of the population, particularly within the annex.

It is easier to compel foreign aid donors to sign on to strictly humanitarian assistance. But that will neither significantly alter the security situation inside al-Hol, nor will it help end the political inertia surrounding the repatriation of ISIS affiliates.

Further, if additional foreign assistance can be mustered, the question becomes whether agencies can provide that aid unhindered. For years, the Assad regime has steered aid away from opposition-held territories to benefit the regime and its supporters. Earlier this year, reports alleged that the UN Refugee Agency had been temporarily blocked from delivering much-needed tents to al-Hol owing to a dispute with Damascus. As a result, some residents were left without proper shelter for weeks.

The Assad regime has weaponized humanitarian assistance in the past. Now, it may exploit the increasingly dire conditions in al-Hol to pressure the Kurdish forces who administer the camp and the surrounding region to hand over control.

Third, aid donors that are reluctant to repatriate their ISIS-affiliated citizens may also face legal barriers to aiding them in Syria. While the United States has the most stringent laws regarding material support for terrorism, many other countries have laws and regulations against the provision of financial or other support to individuals linked to terrorist groups. Such restrictions have led to legal troubles for international aid agencies and even for the parents of ISIS members. 

Navigating this legal minefield is a major hindrance to increased aid. Given the difficulty of ascertaining any individual’s specific role in ISIS, and the resistance of aid agencies to vetting individual aid recipients, the possibility that aid to al-Hol will benefit terrorists is high. Evidence that ISIS women detained in al-Hol have raised money online to fund their escape suggests the need for greater scrutiny of how assistance to the camp may be supporting terrorism.  

Finally, foreign assistance to the camp does not resolve the impasse over how to bring ISIS supporters to justice and return them to their countries of origin.

The international community has deemed the Syrian legal system unfit for the task but failed to provide any workable alternatives. Some countries, including the Netherlands and Sweden, are pushing for an international tribunal. Others are using universal jurisdiction to prosecute ISIS members for war crimes. But with nationals from dozens of countries detained in al-Hol, the current patchwork approach to accountability leaves much to be desired.

These challenges do not preclude the provision of additional humanitarian relief to al-Hol. Aid agencies are obligated to ensure that the camp’s residents are sufficiently fed, sheltered, and cared for. However, the international community must resolve the underlying security issues that precipitated the current crisis.

It has been more than four months since international forces captured ISIS’s final territorial stronghold in Baghouz. But without a clear plan for closing al-Hol and resettling its inhabitants, the remnants of ISIS will continue to be a destabilizing factor and a focal point for those seeking to resurrect the Islamic State’s “caliphate.”

Jessica Trisko Darden is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an Assistant Professor at American University’s School of International Service.