Nabih has lived in a refugee camp called Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos, for over a year, ever since he fled his home in the Kurdish Syrian city of Kôbane. In late May, he was walking back to his tent when he felt a rock fly past his face. Within a matter of seconds, he found himself amid a full-on fight, with rocks thrown left and right. Suddenly, a group of masked men emerged, brandishing metal batons.
“Who is Kurdish here?” one of the men barked. Nabih, whose name, along with every other refugee mentioned in this article, has been changed for his security, quickly hid his children inside his tent and stood guard outside. A member of the masked group saw him quivering there and punched him in the face. Several others joined in, beating him with metal batons. The blows hurt Nabih’s hand as he tried to block his face. Finally, someone stabbed him in the back.
“One of them said, ‘He’s an old man — leave him to die,’” Nabih recalled in an interview, holding the part of his back where he had been stabbed. “Another said, ‘He doesn’t pray or fast — it is halal to kill him.’”
Halal means what is permissible according to Islam, and Nabih soon found himself being dragged by his legs to another tent, where he was greeted with a beating and lecture on what is halal and what is haram — forbidden. As the men flogged his legs, Nabih swears he saw the Islamic State flag on the wall in front of him.
“They started asking me, why don’t you pray? Why don’t you fast? You’re an old man — that’s haram,” he continued. After the beating, the masked men dragged him to the gates of the camp, leaving him covered in his own blood.
Nabih and six other residents who were attacked during the fight attested that the perpetrators were a mob of about 30 men, all of them recently arrived refugees from Deir al-Zour, the last remaining ISIS stronghold in Syria. Some 600 people from Deir al-Zour have arrived in Moria over the last few months, the majority fleeing the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, whose advances are pushing the last of ISIS out of Syria.
Tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the camp are nothing new. But the Moria refugees and some advocates are concerned about indications that there are ISIS adherents in the camp among a core group of the refugees from Deir al-Zour. While it is normal for any practicing Muslim to be conscious of what is halal and what is haram, the mob’s use of it to mete out punishment points to the kind of extremist violence associated with ISIS. Other witnesses to the fight told The Intercept said that they heard members of the mob shout, “We are ISIS.” One had a picture of graffiti reading, “Deir al-Zour will stay” scrawled onto the prison-like walls of the camp. The slogan is reminiscent of “ISIS will stay,” which was ubiquitous when it was scrawled across property confiscated by the insurgent group in Mosul and Raqqa. And two young men in the camps also recounted to The Intercept how they had been targeted by ringleaders of the group behind the attack for recruitment into their clique. Some of the men claimed to have been ISIS fighters.
In a political climate in which right-wing parties often seek to portray the flow of refugees as a terror threat rather than a humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of any sign of ISIS influence in the camps are dire. From the Alternatives for Germany, or AfD, party in Germany to the Golden Dawn in Greece, the European right has used anti-refugee rhetoric to bolster their ranks, playing on the public’s fear of extremist groups like ISIS to gain power and influence. Thanks to the punitive policies driven by such fears, migration routes have been sealed in the name of national security, trapping refugees in camps whose harsh conditions are ripe for exploitation by extremist factions.
On Lesbos, there are 7,000 people currently living in the Greek military-run Moria camp, which, despite its idyllic setting on the rolling hills of an olive grove, is most often compared to Guantánamo Bay prison. While the arrival of refugees from the Middle East and Africa slowed in 2016 when the European Union closed off the final routes north, and struck a deal to send people back to Turkey, it never stopped completely. Only now, instead of moving on to the rest of Europe to start a new life, refugees are left to fester in concrete and barbed-wire-wrapped camps like Moria for months. Economic options are limited, and many are living four families to one tent, scraping by on aid handouts.
“You have several issues going on in the camp and I think to some extent, that is why some of the issues of extremism aren’t being taken as seriously,” says Neda Kadri, a 36-year-old Syrian-American volunteer who has spent the past two years helping out on the island. While she is unsure whether the refugees she is calling extremist are full-blown ISIS members, she is troubled by the spike in violence and its apparent ideological motives.
“At the very least, they are using the tactics and the methodology of things that we are seeing overseas,” she said, referring to the enforcement of an extreme interpretation of Islam that apparently motivated the most recent fight. “Maybe they’re thugs that are copycatting,” she added. “At the very most, maybe they’ve actually seeped through and made their way through.”
Eva Cossé, the Western Europe researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that Greece’s detention policy was to blame for tensions. “The islands have become open-air prisons, places of indefinite containment,” she said. “If you put 7,000 people in a camp who don’t speak the same language, or have the same religion, you lose security.”
And it is the refugees who are paying for the extremism that is now brewing inside — after all, it is they who are being threatened and beaten in Moria, not Europeans.
“We fled a war so that we could find peace here,” said Sara, a 28-year-old Kurdish woman who came to Moria from Afrin a little more than a month ago, with six children and her 75-year-old mother-in-law. “Instead, we came and found another war right in front of us.”
After surviving the fight, Nabih fled Moria along with more than 300 other Kurds. They went to a makeshift shelter erected inside of an abandoned sports complex, known among them as “the farm.” Olive and palm trees gracefully slope over the farm’s entrance, creating natural shade over what was once the reception center for a soccer field and a swimming pool. Like many facilities across Greece, it has now been repurposed to assist the enormous numbers of refugees passing through on their way to the rest of Europe.
“This is the first time I’ve seen every person of one ethnicity leave a camp and refuse to go back,” said Kadri, who normally runs an aid distribution center out of the complex. When Nabih and the other Kurdish refugees poured out of Moria camp after the May 25 fight, sharing similar accounts of masked men hunting down Kurds, and beating and berating them for not observing Islamic rituals, she organized a team of volunteers to pitch 170 camping tents on the soccer field to accommodate the overflow and protect the most vulnerable refugees from the attackers.
Kadri and others emphasize that nationalist strife could be the source of the conflict. If the refugees from Deir al-Zour resented the Kurdish forces occupying their land — only the latest example in Syria of Kurdish forces and factions taking over what is seen as Arab territory — many of the recently arrived Kurdish refugees have dark memories of the Islamic State’s brutal actions in Kôbane and Sinjar seared into their minds, and are understandably panicked at the thought of anything that resembles what they left behind.
While refugees from Deir al-Zour carried out the most recent attacks, Kurdish refugees also stoke tensions — staging demonstrations, flying the Kurdish flag, and blasting nationalist anthems. “One night the Kurds were shouting, ‘All Kurds are one,’” said Alan, a 28-year-old Kurdish refugee. “I warned them against doing this,” he continued. “If you want to shout something, shout, ‘All Syria is one.’ If you want to fight like this, just go back to Syria where the Kurds are already fighting the Arabs everywhere.”
But Alan also said he knew of Deir al-Zour refugees who had belonged to ISIS. Alan had lived among them in Moria, befriending them out of a combination of boredom and self-interest. He said that some of them “showed me pictures and videos of themselves when they were with ISIS.” During long nights, his new friends would explain to him how ISIS had gained power and the trust of people in Deir al-Zour, and regale him with stories of the notorious slave trade of the Yazidi people, an Iraqi minority.
“Some of them told me that they joined ISIS for the money, others because they had a problem with a neighboring village and ISIS was the best way to get revenge,” he said. “They told me about when they would go to Sinjar and buy Yazidi girls. Sometimes they felt bad for them, and smuggled them to the Kurdish areas, and told them to go find their families.” Alan was forced to leave Moria after the fight. His tent was ransacked and marked with an “X” — he believes that it was done by some of the extremists who discovered that he was Kurdish and decided that they no longer trusted him.
Ali, another refugee we spoke with at the farm, had seen himself as a peacemaker between Kurds and Arabs in the camp. Originally from Mosul, Ali was adopted by a Kurdish family after he was orphaned at a young age —putting him in the unusual position of being Arab by blood and Kurdish by upbringing. When fights broke out in Moria, he used his language skills and connections within both groups to mediate and de-escalate conflicts.
“I saw them often, and invited them to drink a coffee in my shop,” Ali said, referring to a small group of the Deir al-Zour refugees who seemed like ringleaders of the more extreme faction. Over time, he noticed that associating with this group carried certain privileges. He did not have to wait in the hourslong line for meals or a benefits card: “They said if you stay with us, we won’t let anyone mess with you — but you’re going to have to help us.” At first, Ali thought that they wanted him to continue breaking up fights. But soon he learned that he was also expected to spread the group’s hard-line interpretation of Islam, and expand their influence within his community.
“‘We don’t see your friends praying or fasting during Ramadan,’ they would tell me,” Ali said. Soon, the men began bringing up the Islamic State, explaining that while they had a bad reputation among the Kurdish refugees, their strict interpretation of Islam was the most righteous, and Ali should aspire to practice in this way. Any other way of living or practicing was haram, the men said.
According to Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher with the Al-Nahrain Centre for Strategic Studies, Ali’s experience matches known ISIS tactics for recruiting new members during periods of weakness — such as now, when the group is on the brink of losing all of the territory that it ruled in Iraq and Syria for almost three years.
“Usually when the Islamic groups become weaker, they begin to quietly regroup in order to re-establish their power,” he told The Intercept, describing a part of their strategy known as the “castle of the weak.” One of the tenets is that they do not immediately bring up their affinities — instead hinting at them, the way they did with Ali, in order to gauge whether a potential recruit is worthy of their trust.
“They typically target someone who already has power within their community,” he continued. “They use this strategy to gain control of the area.”
Indeed, one of the known leaders of the refugees from Deir al-Zour, who was later identified as one of the perpetrators of the fight, eventually asked Ali if he would consider being the emir — a leader of 40 to 50 people, and a key figure in ISIS’s governance hierarchy — of the Kurdish community, spreading their ideology and popularizing their strict interpretation of Islam.
Ali found the group’s influence appealing. “I thought, look at their dignity. Look at their pride, in the eyes of God,” he said. “In the camp, we were treated like animals eating from the trough,” he continues. “With them [the group from Deir al-Zour], I could feel respected and powerful.”
But on the day of the fight, Ali saw that Kurds were being attacked and became afraid that the group could test his loyalties. He abandoned the clique and joined his adopted family at the farm. Within a few days, his mother was stalked in the streets by two men who repeatedly asked about his whereabouts, and then physically attacked her. She came back to the farm visibly shaken.
“I’m very scared now,” he said, holding back tears, as he comforted her. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to my mother because of these people. I am afraid that I know too much, and they will find me here.”
Kadri is afraid that families like Ali’s will be forced to go back to Moria and live among their attackers. The regional governor of the North Aegean has come down hard on informal refugee shelters such as the farm and ordered them to cease operations, telling refugees they must go back to Moria camp. (The regional governor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) After multiple threats of eviction, Kadri started working with a lawyer to file a case in the European Court of Human Rights, to advocate for the most vulnerable refugees’ protection — and hopefully get them off the island.
“We had an agreement that the victims and witnesses would give statements to the prosecutor,” Kadri told The Intercept over a WhatsApp voice note. Now she is concerned that many are too afraid of eviction to speak out. “How do they [the authorities] expect people to come forward, when they might be forced to go live among their attackers within 24 or 36 hours?”