When dozens of Islamic State fighters attacked a prison in northeast Syria last month, setting off a 10-day battle that drew in U.S. forces and left hundreds of people dead, they reminded the world that, three years after U.S. officials declared victory over the group, it is in fact still active — and eager for a comeback.
The attack also confirmed unheeded warnings by human rights and humanitarian groups operating in the region, as well as by the U.S.-allied, Kurdish-led autonomous authority in charge of governing former ISIS territory: that the indefinite detention in both prisons and makeshift camps of tens of thousands of people believed to have been affiliated with the Islamic State was a dangerous tinderbox.
By the time the Syrian Democratic Forces, the armed wing of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, regained control of al-Sina’a prison, more than 500 people were dead, including more than 100 members of the SDF and prison staff. The fighting had spilled into nearby neighborhoods, sending thousands of residents fleeing and causing at least seven civilian casualties. Dozens of bodies had been dumped from a front-end loader onto the street, and then shoveled into a gravel truck and driven off, according to a report by journalists on the ground. Some of the suspected militants who had been held at the prison remained unaccounted for, with estimates ranging from 30 to more than 300.
The prison battle, followed by a U.S. raid a week later that killed the Islamic State’s top leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, reignited global attention toward the group. Last week, violence erupted again, this time in one of the detention camps where family members of Islamic State fighters are held. A child there was killed and several people were wounded when camp guards opened fire on women and children who had attacked them with rocks and knives in an attempt to take their weapons, according to the SDF. It was yet another reminder of how volatile the stalemate in Syria remains after a decadelong war that has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced half the country’s population, most at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies.
For people who have long warned about the precarious situation in northeast Syria — and the likelihood that the Islamic State would exploit it — it’s more than past time for the international community to rethink its approach, particularly in regard to the fate of the many people whose permanent detention has morphed into a mass humanitarian crisis.
“The general consensus in northeast Syria is that ISIS will never be defeated, there will always be sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria, they will always more or less pose a threat,” Diana Semaan, Syria researcher at Amnesty International, told The Intercept, noting that the international community’s failure to plan for the repatriation, reintegration and, where appropriate, prosecution of Islamic State members had effectively ensured the group’s endurance. “The lack of accountability is the main reason why we have reached this point today.”
“The lack of accountability is the main reason why we have reached this point today.”
Before the attack, the prison, a former school complex in the town of Hasakeh, had housed about 4,000 alleged Islamic State militants, including some 700 teenage boys, many of whom were taken there as they aged out of childhood, posing what their handlers believed to be a security threat. The men and boys were among an estimated 10,000 Islamic State members detained in northeast Syria. After the battle, the SDF moved the remaining prisoners to a more secure facility that was recently completed with U.K. funds. Another more than 50,000 people, a vast majority of them women and children related to Islamic State members, are also in the area, detained in sprawling camps that human rights observers have denounced as “inhuman.” Thousands of people in the camps have no affiliation to the Islamic State at all, according to human rights observers.
Both the people held in the prisons and those detained in the camps have effectively lived in limbo since the fall of the caliphate, under the control of an authority that is not officially recognized as a government and that lacks the jurisdictional capacity to prosecute those believed to have committed crimes. While a majority of the detainees are Syrians and Iraqis, thousands hail from at least 57 other countries around the world, a majority of which have done little, if anything, to repatriate their citizens.
“It’s not sustainable,” Mehmet Balci, co-director of Fight for Humanity, a nongovernmental organization that offered services for minors held at al-Sina’a prison, told The Intercept in an interview, echoing the fears of scores of others who work in the area. “And it is not an issue that the Kurds or the Northeast Syria Autonomous Authority can deal with alone.”
Photos: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images
Most of the detainees in northeast Syria were rounded up by the SDF and its allies in the final weeks of the Islamic State caliphate, following a series of defeats for the group that culminated with the battle of Baghuz in March 2019. Men and boys believed to have been fighters were imprisoned, with no charges, in facilities like al-Sina’a, where they were jammed in overcrowded rooms and where hundreds reportedly died due to poor conditions. Meanwhile, family members, including children who had been brought to Syria by their parents and those who had been born in the caliphate, were moved into two locked, open-air camps surrounded by guards and barbered wire, al-Hol and Roj. Conditions in the camps are so poor they “may well amount to torture,” a group of United Nations experts warned last year, noting that an unknown number of people had died due to the deprivation, violence, and abuse to which they had been exposed there. At least 90 people were killed in al-Hol last year, according to the U.N.
There was no plan, when the Islamic State was defeated, for the fate of the thousands of people who had lived there, and no clear process for how to transition them out of a detention that thus became indefinite.
But the dire conditions in the camps and prisons, and the insecurity those conditions have created, were no surprise for the U.S.-led coalition of more than 60 countries that backed the SDF in the war, helping it defeat the Islamic State. The SDF themselves, seeking greater support from their allies, had long warned that an attack like the one on al-Sina’a prison would come, and that more might follow.
“For years, ever since the beginning of combat operations against ISIS in 2014, it’s been understood by people in the region and certainly by decision-makers in Washington that detention of ISIS fighters and terrorists would be a pressing and enduring issue,” Col. Myles Caggins III, a former spokesperson for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and current fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Intercept in an interview.
About 700 U.S. troops remain in northeast Syria, where they have continued to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State targets. But the autonomous authority was largely left on its own to deal with the detention of former militants and their families, with limited resources and support from foreign partners, including the U.S. While there are no U.S. troops at the camps and prisons, the U.S. has supported the SDF with stipends for guards, “less-than-lethal” weapons, and training.
“It’s really a bare-bones operation that’s held together by the commitment of the SDF and its people to ensure ISIS does not come out and terrorize and try to fight back and take territory within northeast Syria,” said Caggins. “They are doing the best that they can under the circumstances.”
Human rights observers working in SDF-controlled areas largely agree that the SDF has been saddled with a monumental responsibility it is not equipped to handle alone. But that, they note, is no excuse for the abusive conditions in which thousands of people continue to be held three years after they were first detained.
“On the one hand, they were left with a huge burden, with very little support. On the other hand, they are committing violations, for instance against the children in al-Hol camp,” said Semaan. Amnesty, which last year called for the repatriation of at least 27,000 minors held in the camps, documented that children living there are exposed to violence, murder, and forced labor, and that less than half of them have access to any sort of education. The group also denounced the arbitrary detention of boys once they turn 12, solely on suspicion that they might become “radicalized.”
“They have no due process, and they are separated from their mothers, taken without any evidence that they have done anything wrong,” said Semaan. Boys removed from the camp are usually brought to what the authority refers to as “rehabilitation centers” until they turn 18, but hundreds also ended up in prisons, like al-Sina’a. An unknown number of minors were killed in the recent attack, during which Islamic State militants reportedly used them as shields, and the fate of hundreds of them remains unclear.
The indefinite detention, in substandard conditions, of tens of thousands of people is only one of the factors threatening to tip a precarious balance in northeast Syria, where the SDF are fending off not only the remnants of the Islamic State, but also a web of other actors battling for influence in the area, from the Syrian regime to Turkey, Russia, and Iran-backed militias. In addition to the Islamic State detainees, the area is also home to nearly 700,000 internally displaced Syrians.
While the international community effectively abandoned the pursuit of a political solution, and U.N.-led talks have largely stalled, observers agree the repatriation of Islamic State detainees is one of the most pressing priorities.
Yet so far, only a fraction of detainees have been repatriated as their countries of origins have taken inconsistent approaches to what is perceived as a politically fraught issue. Overall, Central Asian countries have repatriated more people than many European ones, while multiple North African countries have repatriated only a few. Australia, Denmark, and the U.K. have stripped the citizenship of some of their nationals who joined the Islamic State, effectively rendering some of them stateless. Overall, countries that have undertaken some repatriation efforts have focused on children, but observers note that repatriation of adults, as well as the safeguard of family unity, is also crucial. Even when they have happened, repatriations have been slow and marred by delays, including because of the pandemic. As of last fall, only 28 countries had repatriated at least some of their citizens.
U.S. officials, who said that they have repatriated all citizens held by the SDF and started prosecuting many of them, have repeatedly called on their coalition partners to do the same, with little success. And while Iraq has begun to repatriate and prosecute thousands of its citizens, human rights observers have denounced a lack of due process and human rights standards there.
No international body is set up to screen the detainees and prosecute those who committed crimes: The International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction in Iraq or Syria, and neither the Kurdish-led autonomous authority nor the international coalition have the standing for such a process.
“There’s no common policy on how to deal with these people,” said Balci, of Fight for Humanity. He added that humanitarian organizations like his were trying to “manage the misery,” but that no qualitative improvement to detention conditions could change the fact that the detainees should not be there to begin with.
“This is a shared responsibility,” Balci added. “The children, the [internally displaced people] in the camps, and outside the camps, these are the consequences of an armed conflict of which the international coalition is a party. … All states have to remember that this happened within an armed conflict, and that you are a part of it.”
Following the recent battle, the SDF has tightened security at both prisons and camps, where tensions and violence have been on the rise. Rather than leading to any improvement to camp conditions or movement toward ending the indefinite detention of those held there, “ISIS is a card for them to consolidate their control, and justify their control even further,” said Semaan, of Amnesty. “I highly doubt anything concrete is going to happen.”
That was a fear shared by others working in the region: that the attack on al-Sina’a prison would intensify tensions without prompting a crucial, global effort to shift the underlying conditions that led to it.
Moving prisoners to a new facility was a temporary fix, said Caggins, the former coalition spokesperson. “A lot of the other decisions will have to come from capitals, including Washington, London, Paris, and a whole host of other nations.”
He stressed that the question of Islamic State detainees was only one factor in a deeply unstable situation that involved multiple countries and interest groups. “At any point, one of these sparks could initiate a fire that has outcomes that we can’t really see right now.”