The future of Al-Hol Camp

Tokka Elnaggar , Tuesday 14 May 2024

Tokka Elnaggar zeroes in on recent developments at the Syrian Al-Hol Camp

The future of Al-Hol Camp


With the geographic defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria, a new challenge has emerged related to Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, which represents a major security threat with potential repercussions for the entire region, especially in the light of the present instability.

The camp is densely populated, lacks basic amenities, and is experiencing a rise in extremist rhetoric, which is why it is often referred to as the “IS bomb.” Al-Hol Camp is the largest displacement camp in northeastern Syria, located in the city of Al-Hol in Hasakeh governorate near the Syrian-Iraqi border. It was established by the United Nations to house refugees from Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War, and closed after the war ended.

It was expanded following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 but was closed again in 2007. The Syrian Democratic Forces reopened it in 2016 after successfully expelling IS from the city of Al-Hol in 2015, to accommodate Iraqi refugees and Syrian IDPs who were forced to leave their homes in areas controlled by the organisation.

The camp’s demographics changed significantly with the fall of Baghouz, a town in easternmost Syria, IS’ last stronghold, in March 2019. IS fighters were arrested and imprisoned, while their families, mostly women and children, settled in the camp. As a result, the number of residents in the camp reached around 74,000 in the same month.

IS families and households lived alongside a large number of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in one place, making it difficult to maintain ideological isolation, which contributed to increased radicalisation rates within the camp. Women face a range of humanitarian crises due to poor living conditions, including severe food shortages, inadequate basic necessities, and lack of safe drinking water due to poor sanitation facilities. They also face lack of medical care, as the available medical points are not qualified to serve the population, which creates an environment conducive to the spread of diseases and epidemics.

IS women, on the other hand, pose a significant threat within the camp as they seek to establish the organisation’s ideology by spreading its extremist ideas among residents. They manage social media accounts on various platforms, either to raise donations to fund the organisation’s activities or to spread propaganda to promote its extremist ideology.

They have also formed “Hisbah” units to carry out the tasks of the female police to monitor the camp’s women’s compliance with the organisation’s extremist religious teachings. If these instructions are violated, the units impose harsh penalties, including torture and burning, which may extend to killing. In this context, the camp administration reported in March 2023 that the camp had witnessed more than 150 murders between 2019 and 2022, in addition to numerous cases of torture, assault, and constant threats.

Al-Hol Camp houses tens of thousands of children, some of them born into IS or raised by members of the organisation. These children represent the next generation of cadres and leaders of the organisation, given how their mothers expose them to extremist IS ideology in order to preserve the organisation and establish the idea of revenge for its defeat. This could lead to the emergence of a new generation of extremists as one of the repercussions of the situation in the camp. General Michael Kurilla, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), revealed in late 2022 that there are more than 25,000 children in Al-Hol Camp who are at risk of indoctrination.

Despite repeated calls from the United Nations and international and local human rights organisations for countries to repatriate their citizens from the camp, most countries have not responded. A few countries, such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kosovo, have repatriated a small number of their citizens. Other countries, especially European ones, have only repatriated a limited number of women and children. This reluctance stems from security concerns about the returnees and the possibility that they will carry out terrorist attacks or spread extremist ideology.

There are also legal challenges related to how to prove whether or not they were involved in terrorist activities, in addition to social obstacles related to the extent to which local communities will accept them and the degree to which they will be socially stigmatised. There is also significant debate about the effectiveness of social integration and rehabilitation programmes for IS returnees, especially considering the many cases in which these programmes have failed to achieve their goals.

This failure is due to the difficulty of removing the extremist and violent ideology that has been instilled in them. Additionally, these integration programmes often lack the ability to offer a new alternative worldview based on positive values and healthy interactions with others. Consequently, many countries are trying to avoid the return of their IS-linked citizens to avoid such complex problems.

However, the continued neglect of Al-Hol Camp, with its overcrowding, poor living conditions, lack of healthcare, constant riots, and spread of extremist incitement, provides a fertile ground for the resurgence of IS. There is an urgent need for the international community, international and regional organisations to address this issue by activating policies, providing assistance, and proposing implementable solutions on the ground.

A comprehensive multi-dimensional approach is needed to address the root causes and main drivers of extremism. It is important to recognise that the repercussions of Al-Hol Camp are not limited to Syria and Iraq alone. It is a global problem that requires concerted efforts from the international community to promote international peace and security.


The writer is a global terrorism expert at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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