Syrian prison camps fueling Daesh’s resurgence
A dangerous complacency has hung over the international community’s efforts to defeat Daesh, and it has been in greater evidence in 2019. Talk of having defeated Daesh was always premature and reckless, not least given the history of such extremist groups. This heads-in-the-sand attitude may reap some perilous results.
The reality is that Daesh is rehabilitating itself, expanding its capabilities and waiting for the right moment to strike. The political conditions of instability, conflict, disillusionment and bitterness are all ripe for massive recruitment. But what is truly stunning is the way in which leading members of the anti-Daesh coalition are failing to take the necessary measures to prevent this.
Top of the list of concerns are the various camps in Syria where Daesh fighters and their families are being held. These are becoming centers of recruitment, indoctrination and brainwashing, even among children. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Daesh leader, released a speech last month in which he called for the group’s followers to be freed from displacement camps. At some point, therefore, such attempts will be mounted.
Too few people realize how vital prisons and detention centers are in the radicalization process. Many of history’s worst extremists served time in jail, including Adolf Hitler, and nearly all of Al-Qaeda and Daesh’s leadership have been to prison. Perhaps the one major figure that never went to prison was Osama bin Laden. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Baghdadi and Abu Mohammed Al-Julani, the leaders of Al-Qaeda, Daesh and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham respectively, were prisoners, as was Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who set up Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Reports even suggest the children are becoming radicalized and throw rocks and stones at camp guards and chant pro-Daesh slogans.
The examples are legion. Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, where Baghdadi was held, was a factory for producing future Daesh leaders from its 20,000-plus prisoners. The fear is that the same mistake is now being replicated. For these extremists, being imprisoned is a badge of honor.
Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria is the largest of seven facilities run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It hosts just under 70,000 people, more than half of whom are children, and has seen outbreaks of serious violence. “This is an ISIS city — 70,000 people cannot be controlled. We have only enough guards to protect from outside attack,” said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, using another term for Daesh. There are an estimated 400 security guards, too few for even half or a quarter of the number of prisoners. In addition, the humanitarian conditions are, according to aid agencies, beyond hellish.
How long before the camp explodes? Guns and weapons have reportedly made their way inside. Reports even suggest the children are becoming radicalized and throw rocks and stones at camp guards and chant pro-Daesh slogans. The kids have no access to education. One can only imagine the psychological impact living in such squalid conditions has on them.
A separate area, called “the annex,” holds 3,100 foreign Daesh wives and their 7,000 children. Reports indicate it is here where the sternest adherents to the Daesh doctrine are to be found.
A Pentagon report published in August referred to “resurgent cells” of Daesh in Syria. Both the SDF in Syria and the security forces in Iraq are unable to sustain long-term operations against Daesh militants, the report warned. It added that the group was recruiting in Al-Hol.
The US administration has got this right by urging other states to take their citizens back. European nations have to take responsibility for their citizens, but very few have. Italy broke the mold by putting one alleged Daesh fighter on trial. Doing so is in compliance with international law and human rights, and is also the right thing to do from the perspective of sharing the burden of handling the Daesh threat. Britain infamously stripped Shamima Begum of her citizenship on highly dubious grounds. Begum was just 15 when she ran away to Syria to join Daesh with two friends. She wanted to return but was denied the right. It is illegal to leave her stateless, but also what does it say to British Muslims that their citizenship can be so easily revoked? Are they less British than others? Many ask if this would ever happen to a white Christian citizen. Is citizenship a right or just a privilege?
France tried to resolve the issue by dispatching 12 French citizens and former Daesh fighters to face trial in Iraq despite huge reservations about the Iraqi justice system. Some were sentenced to death. The major protests in Iraq that started this month highlight the country’s instability and the possibility that Daesh prisoners could be freed once again by their supporters.
Daesh is not, for the moment, attempting to control territory. Instead it is resorting to the usual tactics of a terrorist group of assassinations, suicide bombings and even the burning of crops. Reports on the numbers of fighters vary, but lie somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000, of whom roughly 3,000 are foreigners. The Daesh forces use a number of safe havens, including the disputed zone lying between Peshmerga areas and Iraqi government-controlled areas.
What does not help is the threat of a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria. The SDF would then have to engage on multiple fronts and be even more stretched in defending their domain. The same would apply if the Syrian regime was to launch an attack on SDF territory, but the regime’s resources would also arguably be inadequate to cope with the huge number of Daesh detainees.
Time is running out. The major powers cannot wish away this problem. Daesh is bouncing back and these detention centers are its new recruiting grounds.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech