with additional reporting by Baderkhan Ahmed
The sprawling al Hol camp in Hasakah, Syria is a grim sight in the dead of winter. Aylu*, a YPJ member (women’s protection units, a group of female fighters in Northeastern Syria), is one of the camp’s administrators. “The situation hasn’t changed much since you were here last,” she said.
On The Investigative Journal’s last visit to the camp in November, Aylu told us that the attacks launched by Turkey and the Turkish-backed so-called Syrian National Army the month before had forced more than half of al Hol’s security personnel to move to the frontlines to repel enemy advances. This left the al Hol camp, which holds more than 70,000 suspected ISIS members and their families, suffering grossly inadequate security.
“The situation inside the camp is very dangerous,” Aylu said. She held up her phone to show us a photo. “This Iraqi couple was murdered last week as they slept. They were killed with a hammer,” she said. The brain of the female victim was partially exposed, and the tent behind her and her husband was covered in blood. “The man had ideas that ISIS did not agree with,” she said. “And so he and his wife were murdered. They want to kill everyone who doesn’t share the ISIS mentality.”
Aylu says a clandestine version of the Islamic State exists within the camp. “It’s very strong,” she said. The largest section of the camp holds Iraqi and Syrian families, and in this section, men lead the camp caliphate. “In the section that holds foreigners, it’s the women,” she said.
The violent crime within the camp isn’t the only problem camp administrators are battling. “Everyday, people try to escape. Sometimes we capture them; sometimes we don’t,” Aylu said. “Since January 1st of this year, we captured six families trying to escape.”
Aylu says some of those trying to escape are on their way to Deir Ezzor. “We can say that the SDF is not entirely in control of the Deir Ezzor countryside,” she said. “It’s not really secure. If you travel from Deir Ezzor to Hasakah, you will be in danger of being attacked by ISIS sleeper cells. This is why they want to go there, because of the chaos. And so that these ISIS sleeper cells can lead them where they want to go. Usually, that is Idlib or Turkey.”
After reviewing contraband cell phones found during a search of the camp, SDF officials found that most of the detainees planning escapes were in contact with smugglers who were in Idlib. “Of course, Idlib is mostly under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate) and Turkish-backed groups,” Aylu said, adding that when money is transferred to detainees at al Hol’s money transfer office, it is almost always sent from Idlib.
Hisham Hamid*, a journalist living in Idlib, says that he is aware of many escaped ISIS detainees making their way to his area. “Idlib became full of those displaced from other areas, and from different militant groups that were defeated,” he said. “So it became difficult to know which group someone actually belonged to.”
Hamid says many of the escaped ISIS women have been coordinating with Ansar al-Tawheed, a group comprised of former members of Jund al-Aqsa, an extremist subfaction within then-named Jabhat al-Nusra. “If they come here with or for militants, they have a special status, because no men are even allowed to speak to them or ask them questions. So of course, many ISIS members are among them.”
Ziad Ibrahim*, a former member of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, says that Hurras al-Din, an extremist group comprised of former HTS and ISIS members, has been providing homes for escaped detainees throughout Idlib. “Hurras al-Din and HTS have an agreement,” he said. “The ISIS men and women who come here are protected from Nusra. The men usually join Hurras al-Din.”
On October 27, 2019, members of Hurras al-Din were killed in the US raid targeting ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northern Idlib. “Turkey claims that they do not support this group,” Hisham Hamid said, “but hear these words well: all the factions that remain in Idlib are an arm for Turkey and a tool for implementing the orders of Turkey.”
We were given the opportunity to interview several women who had been captured by the SDF after escaping to al-Shaddadi in southern Hasakah province. The first we spoke to, Fatima, is a Turkish national. “I want to go to Turkey,” she said. “A woman in Idlib gave me the number for a smuggler. A woman who had escaped from this camp before arranged everything. I don’t know details.”
Baria Murad, a Chechen ISIS detainee, said that she, too, was on her way to Turkey when the SDF captured her. “In Turkey, you can wear the niqab [full facial veil],” she said. “In Russia, it is forbidden.” Murad said that the woman who arranged her trip to Idlib is a Russian former ISIS member who had escaped from al Hol camp some time before. “She has lived in Idlib for two years, I think,” she said.
“The whole world knows what Turkey has done to support ISIS,” Aylu said. “And they still are. It’s very obvious even just looking at where the escaping ISIS members are trying to go. It’s mostly either Turkey, or areas of Syria occupied by Turkey.”