with additional reporting by Baderkhan Ahmed.
Since Turkey launched Operation “Peace Spring,” in October, assaulting several cities in Northeastern Syria with airstrikes and a ground offensive led by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), hundreds of civilians have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Turkey and their Syrian proxies created a supply and transportation crisis by cutting several points along the M4 highway, which runs parallel to the Turkish-Syrian border and links many key border cities in Northeastern Syria.
The effects of the Turkish incursion have been deeply felt in the numerous Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-run ISIS prisons and camps in Northeastern Syria. These facilities hold tens of thousands of ISIS militants and their families. “Turkey has created so many problems here,” said Hasan Abdullah, one of three SDF officials responsible for a handful of ISIS prisons in Hasakah. “And now, we have no support.”
Abdullah says that when Turkey bombed Hasakah’s main water plant in October, it created a massive water shortage throughout the province. “The water we have is trucked in from 80 kilometers away,” he said. “We are facing shortages of many medicines now because of the roads. And with so many of these ISIS prisoners injured in battle and in need of medical care, the shortages are making conditions here very poor.”
Abdullah granted us access to a prison in Hasakah that holds around 5,000 ISIS members from 28 different countries. We were able to spend five hours there, touring the various sections and interviewing ISIS militants. Abdullah’s first request to us was that we refrain from telling the prisoners that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ leader, had recently been killed in Idlib. “They don’t know. And no good will come from them knowing,” he said.
The shortages and deteriorating conditions in the prison are secondary concerns to Abdullah, who says nearly half the SDF forces guarding the prisons have had to leave their posts to defend against Turkish and Turkish-backed SNA attacks in other cities. “The security situation here is very bad,” he said. “And I believe it will continue to get worse.”
The ISIS prisoners have no contact with the outside world, and are thus unaware of the specifics of Turkey’s attacks in the region. “But they know something is happening, because since the Turkish attacks began, ISIS sleepers have attacked this prison and other prisons several times,” Abdullah said. “We repelled the attacks, thank God, but the prisoners could hear the gunfire and the commotion. And it inspired them to try to escape.”
Abdullah showed us surveillance video from inside the prison shortly after one such ISIS sleeper cell attack. A prisoner is seen climbing onto the shoulders of another in front of a metal door and trying to pry it open. “They broke this door,” Abdullah said. “But we caught them before they could escape.” Abdullah believes that Turkey has helped coordinate the ISIS sleeper cell attacks on SDF-run prisons in Northeastern Syria.
Over the last few months, we have interviewed more than a dozen ISIS members and ISIS wives in Northeastern Syria. Nearly all of them, including those who are not Turkish nationals, said they want to leave Syria and go to Turkey. Most don’t believe they will face any legal consequences for joining ISIS in Turkey. All of them said that when they crossed the border illegally from Turkey to Syria, no Turkish police or military attempted to stop them.
At the Hasakah prison, we interviewed Faisal Demir, a middle-aged ISIS militant originally from Istanbul. Before crossing into Syria, he says he spent time in a large house in the center of Gaziantep, Turkey, a city close to the Öncüpınar border crossing to Syria. “There were people from so many different countries in this house. Men and families,” he said. “Turkish Intelligence is strong. ISIS rented that house, and I am sure Turkey knew ISIS rented that house. They knew the foreigners staying in the house were in Turkey to cross to Syria and join ISIS. They knew, I am sure.”
When asked if he wanted to return to Turkey, he grinned and said he did. He said he heard about other Turkish ISIS members returning to Turkey, being detained and investigated for a period of weeks, and then simply released. He believes that, although he stayed with ISIS for more than four years, his case would be the same in the eyes of the Turkish government.
Murat Kaymak, another Turkish militant from Ankara, said he was shocked at how easy it was for him to cross the border from Turkey to Syria. Like Demir, Kaymak also crossed near Gaziantep. “I thought it was a joke,” he said. “How can such a large portion of the Turkish border be open? With no police or military? We just walked into Syria.” Kaymak says he wants to return to Turkey, where he hopes to resume his past career as a construction worker.
“Turkey let all of these jihadis cross their border into Syria,” Abdullah said, shaking his head. “And now, Turkey is giving them the chance to start again. We had so many martyrs. So much of our blood was spilt to free these lands from ISIS. And it is happening again.”
The al-Hol camp, also in Hasakah province, holds around 70,000 people who are believed to be wives and other relatives of ISIS members. According to Aylu*, a YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) commander at the camp, the security situation there is more dire than anywhere else. “Before the Turkish attacks, we had 400 internal security forces (Asayish) and 400 YPG here guarding the camp,” she said. “So many have had to leave to fight the Turkish attacks, that these numbers are down to about 150 of each.”
Aylu said the escape attempts since the Turkish invasion began have been non-stop. The women of al-Hol are not as disconnected from the outside world as the ISIS men in prison, and they’ve been following developments. “When I walk through the camp now, they tell me I am kafir [an infidel] or murtad [a former Muslim who has renounced their faith.] They tell me that they will escape, capture me, and behead me. It is a daily thing now,” she said.
Shortly after the Turkish attacks began, an estimated 800 relatives of ISIS members escaped from the Ain Issa camp in Tel Abyad. “This was all because of Turkey,” Aylu said. “First, Turkish shelling hit right by the camp. This activated the ISIS sleepers inside the camp, who started to riot and burn tents. After they escaped, we only captured about 200 of them.”
After the mass escape at Ain Issa camp, pro-ISIS Telegram and WhatsApp groups began to share messages intended for the women of al-Hol. “Thanks to God for the liberation of Ain Issa camp,” one said. “The women who have escaped should seek money from those who have donated to them before, so that they are able to pay smugglers and make it to Turkey.”
“They all want to go to Turkey,” Aylu said. “ISIS started because of Turkey. ISIS is still active in Turkey. And the women here tell us they all want to go and will try to cross at Tel Abyad when they escape.”
A Chechen woman who had been married to an ISIS fighter and living in Syria since 2013 said that she had no desire to return to Chechnya, and that Turkey seemed like a good option for her and her young daughter. She didn’t think she’d be arrested there, because she didn’t believe she’d done anything wrong.
A woman from Idlib said she had relatives in Turkey and had been trying to escape the camp to get there. When asked if she feared arrest upon arrival in Turkey, she laughed. “No, no, I won’t wear these clothes,” she said, motioning to her black burqa and niqab. “I will be fine.”
Aylu says that if Turkey’s attacks continue to threaten Northeast Syria, she will leave her post to fight if necessary. “It is not my job to be martyred here guarding these prisoners,” she said. “I have to defend my land. When the situation was calm, we asked their countries so many times to take them back, and they wouldn’t. Now imagine what will happen if they all escape.”