The Washington Post
This refugee camp is incubating the next generation of ISIS
Soon after taking over as commander of U.S. Central Command in April, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla visited the al-hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria. The visit brought welcome and necessary attention to the camp, where roughly 60,000 people — a large majority of whom are women and children — live in squalid conditions.
Most of the inhabitants are family members of Islamic State fighters who were killed or captured as their socalled caliphate collapsed. The need to relieve their plight by arranging longterm resettlement was obvious as the general toured the camp.
Unfortunately, al-hol is not a new problem. As commander of U.S. Central Command from 2016 to 2019, I saw this problem brewing late in 2018, when the fight against the Islamic State neared its conclusion, and both the victims and families of Islamic State fighters had nowhere to go. By the spring, with the allied military campaign ending, we had begun working with our Syrian Democratic Forces partners to evacuate Islamic State family members left behind to a location where they could be safeguarded, supported and ultimately returned to their countries of origin.
That place was al-hol. We did not intend for it to be a long-term displacement camp, because consolidating these Islamic State family members for an extended period could mean planting the seeds of future violence. We knew a massive, concerted effort to repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate these families was required.
Hauntingly, as they boarded buses after the last battles and headed for al-hol, many were singing songs about the glory of the Islamic State and reminding us they would return to slaughter us all.
The best opportunity to address a problem like this is always at the beginning — when appreciation for the threat is at its highest, providing the attention and momentum for resolution. Unfortunately, we — the U.S. government and all of our coalition partners — failed to do that, and the situation at al-hol has now festered for nearly 3½ years — with little discernible progress.
Only 25 of almost 60 countries have stepped up and repatriated their citizens who are at al-hol, according to a 2021 Human Rights Watch study. That response is certainly inadequate — if anything, the camp’s population is swelling, with not enough to address the volume of people housed at this camp, where more than 60 babies are born monthly.
There are reports that violence in the camp is rising dramatically, with more than 90 murders in the previous year, the United Nations said in March. Visits by humanitarian organizations are met with disdain, suspicion and outright threats.
Moreover, we are leaving the security of this camp to our Syrian Democratic Forces partners, sandwiched between the Russians and Turks, all while securing a restless foreign-fighter camp and disrupting Islamic State remnants and with little political support.
It is a lousy and irresponsible situation — and I am alarmed to see that what we feared several years ago is coming to fruition.
The region has a sad history of long-term displaced-person camps. Lebanon stands out as one of several states where they have existed for decades. Al-hol threatens U.S. national security interests by nurturing instability, promoting violent rhetoric and indoctrination, and allowing those who harbor ill will against the United States and its allies to continue recruiting and radicalizing. Resolving this problem would mitigate a long-term threat to U.S. security at home and in the region.
An international interagency task force is urgently needed to develop concrete solutions. The United States or another major Western nation should lead it. Military resources can help — but they should not lead the effort; instead, diplomatic, legal and international nongovernmental organization leadership is required. Every option should be considered for motivating and incentivizing countries to repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate their citizens from al-hol.
Iraq is a central challenge in this problem, as the majority of families at the camp trace back to that country, with its ever-turbulent political landscape. None of this will be easy — there will be thorny issues around the citizenship of children at al-hol, and many adults there lack legal documentation. Undoubtedly, there will be countless difficult matters to resolve. But that shouldn’t deter us from taking the action we know is necessary.
Al-hol is a job unfinished. I can almost guarantee that if we allow conditions there to go on, unresolved, in the coming years, we will find ourselves being drawn back to the region, to deal with a next-generation Islamic State that got its start at al-hol.