The West must repatriate it’s citizens to prevent ISIS resurgence.

The West must repatriate it’s citizens to prevent ISIS resurgence.
Detainees in al-Hol Detention Camp. Courtesy of Middle East Institute.

The likelihood of an Islamic State resurgence is increasing. Prison breaks, insurgency activity, myriad uncoordinated militia activity and abhorrent prison conditions have created a tentative security position in Syria. This report from impACT shall lay out some of the major issues and suggest three vital policies that the international community must adopt.


The capitulation of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq from 2017-2019 was hard fought by a multitude of internal and external actors. The loss of Baghouz at the hands of the Kurdish-led coalition in 2019 marked their descent into dissolution from a so-called state. Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF and their affiliates, YPG etc.), the International Freedom Battalion, alongside American, French and British forces, swept through the city. Those living in IS controlled territory, willingly or unwillingly, were arrested and sent to detention sites by Kurdish authorities. 


Declaring autonomy from the Syrian state in July 2012, collectives began establishing a new network structure based on direct democracy and equality. Autonomous communities assumed control of state institutions in the northeast. Comprised of diverse ethnic and religious groups, they came together to form the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and since then have managed regions impacted by the long civil war. Since the arrest of many IS affiliates and civilians living in occupied territories in 2019, Kurdish forces have struggled to distinguish between normal civilians and militants. This has resulted in a swollen prison population across Kurdish controlled areas. Human Rights Watch indicates that some 42 400 foreign nationals accused of links to IS remain completely abandoned by their countries, as regional authorities desperately try to maintain a sense of order in a region rocked by chaos since the outbreak of civil war in 2011. 


In what has been called a “ticking time bomb” by numerous sources, at sites across the territory of Northeastern Syria, detention sites and prisons are literally overflowing with prisoners. Hardened jihadists, still loyal to the cause, are housed next to innocent civilians, many of whom are children, as they exist in absolute squalor. Sites, such as al-Hol and Sina’a, house 56 000 and 4 000 suspected IS-affiliates respectively. They are seriously under-resourced and cannot, without any international aid, deal with the situation effectively. As the AANES authorities are not a recognised nation under international law, they are disqualified from international aid (a situation that placed them in a precarious position particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic). Last year, both sites were subject to numerous ‘prison-break’ attempts. Reminiscent of their ‘Breaking Walls’ campaign in 2011/12 across Iraq, a foundational reason for their growth and success, IS have conducted numerous prison assaults to regenerate their forces and reanimate the Caliphate. Often these assaults prove effective, in January last year, during an assault on Sina’a Detention Facility, some 100 people were killed, 6 000 civilians were displaced, 4 high-ranking emirs were freed alongside roughly 30-300 militants. Then in February, 400 prisoners and other senior figures were liberated from Hasakah and fled into hiding.


Alongside the threat of violence from the outside, the detention sites themselves are rife with violence and death. Human Rights Watch reported in 2022 that 42 people were murdered in al-Hol, some of them by IS loyalists. Facilities are consistently being burned and destroyed by those loyal to the Caliphate. Children, however, are suffering the most. Many have drowned in sewage pits, died in tent fires, been run over by water trucks as people scramble for aid, and many more have died from preventable disease. The situation for many of the innocent detainees is desperate. 


Further, the Assad regime and international actors like Turkey, have exacerbated the situation. Beginning with the latter, Ankara has targeted Kurdish areas of critical infrastructure in North Eastern Syria, as retaliation for the terror attack in Istanbul in November last year, which they attributed to the PKK. The YPG unit, a Kurdish militia active in rooting out IS cells in AANES/Rojava, is associated with the PKK, which is used by Erdogan as evidence for involvement. Local forces, such as the regions police (Asayis) and the SDF told the BBC in November that they “may be forced to abandon camps holding IS detainees”. Three large-scale operations have been carried out by Turkey since 2016, some actually targeting detention facilities, like al-Hol. Air strikes were reported in and around the camp, and resulted in a number of detainees escaping. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that the attack created “a state of chaos” and allow detainees to flee. Worse, according to a number of sources, it has become an “open secret” that Turkey are providing IS militants safe havens across the border on the agreement that they will continue their attacks on the SDF and authorities in the Northeast of Syria. 


This is a tactic that has been used by Regime forces in Syria as Assad clings to power. In October 2017, a deal was struck that would allow militants to move through regime military lines to attack then-rebel forces in Idlib. This position was reversed in June 2020 when IS cells launched a surprise attack in regime territory, capturing two villages close to the city of Sa’an. 


Last year, General Abdi, head of the SDF warned the world that further attacks by regional powers could directly impact his forces ability to keep a lid on the situation. He and the SDF have called on both the US and Russia to exercise their powers to stop the Turkish offensives. 


Prisons are a site of significant value to IS. As they rose to prominence around 2011/2012, academics and policymakers noted that many high-ranking members, in particular, al-Baghdadi and Bakr (the former, their most known former-leader, the latter the architect of the Emni, the intelligence arm) had been housed at a US-built detention facility in Iraq; Camp Bucca. Jihadists, former Ba’athists operatives for Saddam Hussein and civilians were housed in similarly over-populated and under-resourced facilities. The brutality of the conditions experience there, alongside fervent jihadists, gave Bucca the name “a university for jihadists” as connections were forged, networks were established and trauma was embedded in a community of prisoners. 


Alongside their historical value, prison breaks also serve a number of distinct purposes that contribute to their successes. Academics have highlighted three major strategic benefits to targeting prisons: 

  1. “Force regeneration”: The freeing of militants housed in detention sites engorges their forces that have been decimated by the success of Kurdish and international forces. Those freed also feel obligated to continue fighting/working for their liberators. 
  2. “Freeing of high-value prisoners”: Emirs, military leaders and propagandists are often primary targets for IS. They hold significant value to the organisation and their representation externally. 
  3. “Propagandistic value”: Achieving success holds hugely beneficial propagandistic values. Successful attacks indicate loyalty of leadership to those suffering at camps, as well as military prowess. 


This year, IS has carried out devastating attacks, particularly in central Syria and the Badia desert region, though total attacks are down from last year. impACT implores policymakers to not take a decrease in net activity for granted, the global situation is still fragile and we must take this opportunity to prevent any opportunity for IS to regenerate, rebuild their forces or even sympathies in the region. Long recognised as an area that is used to train, house and ‘educate’ IS trainees, it is still an active area for militants. Though the group has been forced to shift to insurgency tactics, such as hit-and-run ambushes and use of IEDs, they have still continued their brutal attacks on civilians in Syria. In February, 31 people in the Badia were killed as they foraged for truffles, many of them were executed with gunshot wounds to the head. 


Many different militia’s and military’s are still active in the region. The SDF continue to fight hard against sleeper cells, though Rojava’s information network suggest a decrease in attacks in comparison to last year, other groups, such as Russia’s neo-Nazi Wagner Group have been increasingly active. It was reported last month that the Group had been held to a stalemate in the abandoned village of al-Kawm as an IS cell has looked to carve out safe-havens across the desert. It is reported that they are only using small arms at this moment in time, marking stark contrast to their previous military prowess.


With a slight uptick in IS sleeper cell activity in recent months, this should serve as a major warning to policy analysts and governments across the globe. As many innocent civilians, a huge portion of them children, suffer in “unconscionable conditions”, the longer they are held at detention sites with no hope of release, the increasing likelihood that they will lean to support the radical detainees that are housed with them. Global security is at threat as overpopulated prisons alongside increased IS activity could create a situation similar to that of 2011/12. If they are able to conduct further assaults on prisons, the release of militants could re-animate the group and, in a region with little security, result in the resurgence of the Caliphate. 


The situation for the many in Syria has become worse since the 7.8 earthquake that rocked the country in February. Figures up to now illustrate that over 7,000 have died, with thousands of homes levelled, the country continues to be ripped apart by a multitude of militia’s. The United States bombs Iraqi-affiliated militias, Israel bombs Hezbollah an Iranian-sponsored militia, regime forces bomb, Assad forces aided by Russia continue to bomb rebel forces and Turkey continues to bomb Kurdish forces and chaos continues. The international community must take steps to prevent further chaos and save Syrian lives.


impACT International urges the international community to support three policy options: 


  1. Repatriate foreign fighters: Foreign nationals housed in detention sites must return to their native nations in order to face swift justice and ease the burden on authorities in AANES/Rojava.
  2. Pool resources to improve security of prisons in short-term: Providing adequate security equipment for AANES forces, such as the SDF, and local police (Asayis, who have proved themselves capable and committed to preventing the IS resurgence) to decrease the likelihood of further prison breaks in the short-term. 
  3. Pressure the Assad Regime and Turkey to stop aiding IS in order to proxy-battle Kurdish and other rebel groups: Though channels of communication between global powers (with Russia supporting the Assad regime and Turkey looking to establish itself as a significant power in the region) are likely unreceptive to discussions, an effort must be made to prevent Turkey and Assad continuing to aid militants.


Impact of Private Sectors in times of conflicts and crisis situations...

In times of conflicts and crisis situations, private sector has a key role in recovering and developing national economy

Facebook's blocking of accounts signals failure of oversight board

Facebook seems to abandon its corporate values in countries such as these in the pursuit of further economic growth

Fast fashion at a human cost - Zara fashion retailer chooses sales ov...

International companies such as Zara, H&M, Pretty Little Thing, Asos, Bershka and many more, hide their labour abuses behind a complicated line of supply...