A Trip to Syria: ISIS Fighters’ Children Are Growing Up in a Desert Camp. What Will They Become?

I accompanied a military-escorted congressional fact-finding trip organized by @LindseyGrahamSC to look at detention of ISIS men & wives & children operated by a Kurdish-led militia that is the main US partner in northeastern Syria. Story has just posted:

This is what Al Hol — the vast camp for refugees and others displaced by war looks like from a helicopter. It is effectively a prison for ISIS wives and children, who are not allowed to leave. About 55,000 people are living there, half under age 12.

The delegation drove up a road between the main camp (for Iraqis and Syrians) and the annex (for third country nationals) and kids came to the fence to look. Here's a boy in a Star Wars shirt.

This boy, wearing clothes much too large for him, was clutching some notebooks and had made a star out of a sheet of paper, which he held up as we drove past him.

The delegation did not go inside the wire. Reporters — including my colleagues based in the Middle East — have done so. There were regular murders in the camp throughout 2021, and killings have surged since April.

A lot of the violence is attributed to hard-core ISIS zealot women who kill people for transgressions like talking to camp authorities. In this recent report, @SavetheChildren analyzed the trauma kids growing up there are experiencing.


Human rights groups and national-security specialists (including the military) broadly agree that leaving these kids to grow up there is a horrific problem. It is cruel today — and the conditions are likely to shape them into adults who will be radicalized & angry at the world.

We also went to Hasaka, where some of the adult men (and teenage boys culled from Al Hol as they grew older) are housed in a separate prison. In January, ISIS staged a major attack and breakout attempt on that prison, leading to a nearly two-week battle.

The attack came as the men had been housed in an ad hoc prison at an old technical college & were about to be moved to a more secure facility, custom-built by the UK as a prison. Authorities still don’t know exactly how many & who escaped: bodies were vaporized in the fighting.

Here's General "Amuda" (a nom de guerre), the head of a Syrian Democratic Forces commando unit that is a US partner force, on the roof of a prison building describing how the fierce fighting unfolded, day by day, to Graham. You can see some of the battle damage behind them.

One of the big fears is that Turkey — which considers the SDF to be an arm of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that is a designated terrorist organization — may soon attack the SDF in Northern Syria, as it did in 2019.

If Turkey attacks again, the SDF may pull its guards from Al Hol & the ISIS fighter prisons to defend its territory, losing control of the detainees. There could also be between 500k and 1.5 million newly displaced people from the border region, flooding toward this area. Chaos.

“If a Turkish attack in fact comes down, we’re going to potentially have ISIS 2.0,” Brig. Gen. Claude K. Tudor Jr., head of the anti-ISIS Special Ops task force, told Graham. He's at right; left is Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., head of the overall task force in Iraq and Syria.

Back in 2018, I accompanied @LindseyGrahamSC & @SenatorShaheen on a similar trip to look at ISIS fighter prisons run by the SDF. The takeaway was that it was not fair or sustainable for countries to outsource their ISIS nationals problem to the Kurds.

This is Guantanamo on steroids. In 2018, the SDF was detaining about 1k ISIS “fighters.” Four years later, it’s holding 10k. (5k Syrian; 3k Iraqi; & 2k from some 60 other countries.) The Kurds can’t prosecute them — they aren’t a sovereign government.

But if the takeaway from the 2018 trip was the near-term risks of outsourcing the custody of ISIS adult male fighters to the SDF, the takeaway from this one was the longer-term risk the world is creating by abandoning all these kids to grow up in this hell. What will they become?

Originally tweeted by Charlie Savage (@charlie_savage) on July 19, 2022.