Syria’s North Eastern province of Al Hasakah, where 10,000 alleged ISIS members have been imprisoned, has witnessed disturbing developments in the past month. On Jan. 20, around 100 ISIS members employing suicide vests and car bombs overran the al Sina prison in southern Hasakah, which housed thousands of the ISIS militants. The attack, following ISIS’s long-held strategy of “Breaking the Walls” to attack prisons in order to free like-minded jihadists and revive their ranks, as was carried out by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in July 2013, was intended to free their incarcerated comrades. It involved using a bomb-filled truck in a suicide mission and was also the second such plot – an identical first one had been thwarted weeks before, meaning ISIS had multiple vectors and cells for carrying out this attack and it was a crucial effort for them.
To sow chaos during the attack, the inmates who had prior knowledge of these attacks instigated timely prison riots, killing guards, taking the young boys held in another part of the complex hostage and later storming out of the prisons. This brazen prison assault, seen as the most sophisticated complex attack launched by the group in the past three years, raged a bloody 9-day battle between the ISIS sleeper cells and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, also drawing in the U.S. air coalition that carried out initial airstrikes in support of their local allies. On Jan. 30, by the time the operation ended, a great deal of damage had already been done alongside the valiant deaths of 140 SDF forces and prison guards and dozens of ISIS members killed. Scores of ISIS prisoners which may be in the hundreds escaped, amongst them 20 high-profile ISIS militants, who are reportedly being smuggled into the central Syrian desert, the safe haven of the ISIS insurgency. The SDF administration followed by revamping its security and surveillance architecture and has undertaken aggressive combing operations across Al Hasakah to hunt down escaped ISIS fugitives and has launched rigorous military operations and major search raids in the neighborhood provinces of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa that led to the arrest of a major ISIS financier who was responsible for transferring money in Al Hol camp to ISIS sleeper cells.
While all these events have gained enough media traction, what has been paid less attention was how the SDF administration – highly alarmed by this prison break – overhauled its security vigilance in the camps, particularly Al Hol, and undertook various security crackdowns for the fear of further infiltration of ISIS cells inside the camps that can again trigger a cycle of dangerous killings, also raising the dangerous prospect of further escapes of the ISIS women who ostensibly came in contact with the escaped ISIS militants and prisoners. The monitoring of social media discourse from inside the camps reveals how the SDF embraced a tight security regime that they hadn’t implemented in the recent years to stall any further violence. As a consequence ISIS-linked women from the camps in Al Hol started reflecting the impact of the tightened security measures. They reported via social media increased search raids, accusing the guards of stealing their valuable belongings, sweeping investigations in the tents, closure of markets, added fortifications and additional troop deployment coupled with the prohibition of entry and exit to everyone except the medical workers.
Thus we see now in monitoring social media from the camps that the recent notorious ISIS attack has changed the security dynamics in the camps and that the recent crowdfunding efforts have shifted their focus to openly rallying for freeing the prisoners including men, women and children. This article aims to open a window to the social media discourse of ISIS adherents and discuss the repercussions it may have for the region.
Social Media Updates from the Camps
While one can never be certain one is observing posts from inside the camp, those who observe such postings get to know the “signature” of many posters. Yet this study takes on face value that women who claim to be inside the camps actually are. To follow ICSVE’s ethics on internet research the first author, who collected this data, did not question the women and records only publicly posted comments after removing all identifying information. Below is a compilation of some of those posts.
In regard to a recent claimed statement that niqabs, which make it impossible for the Kurds to know who has done what, are no longer being tolerated in the camps, a Russian woman from Al Hol wrote, “Recently, namely, starting from the 20th of January, after the fights for freedom between the Kurds and the prisoners of the Guveyran prison in Hasakah began, we are also not calm!!! Kurdish najas [ritually unclean], not only forced us to take off our niqabs, they delivered an ultimatum ‘If you want to get to the market, or to the hospital, take off your niqabs.’ – this is the plan. So ever since then, every night, and sometimes even during the day, they just calmly do not let you get the phone – they go around, snooping around. There were even cases when men entered the tent at night, when the sisters were sleeping, Subhanallah 1, waking up, they found their eyes on themselves .. They also began to take money and gold jewellery. May Allah protect us all from their evil Allah1u Akbar, Yesterday, a pickup truck was also seen, which drove into their office, in the back was full of weapons ..And just a couple of hours ago, they said that there would be a big raid.”
The updates about the evolving on-ground developments were also circulated by admins of the various ISIS-linked online crowdfunding networks on social media. They initiated an awareness campaign about the deteriorating security conditions in the camps to mobilize more support and raise funds for the daily sustenance of these women. One admin on the Russian Telegram group asked the Muslims to make dua (prayer) for women and showed how the “sisters” were so resilient and patient not complaining about the difficult living conditions they live in, but instead worried about the condition and well-being of ISIS fighters, their brothers, when they were valiantly fighting against the ” Kurdish dogs”. He writes, “Do not forget to make dua for the children and sisters who are already 9 days without a market. These dogs cordoned off everything and did not allow anyone to call in, except for the cleaners and bread (Syrian). Do not forget to make dua so that Allah will ease this situation for them. The sisters themselves do not complain, just the children of subhanallah are worried about the situation of the brothers”
As the Defeat ISIS Coalition continues to work together to control the situation, Apache helicopters hover over the camps to monitor suspicious activities and the Kurdish internal security forces began digging earth mounds as an added layer of defense and closing the main gates of the camp to stall any escapes, panic and fear engulfed the tents and the group chats of the women started teeming with messages of warnings about the raids and investigations that were carried in the tents to further inform and alert other women so that they could hide their prized possessions and belongings, the most important being their mobile phones which are the only source of communication and entertainment with the outside – for the possession of which women could land up in prisons. The social media landscape from Al Hol with the photos of newly imposed barriers, newly installed security cameras, distressed scenes of people scrambling to escape from the accidental fires, closure of markets – that has now led to the increase in the supply of food prices alluding to how their living conditions have deteriorated following the battle between the ISIS and the Kurdish fighters at Ghweiran.
In the sea of the opinions of hundreds of women in the camp, the social media landscape in channels where ISIS women in the camps tend to post is dominated by the voices of those who vociferously continue to be loyal and offer moral support to the group when the “mujahideen” were embroiled in the skirmishes with the SDF following the ISIS-laid siege of the Ghweiran prison. With the ISIS militants having an upper hand in the initial days of battle when they held minors hostage inside the prison, the stream of various congratulatory messages with the hashtag #Ghewiranbreakingtheprisonwalls started pouring from different corners of the world stretching from India to Netherlands on the ISIS “ansar” channels, out of which many were ostensibly from Al Hol camp posted in order to glorify ISIS’s prison assault. A written message in calligraphic font written discreetly from the tents of Al Hol read “From Al Hol camp, we congratulate our brothers who were released from Ghweran prison. We are waiting for you!” An ISIS adherent using an ISIS kunya on her Facebook profile desperate for her release through her post turned hopeful that after Ghweiran the next destination for ISIS fighters is Al Hol, alluding that the militants would next overrun the Al Hol detention center: “The boom sounds faint, the area is Sham and the sound echoes between AL HawL and Sijn Ghuwiron, a distance of 60 km or an hour’s journey Bi’idznillaah [by the Glory of Allah’s religion,] Next [destination]Alhol AL HawL- Help the Mujahideen with Your Best Prayers Ya Ikhwah Fillah [Oh Brothers in Allah].”
The communication wasn’t just from one side. Many ISIS prisoners during the clashes with the SDF forces as substantiated by the claims of women from the camps show that they were able to establish communication with them back within their camps. Updating them about their condition in the prisons, the ISIS fighters holding out in the prison acknowledged that there were scores of wounded militants who needed urgent medical attention and also insisted that they (the women) need to be “prepared” because fighters who were able to escape to raise the banner of the black ISIS flag could soon storm Al Hol camp to free them as well. According to ICSVE interviews in Al Hol, Al Roj and the now-closed Ain Issa camps, this has been the horrific fear of those women who no longer support ISIS – that their fighters could come reclaim them from the camps, against their will. But for the ISIS diehards, it’s what they’ve been wishing for and preaching about for their months and years of captivity. A Turkish brother who managed to escape contacted his mother to tell her there was bombardment and armed attacks and also told how the male ISIS prisoners escaped from building to building. Another message from the female camps talked about the men contacting from inside the siege. It reads, “Many brothers have called their wives, the situation is difficult, some have not eaten for ten days. Everyone here accepts good news, also we were told be prepared maybe our camp will be stormed too and to stick in our tents in case of shootings.” The escaped ISIS men also instructed their relatives back in the camps to steer clear of participating in the pro-ISIS demonstrations chanting “Takhbhir, Allahu Akbar” [Let’s say Allah is the Greatest!] as this would bring them under the immediate radar of Asayish (internal security forces) that would inhibit their further mutual communication. For the “steadfastness” of the “mujahideen,” that in their eyes could pave the victory over “infidels,” the ISIS fighters from inside the prison circulated instructions for their wives “to fast for 3 days in a row, do a lot of tauba [repentance], and ask Allah to hide them from the damned kuffar [unbelievers].” This reflects their belief that fasting alongside praying would reinvigorate the fighting spirit of these fighters and yield greater chances of their win over “kuffars”.
While some pro-Islamic State women were flirting with the elusive idea of their husbands freeing them from prisons, some also realized that if ISIS militants in such debilitating security conditions would mount any attack or infiltrate the detention camp, there lingers a pervading threat of them getting caught after escaping from the camps. They claimed that the strategy of extricating them from the camps could prove detrimental at a time when even the freed ISIS militants in the prevailing hostile security condition would be clamoring to find safe havens in Al Hasakah and neighboring provinces where the SDF has been on high alert undertaking sweeping combing operations against the ISIS sleeper cells. On the other hand in Al Roj, some women dressed their kids as” mujahideen” posing with knives to jubilantly celebrate the ISIS attack on the Al Sina Prison proving their loyalty for the group. While ISIS-related social media was replete with solidarity congratulatory messages for the ISIS fighters who overran the Al Sina prison, other discussions revolved around advising the sisters as ISIS also did in the past, not to consume the news from the “kufr media” which they claim are only rumors and lies, and discussing which prisoners might have made their way out and anticipating the death of Kurdish-led SDF fighters by the increasing Turkish-backed SNA attacks and drone attacks from Turkey inside SDF-held territories. The rumors that were being peddled included that Al Salama – who was the Al Baraka Wali and the security chief of Al Shadadi district in Al Hasakah before the fall of ISIS – had been able to escape from the prison. Al Salama is an important figure in that he headed sleeper cells after the territorial defeat of ISIS to carry out attacks in Rojava and facilitated the process of transferring ISIS militants from Deir Ezzor to Turkey and also oversaw IS weapon smuggling and financial operations from the chaos of ensuing clashes. If true, the escape of such high-ranking IS members who are familiar with the local terrain would certainly add fuel to the group’s resurgence.
The discussions are a testament that validates the claims of constant communication between the ISIS prisoners and the fugitives with their families back in the detention facilities of Al Hol and other camps in which they were updating their relatives about the on-ground developments. The coordinated prison assault with the incarcerated members also is a testament to the determination of ISIS to repeat its “Breaking the Walls” campaign that worked so well for them when they were still AQI in Iraq. It is also a testament to the grave intelligence and surveillance failure and longstanding loopholes that the SDF security apparatus, facing threats from all sides, reels from while overseeing these detention facilities. Their lack is largely owing to a lack of infrastructural support from the international community in overseeing these facilities, many countries who have also repetitively refused to repatriate IS fighters and their family members, leaving the SDF and AANES government to fend for themselves to secure these detention centers. Monitoring of social media discourse of the women from the camps lends credence to the argument and reinforces suspicions that phones were being smuggled in the highly fortified Al Sina detention center and the incarcerated fighters had access to communication devices through usually underpaid prison guards who might have allowed the prison inmates to use their phones in exchange for bribes. This same dynamic can be seen for the women in the camps in even larger proportions. Smuggling of cell phones through employees and shop owners is also a prevalent problem in the camps and, per the accounts of European women from Al Roj, in some cases guards facilitate the smuggling of phones inside the camp and the financial differentials are so strong that some Kurdish guards even purchase old smartphones from well-financed ISIS women who get new ones for themselves. While the use of phones for the foreigner annex in Al Hol is strictly forbidden, women from other sections of the camp could also purchase phones on their behalf and hand them over to foreign women staying in this most threatening part of the camp in exchange for a commission. Anti-ISIS women also rely on these smuggled in and illegal phones as lifelines back to family and friends. One anti-ISIS woman openly talked about how buying a phone is a costly affair as it costs a whopping $500: “The phones were less expensive. I bought this one for 150$ Now for this price you can have a very old phone with many problems. They bring in new phones for 400 to 500$. So it’s more risky for the ones that bring things in and they (those who bring in) also take advantage of the situation we are in, we have no other choice.”
Apart from the smuggling of phones, renewed efforts have been diverted to freeing many women ISIS prisoners from the camps in the past 5 months. But what has been extraordinary is the recurrent aggressive PR campaigns of smuggling young children from Al Hol. As the rumors engulf the camp about how the SDF administration is doubling down on admitting the children, who have been exposed to the ideological indoctrination, into various deradicalization and rehabilitation programs in centers far away from the camp, the fears of mothers regarding separation from their children have triggered panic and anxiety amongst the pro-Islamic State women who then write to the various administrators of the fundraising campaigns to raise money for facilitating the exit of these children from the camps. Up to now, male children over ages 11 or 12 have been taken from their mothers in the camps and cycled through rehabilitation centers in Qamishlo, spending some of their time imprisoned apart from, but in the same complex, as the al Hasakah adult male prisons. Some of these were the boys held hostage during the siege by ISIS fighters. The future for such boys is dire. Due to few options, given their home countries won’t repatriate them, these boys who may be totally innocent are moved when they turn 18 from youth facilities to the adult male ISIS population. Thus their mothers who will be separated from them in either case wanting better for them, if pro-ISIS, turn to ISIS for help.
In many cases, the social media discourse indicated that the frantic appeals are made by the pro-Islamic State women for freeing their children – who in the case of pro-ISIS mothers have exhibited violent behavior toward aid workers and doctors and are under the constant radar of the SDF as the camp officials see these children of pro-ISIS wives as being the most vulnerable to radicalization due to their mothers’ indoctrination. Apart from the children of pro-ISIS women being predisposed toward violence due to their mothers’ encouragement, Russian women from Al Hol also claim that the camp guards hunt for these teenage boys because of their brawny and large physiques. When a woman sympathetic to ISIS on her Facebook pleaded for help for the release of her teenage son from the camp, many other women vented out their frustrations by berating the actions of these youth who under the influence of their pro-ISIS mothers not only hurl stones at other women and their children in the camps, spreading panic, but also hurt other humanitarian workers and doctors and as a result they claim that many aid organizations fearing for their safety have withdrawn their aid services from the camp residents. Indeed, in light of ISIS’s repetitive targeting of medical workers and the threat from indoctrinated teenage boys, this has set a dangerous precedent for humanitarian organizations. Answering back to the plea made by the pro-ISIS women for help, another Russian camp resident acrimoniously writes, “Who is to be blamed for the fact that these dogs are chasing your son. Yes, I also have a son Alhamdulilah. And I am raising him. And my son does not throw stones at his sisters, It is these big boys of yours that do not give us rest, In what they only press us before the kafirs.” Another woman adds, “They, (the SDF) Surrounded the market, drove two machines with machine guns, and stupid children, stupid mothers throw stones at them, provoking them. Then they will howl on the whole Internet that their children were killed by ladies also, а group of stunned Daesh women beat our sister by stealing money from her, beaten up for seeing her get help from Kafirs, transferring for sisters.”
It is in this context, where countries refuse to repatriate minors, that the ISIS-linked Russian crowdfunding campaigns are rallying to speedily raise money for smuggling adolescents from Al Hol ostensibly to protect them from ultimately being imprisoned with the adult ISIS men, but likely from the point of view of ISIS they will be used to replenish ISIS’s dwindling ranks and decreasing manpower. At least some of these escaped children are indoctrinated and prepared for rigorous combat training to later fight for the black banner of ISIS in the Syrian (Al Badia) deserts. Traditionally such pleas for financing the escapes of children of ISIS militants used to only surface on closed private forums, but that has now changed with many donation advertisements aimed at releasing children now making their way to open public forums and public Telegram channels. In the first recent appeal of February, two Russian-linked ISIS channels predominantly created for crowdfunding these escapes have been aggressively pushing for raising the ransom money of $11,000 for a 17-year-old Russian teenage boy who owing to his muscular build and ostensible activities of violence has been under constant supervision of the camp’s security apparatus and also been “imprisoned,” as claimed by these pro-ISIS Russian channels. The emotive requests for freeing these teenage boys usually employs a manipulate narrative of how the prolonged stay of the teenage boys in the camp may expose them to the Asaysh’a torture in jails or in worst cases they may also get killed by the SDF as an act of retribution against the terror group. While these claims are propaganda, it’s true the children will ultimately end up in adult prisons as they age into it, which is a ghastly treatment of minors who were taken to ISIS with no fault of their own.
On the pro-ISIS Russian channel a message appeared: “Brothers and sisters, a sister from the Al Hol camp turned to us today. She has a son, 17 years old. The situation is very difficult, because you always have to hide him from the damned Kurds, otherwise he will be taken to prison. There is an opportunity to pick him up from there, but for this you need $11,000, everyone who reads it will think that Ogoo! Such an amount, but know that everything is easy for Allah, the most important thing is to take reason and trust in Allah properly. We opened a collection for this, let’s help him get out of there so that he does not fall into the hands of these Kurdish dogs. . Let’s be the cause of his leaving the camp, because Allah helps those who help their brother when they are in trouble.” It remains unclear whether the funds are being raised for an Iraqi/Syrian child or child of an ISIS foreign fighter but as it is widely known that the rates for smuggling foreign ISIS women and youth are much higher than that of arranging the escape money for Syrian women and youth and Syrians are routinely released back into Syria if they are deemed deradicalized. The rate of $11,000 suggests that the collected money will go for freeing a child of a foreign ISIS fighter with the other factors such as age, destination, smuggling method determining the final rate. (The cheapest rate involves no mode of transport, followed by making their way out in water, food tanks, garbage trucks, or by brokering with the leaders in upper echelons of administration.) The stream of money that flows into these ISIS-linked Qiwi wallets is currently at a snail’s pace but there have been some generous donors who have sometimes “generously” transferred $300-$500, expediting the “revenue collection” efforts.
The aggressive call for amplifying financial support for such ransom pleas to release ISIS youth involves a daily updating of the collection of the “ransom fees” on their Telegram pages and arbitrarily citing Quranic quotes regarding the obligation of releasing the prisoners from captivity (as shown in the above image) to keep up the momentum of cash flows. The children featured on the videos covering their faces, themselves requesting supporters to free them from these camps has even greater potential of garnering more sympathy and potentially more funds from ISIS supporters. The children having been indoctrinated with their mothers’ toxic ideology and religious fervor are brainwashed into believing that if they are returned to their home countries they will be prevented from practicing true Islam and that they have to today live without their heroic ISIS fighter fathers because the “kuffars” ruthlessly spilled the blood of their fathers and other Muslims. A message that has been widely circulated as a direct donation advertisement features such children: “This is the third year we have been in captivity in the camp. We have become adults, these godless Kurds can take us to their prisons. So don’t be careless about it, don’t let us grow up under their care and guidance, don’t let them ruin our fitrah [inborn innocence] and make us the same apostates and enemies of Islam as they are!!! We need your dua!” Paying heed to the security concerns, the administrators later opened a private group for the donations of this plea and it remains unclear how much money has been collected for the smuggled escapes of these teenage boys.
Apart from buying “educational materials” these IS-linked Russian channels have also focused on using the collected money to buy Qurans, and for buying gifts for children who took part in religious knowledge-seeking competitions and cleared the written and oral tests that were prepared as a part of their religious curriculum that has been created by the “madrassas” run by the women in the tents in camp Al Hol to further perpetuate the spread of ISIS’s virulent ideology.
Apart from targeting the boys who might soon enter the phase of adulthood, the group also eyes orphans who are taken care of by pro-Islamic State women, who capitalize on their claims of motherhood to sponsor their daily needs and escape the camps. The past instances as claimed by women on the German ISIS-linked Telegram group also include the smuggling of a group of Uighur teenage boys from the camps and the recent December attempt reported of how their vastly entrenched financial networks and handsome funding helped free a foreign ISIS woman and an orphaned child. The group actively involved in the human smuggling network Wilayah Al Khayr and “Unsere Schwester,” which traditionally focused on prioritizing the escape of widows of ISIS fighters accompanying their orphan children, within the period of three months was able to raise $15,000 for the release of an injured orphan and the widow of an ISIS fighter by sharing the news of her release on their Telegram channels: “In the name of ‘Wilayat al Khayr’ and Our Sisters’ we wish to announce glad tidings to you, by the grace of Allah as well as your generosity, another sister and her orphans were released from captivity.” These German-language ISIS-linked channels in the mid half of last year reportedly sent monthly transfers of $500 to two Caucasian women and their children in Turkey who had been smuggled out of Al Hol, along with financially helping a deported ISIS fighter in Lebanon pay off debt that he incurred while paying his bail charges. Another advertisement on this channel included a plea for $2,000 to help 5 Arab fighters escape “who had been betrayed and spied upon.” These two ISIS-linked German channels collaborating with other channels back in August and September 2020 additionally claimed to have generated sufficient capital for the medical treatment of escaped ISIS children in Syria and in unison with two other channels, “Sisters in Captivity” and “Our Rose,’” claimed to have arranged a whopping €10,000 over a period of 5 months by setting up three different PayPal accounts for legal fees and daily sustenance of the family of convicted Austrian IS recruiter and radical preacher Ebu Tijima, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a local criminal court in Austria. The fact that even after their accounts were flagged multiple times and ultimately blocked by PayPal, after which the donors transferred an amount directly into the personal account of ISIS jihadist Ebu Tijama, reflects how skillfully these fundraisers have been able to exploit the loopholes in the various online payment gateways and their countries’ banking systems. Some fundraisers have also capped the minimum transfer value at €100 if they want to “contribute” to the “cause of freeing the prisoners.” Another innovative method of raising funds to attract more supporters has led these German ISIS-linked channels to set up a buy-and-sell market of secondhand goods on Telegram with the proceeds generated from this business utilized for financing the monthly expenses of the women in ISIS camps. From watches, hijabs, Qurans, phones, attire for children, religious books to shoes, all are sold at inexpensive prices ranging from $5 to $25 Euros. Thus it has become a sustainable business model for such fundraisers to collaboratively set up new business ventures such as “Muwahideen [Monotheist] perfumes, Islamic clothing for children, selling of delicacies” and as they claim that the revenue generation would go for the families of prisoners, their businesses gain more popularity and prominence and lure in more Muslims to buy the products resulting in even more financial resources to support these women prisoners in the camps.
Since the beginning of January 2022 online crowdfunding campaigns have gathered steam for collecting “ransom fees” geared toward freeing male prisoners and women from the detention camps in Syria. These fundraisers have also focused on aiding the women to pay off heavy debts they incurred while scrambling to arrange for financial assistance to make their way out of camps. A very active Islamic State-linked Russian financial private network, “Help the believers,” likewise oversees soliciting funds for freeing the male prisoners, teenage boys and smuggling of female ISIS loyalists from Al Hol camp. This Russian channel has been able to bank on their wide social media outreach to gain enough financial backing from the supporters to bankroll many escapes within the time period of 2 months. The administrator claimed before the ISIS attack on the Al Hasakah prison they had managed to raise within a period of 1 month $10,000 out of $20,000 needed for brokering the release of their fatally injured high-ranking Islamic State leader out of the Syrian prisons, a channel that additionally “had helped many sisters by providing financial support.” In a closed Telegram group, the organizer of the fundraiser wrote, “My dear brothers and sisters. After collecting for the ransom of the sisters, we, together with the channel, want to open a collection for the wounded brother. He had a lot of wounds in the path of Allah and he held a great position in our State until he was imprisoned. The brother was distinguished by his disposition and help to the sisters. But now he is in the same position. He needs an operation because his leg was broken during the arrest, he is already covered in wounds and he had a lot of operations in the way of Allah.” It remains unclear whether the ISIS leader whose exit they are negotiating was detained in Al Ghweiran prison, or in the 30 detention centers in Qamishli, or other prisons under the SDF control, in the detention facilities controlled by the Assad regime or in the Turkish-backed SNA territories. But the demand of $20,000 suggests that the attempts are being made to release a non-Syrian high-ranking foreign ISIS fighter. In the month of December, the “Help the Believers” channel in tandem with another channel, “Help the oppressed sisters in Al Hol,” claimed to have raised another $3,000 for freeing two Syrian women from Al Hol camp and another $1,500 which facilitated the way of an alleged Syrian ISIS fighter out of the prison for which he also wrote a letter thanking his “immigrant brothers” for sponsoring his release. The monitoring of earlier fundraisers highlight that some of the fighters and Syrian women have been bribed out of or smuggled from the prisons and IDP camps in Tel Abyad that are under the control of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. In the given letter, the ISIS-related Russian channel writes how they generated funds for the release of an ISIS-linked Syrian woman, Umm Dua, for $1,600 and as a testament of her release purportedly shared the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army affiliated military court’s legal papers labeled “reconciliation agreement” that sanctioned the release of this woman. Such official documents or agreements substantiate claims that ISIS sympathizers’ money has been utilized for the release of prisoners and helps the organizers of these fundraising campaigns prove their credibility to their donors, which in turn eases and smooths the pace of their money collection.
Apart from gaining leverage over a slew of fundraising pages, garnering credibility also becomes pertinent at a time when the members of the SDF security services work hard to counter them by employing counterintelligence operations, i.e. by posing as ISIS-linked financial facilitators or smugglers to gather intelligence on those collaborating with or supporting IS and to also thwart escape attempts from the camps as a part of wider strategy bolstering their information-gathering capabilities on terrorist groups. This can be seen in the wider context of how widely it is known that Turkey’s hawala transfer system evidently has been used as premier gateway for moving ISIS funds in and out of Syrian camps and the group has also resorted to traditional methods of money transfer via exchange offices and jewelry companies that were set up in Syria and Turkey. Indeed, one ICSVE interviewee very familiar with ISIS’s use of the hawala system stated that once money arrives into the Turkish hawala system it is basically already accessible throughout Syria as well. The recent MASAK report (the body attached to the Turkey Financial Ministry) divulged how the ISIS collaborator in Turkey, who acquired Turkish citizenship, through their various companies registered as businesses dealing in construction and industrial supplies had facilitated the transfer of equipment required to make drones and improvised explosive devices to top ISIS leaders in Syria. Even an alleged ISIS supporter/media operative who is based in Idlib active on social media hinted at how it easy to bribe the Turkish-backed SNA faction leaders for as little as $100 to allow the release of ISIS leaders or let them move through their territory, referring that the territories under their control could act as safer refuge for them than Idlib.
Another network run by an immigrant German woman living in Idlib and working in coordination with other German crowdfunding pages claimed in February that they had successfully raised around $10,000 within a month through the secure payment gateways of Western Union and RIA money transfer to “negotiate” the price for the release of another wounded ISIS fighter ostensibly from SDF-administered prisons. The target audience for this channel is European IS sympathizers. She reflected on an example of how this was possible under the reconciliation scheme in which the channel claims the SDF administration had previously released a local Syrian ISIS fighter in exchange for $8,000 who was also obliged to sign a declaration form promising not to join any terrorist organization and to leave the SDF-controlled territory of northeastern Syria. Indeed, she is correct that Syrian ISIS members are released by the SDF and AANES government if they are deemed deradicalized and not to have blood on their hands, but officially, at least, no money exchanges hands for these releases.
However, as per the declaration form given bearing the YPG insignia, found on Telegram, the inmates are expected to pay a fee to the public finance department in return for their release. A Guardian report corroborates this claim as the report states that two “former” Islamic State fighters have been freed through such arrangements in 2019 without trials. If this is true, also in the case of IS fighters accused of committing acts of brutal killings, they get an opportunity to walk free with impunity to later pose an unprecedented security threat to the locals in the region. However, AANES officials have assured ICSVE researchers that only those judged not to have blood on their hands are ever released.
In this context, the German ISIS-linked woman posted how the prisoners are freed by negotiating with the authorities: “Because our brothers fight these dogs, and of course no prison will officially release them except only for money for black work that takes place under the table. How do you think brothers get free here, like sisters from the camps free themselves?” Not with the help of Muslims, wrote one of the admins on the group chat. She further writes, “We said that if the brother is released, they ( SDF) should let us know, and if it is possible, a Dalil or other documents will be sent. The money just got here a few days ago. Inshallah Sabar.” As the research showed, immigrant ISIS loyalists in Syria are the ones who steer/drive donation efforts for freeing the IS prisoners alongside sympathizers in their home countries and communicating in the home language draws in more immigrant and overseas donations.
Touching on the highly contentious debate about whether financial support is only provided to the ISIS loyalists in the camp, and about the aspect of commissions to be paid for the money flowing into Al Hol, the administrator of a fundraising channel that caters to raising money for the daily expenses of women in al Hol stated, “We help everyone who asks for. They know, of course, since this money is sent inside the camp, and who gets the profit from it? Think for yourself. There are also many swindlers who, at the expense of other people’s troubles, make fees for themselves, I also met a lot of scammers, so we try to do everything transparently, and for 3 years Alhamdulillah [Praise Allah] have not let anyone down, we make reports, and we write who received how much.” Countering this claim, a Russian woman disillusioned with ISIS says this is not the case. She commented that, “I have not received help through my channel for a long time. I work here, I cook food for sale, that’s how I make a living. I don’t get help from anyone here. I began to study the religion of Islam and realized that this state [ISIS] was not Islamic at all. I don’t keep in touch with relatives. Hence I feel some of these organizations only help those who support ISIS.” Some women loyal to IS claim how the donors shouldn’t support the “Hazimis,” i.e. extremist takfiris in the camp who disrespect “Amir Al Mumimeen”. Hazimis is a tag for women who are more radical than ISIS in their ideological interpretation and who excommunicate every Muslim who doesn’t adhere to their strict and often brutal interpretations of Islam and jihad. In the words of one woman from camp Al Roj, “They consider ISIS as disbelievers because the most extreme are saying that ISIS isn’t right in considering people being or not being muslims. For the most extreme people, if you don’t consider someone being a disbeliever while (for them) he is, then they consider you also disbelievers. I got into ideological arguments many times with many women but some don’t want to open their eyes.. So I stopped having arguments with people.”
Further, as these IS-linked fundraising networks have evaded the scrutiny of banking systems and intelligence agencies by mastering the art of slipping through these security cracks to deliver financial assistance for these women, it is difficult to determine whether the delivered money is catered toward only looking after their daily needs, or for weapons purchases or raising smuggling capital. Tracing the trail of money becomes a tall task for intelligence agencies as money is channeled across diverse and informal networks spread across the globe and accepted through highly secured anonymous complex payment systems (use of cryptocurrencies, i.e. anonymous Bitcoin transfers, anonymous transfers through Qiwi Wallet terminals, Direct Money transfers through Western Union and hawala and money service businesses) to circumvent the formal banking sector, all of which mutates into cash smuggling finally arriving at the last destination in the camps. The crowdfunding platforms like PayPal have also been used to raise funds that are wired to recipients through private bank accounts and transported in cash into Syria via Turkey. This triggers a rather opaque convoluted financial ecosystem where the lines between legitimate charitable giving and sponsoring terrorism get blurred, complicating the counterterrorism efforts to hold these individuals to account who bankroll the notorious activities and operations of ISIS. Many surreptitious means are advised by these channels. For example, the Russian fundraising campaign asks the donors to pay above $1,000 rubles to avoid multiple transfers as the repetitive transfers in wallets might bring them under the watchful eye of the law enforcement authorities possibly leading to their imprisonment. Other fundraisers from Europe only accept donations above €100. Tajik channels repeatedly post security awareness tips asking the donors to hide their faces while going to Qiwi terminals to avoid their movements being captured by the security cameras and strongly instruct the followers to burn the given number in which they were asked to transfer the money.
As observed, it is the foreign contingent of ISIS supporters in the annex part of the camp that remain most vocal on social media about their support for the group and it thus cannot be underestimated how and in what capacities these true believers blinded by their IS ideology might provide support for the group once they have been able to escape from the camps, as evident in the earlier case study of an immigrant German-speaking woman who claims to raise funds for freeing the prisoners allegedly from Idlib, following her own escape from the camps. A group of French immigrant women who are currently detained in Al Roj and Al Hol have also requested a year ago in an official letter that the French government strip their citizenship, stating they don’t want to come back as they cannot freely practice Islam in France as well as lamenting about how the France government will separate the children from their mothers after they are repatriated also forcing other women to toe the line who are in favor of repatriation.
The ISIS loyalist mothers in the camps continue giving combat lessons to children as evident from the videos uploaded on Facebook where the child is seen engaged in boxing or crossing roadblocks, raising pro-ISIS slogans and absorbing ISIS publications, showing how these mothers are rearing the next generation of fighters of the terrorist group. Some believe that living under ISIS they have seen the worst and though it met a sad end they still believe that they benefited from it in many ways and it developed their understanding related to the “state of the heart and the understanding of religion.” Through their Telegram channels, they reflect on how living under then-Islamic State territory and facing the bombs, hunger, loss of property and loss of loved ones taught them to respect the virtues of patience and forbearance and “hope” and made them stronger by “way of testing their resolve.” One writes, “There was no money, no opportunity to earn it, not to borrow from someone … However, there was not a day that I would not eat, at least once a day. So even if today I start to worry about this, the memories of that passage from my life quickly bring me to my senses and it doesn’t bother me so much anymore. This concerns not only subsistence, it includes everything, including offspring and the same freedom.”
That some of these women in the camps remain so highly committed to ISIS and deeply radicalized and are training their children the same underlines the deep need for thoughtful deradicalization programs to be instituted in the camps where these women can examine how they really want to live, what their limitations were both in their home countries and in Syria under ISIS, and in programs where Islam can be taught in a manner that these women can see that the takfir ideology does not actually represent the teachings of Islam as interpreted by the top Islamic scholars of the world.
Another woman from Al Hol states online how she would resist going to Al Roj as women there don’t wear sharia-compliant clothing and there is no scope of supporting the khilafah. Other Russian woman defend the Islamic State against the accusations of IS being labeled as Hazimis (i.e. takfiris) due to their propensity to excommunicate every Muslim who doesn’t share their worldview. On the piecemeal efforts of IS on funding these supporters, a Russian woman fervently writes that they help them silently by not boasting to the world about every single penny they donate. Other women revel in memories of Caliphate days, glorifying the virtue of jihad and hoping that their children turn out like their fathers who were ISIS fighters. Adding to this perspective, another pro-ISIS woman writes, “The Khilafah brought us not only Izza [honour, fame and power] and Sharia but also once-in-a-lifetime experience. I feel blessed and thankful that I could be a part of it and it breaks my heart not to have sharia to live under.” Further blasting at the Europeans who eschewed jihad for staying in Western comforts, she reasserts that they don’t have any regrets for the situation they are in now in the camps. Another woman in a bitter tone writes, “The best years of our lives have been the years with the Islamic State, and the only regret I have, it’s being alive out of Baghouz today, because I hate it being in the hands of kufr who fought us for (defending) our religion.” Evidently, she prefers victory or martyrdom, as the ISIS saying goes.
The monitoring of the social media landscape and ISIS-linked crowdfunding campaigns shows a modest increase in the constant appeals by various crowdfunding networks for arranging escapes and releases of male ISIS fighters, women adherents and teenage boys from Al Hol camp and, as stated above, their successes in releasing/smuggling out these detained IS-linked individuals brokered through official channels, i.e. under the guise of reconciliation schemes where the fighters are released in exchange for hefty fees, or discreetly through their own human smuggling networks, alongside actual prison breakouts, reinforces a very real threat of ISIS resurgence. This comes at a time following the prison attack when the SDF security forces have already tightened the security over all the activities in the outdoor camps, and revamped security infrastructure in all the detention centers housing embattled male ISIS fighters. With respect to the prisoner release reconciliation schemes, SDF leaders have stated that though their administration has released some IS members who haven’t committed heinous crimes or who posed no significant threat through local Syrian Arab tribal mediations, they have blatantly rejected the claims of freeing high-profile ISIS militants and leaders from prison that pose a grave security threat in return for attractive bribes and payments. The SDF claim is underlined by the fact that it would be against their own interests to free high-level and battle-hardened ISIS fighters who can return to kill them.
This research puts a clear emphasis on not only dissecting those individuals who are at the forefront of pro-ISIS fundraising campaigns operating from within and outside of Syria, but also those in the internal political structures including the Turkish-backed rebels and security apparatus who discreetly facilitate settlements leading to the release of high-profile, mid-level IS members, and funnel money and weapons for ISIS’s sleeper cells or smuggle phones inside the camps in exchange for staggering amounts of bribes thus indirectly abetting and fueling the resurgence of ISIS.
In Syria, for ISIS, Al Hol remains an ideological stronghold for many pro-ISIS women and provides a refuge for many of its clandestine operations and acts as one artery for its financial networks. And we see that while the killing of ISIS’s leader Abu Ibrahim Hashemi Al Qureshi by U.S. special operations forces in early February in Idlib province might have dealt a strong blow to the group’s operational capabilities and hopes of resurgence, the group has a very horizontal leadership with multiple cells plotting duplicate schemes (such as the prison break) which scramble to navigate the organizational turbulence and to address the leadership crisis that might dampen the moral of their fighters. However, even without their previous leader, the group seems capable to rise again as it rigorously focuses on reviving its ranks and on spreading more menace, terror and bloodshed in the Al Hol camp and the surrounding region.
As security challenges overwhelmed humanitarian concerns in the camp, the SDF introduced aggressive security/monitoring measures and bolstered its surveillance capabilities. Despite this, violent incidents and killings by ISIS operatives continue incessantly. ISIS operatives killed three Iraqi refugees and aid workers in January, followed in February by an alleged attempt to kidnap female guards amidst chaos emanating from deadly fire in the camp that culminated in killing of one child and injuring many women in the annex of the camp. The beginning of March saw ISIS sleepers injuring two internal security forces, subsequently raising the threat perception of the group in the eyes of SDF administration who now claim that they recently got intelligence that ISIS was planning to launch a large attack on the Al Hol camp. Given ISIS’s past success with its “Breaking the Walls” campaign to revive its ranks, this is not beyond imagination.
This research also demonstrates that the increasing German and Russian crowdfunding campaigns that eye for brokering release of ISIS-linked women and children from the camps were able to complete the money collection efforts for smuggling nearly six ISIS-linked women from the camp in recent months. With more than 700 attempted escapes last year, and the increasing interest and the funds generated by funding campaigns in helping the pro-ISIS women in getting out of camps, thwarting escapes from the camps continues to be an uphill security battle for the SDF. While those who remain inside are not all pro-ISIS, the ISIS enforcers continue to engage in violent clashes with those who don’t subscribe to the ISIS worldview, indoctrinating their children to carry out violence and thereby incubating the next generation of the ISIS fighters.
There could be a huge price to pay if ISIS steps up its attack in northeastern Syria or more of its true believers, blinded by the IS ideology, get an opportunity to escape. Yet we see many supporters from all around the world open the pathway for their exit from the camps through these crowdfunding campaigns. To counter this practice, the SDF had arrested many human smugglers and weapon smugglers in the past year but the struggle continues unabated.
The aforementioned documented cases also show how the freed individuals related to ISIS might potentially join the ISIS ranks in different conflict theatres such as Idlib to work in a logistical or operational capacity to facilitate attacks, or serve as the financial facilitators nourishing the group’s insurgency. Chillingly, we must also remember that ISIS was adept at sending its fighter back home to launch horrific attacks as well such as in Belgium and France, most notably. IS will continue to capitalize on the deteriorating security condition in camps by rigorously expanding its logistical networks for moving money, weapons and women who stay loyal to the group. At a time when smuggling prices start at $16,000 for each foreign woman smuggled to Turkey with two or three children, ISIS leaders extract a significant portion of smuggling fees money pumped into their treasury by sympathizers. Coupled with this, the estimation that the bank payments to camp residents amounted to more than $500,000, according to the testimony of 50 women inside and outside the camp, as well as local Kurdish officials and a former member of ISIS in Eastern Europe and a foreign fighter based in Idlib province involved in smuggling operations, the regular stream of money going in and out of the camps reflects the increasing interest on the part of the IS-affiliated crowdfunding networks and supporters to turn the facility of Al Hol into a central node for its financial operations helping to move its “estimated $100 million in cash reserves.” As one woman speaking to ICSVE noted, “The ISIS leaders’ women had everything during ISIS and now in the camps they still have everything, food, money, phones, while we have nothing.”
For all these reasons, the SDF should do everything it can to avert another security disaster like the ISIS Ghweiran prison assault that might beget further instability in the entire region with the possible repercussions for the home countries of the escaped ISIS fighters as well as countries that might not be able to keep track of the movement of their citizens once escaped. This gives these escaped fighters and the ISIS women sympathizers the opportunity to rejoin the terror group, replenishing the ranks and further bolstering ISIS manpower while also posing a grave threat to international security should they travel under the radar to mount attacks at home. The foreign women coming from these camps could prove to be a backbone for ISIS human smuggling and efforts as these women are well-positioned to attract funding and donations from ISIS sympathizers in their home countries with better understanding of their country’s financial system to further exploit the related vulnerabilities for securing funding. Likewise, many appear more than ready to die for their misplaced militant jihadist beliefs and could be turned into traveling suicide bombers, bearers of ISIS’s lethal violence into the West.
ISIS takedown policies by social media platforms clearly aren’t working as fundraisers find ways around machine detection – for instance, spelling khalifa as k4lif4a – and manage to communicate unimpeded. Similarly, fundraising apps are being exploited by the group. While the SDF and AANES struggle to control the problem of the continued and growing threat of ISIS on their territory, the refusal response of much of the international community with regards to the repatriation of their nationals from the Syrian prison camps delays the solution in resolving the Al Hol quagmire, mirroring the unpleasant aftermath of the ISIS prison assault on the Al Sina prison. Without repatriations, countries need to face the dire fact that deradicalization programs aimed at the camp’s inhabitants – while, if done correctly, are costly – need to be instituted to have any hope that the pro-ISIS women in Al Hol won’t be raising a new generation of ISIS cadres we will all someday face.