ISIS has a unique and dangerous opportunity to exploit conditions in detention and displacement facilities across Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March 2019 after seizing the last kilometer of ISIS-held terrain in the Euphrates River Valley. ISIS’s losses did not dismantle its human network, however. The SDF does not have adequate resources to detain 11,000 alleged ISIS fighters and manage a wider network of at least 12 formal and informal displacement camps that hold tens of thousands of civilians and ISIS family members. Over 63,000 ISIS family members and other civilians surrendered to the SDF in Eastern Syria between December 2018 and April 2019. The SDF relocated all of these individuals to the now overcrowded Al-Hawl Camp in Northeastern Syria near the Syrian-Iraqi Border, creating an urgent humanitarian and security crisis. ISIS likely intends to target these camps and prisons as part of its plan to resurge in Iraq and Syria. ISIS may choose to intensify these actions now during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends on June 4, in order to leverage their propaganda value for its 2019 Ramadan campaign.
The Al-Hawl Camp is already a de facto support zone for ISIS in Northern Syria. The SDF separated male ISIS fighters from the population using improved screening methods and processed them using biometric measures including fingerprinting and facial recognition. The SDF then transferred these fighters to prisons deeper in SDF-held terrain. The SDF did not apply the same level of scrutiny to the thousands of indoctrinated women and children concentrated in Al-Hawl Camp. Media reports have repeatedly noted that large numbers of women in the camp remain ideologically committed to ISIS. Some of them likely played tangible roles in security or military structures such as the ISIS Hisba Police. These networks have attacked guards and burned the tents of less committed detainees in Al-Hawl. Their activities may be part of a deliberate plan. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly ordered female members to surrender en masse to the SDF in February 2019, potentially with the intent to infiltrate facilities such as Al-Hawl Camp. ISIS and its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) previously exploited conditions to recruit and radicalize individuals in detention facilities such as Camp Bucca in Iraq.