After the fall of ISIS in 2019, many relatives of fighters who were detained or killed, including 10,000 families of foreign fighters, were housed in camps in territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The biggest camps include Roj and al-Hol. Like any closed society, the foreigners’ annex in al-Hol has its own dynamic. To better understand that dynamic, I conducted around 20 in-depth interviews with females in the camp, including those from Europe, the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, and America. Interviews were conducted in English, Russian, and Serbo-Croatian — languages I speak fluently — and I have been in contact with several of the women for nearly a year now and have developed close relationships.
Although al-Hol camp is often portrayed as either a hotbed of radical fanatics dedicated to ISIS or home to a bunch of poor housewives who were just following their husbands, the reality is much more complicated. For example, according to Russian-speaking females there, most camp residents — around 70 percent — feel they were used by ISIS’s leadership to realize its political goals and do not believe in the group anymore. By contrast, just 30 percent still support ISIS and think that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a rightful caliph but the group failed because he was surrounded by untrustworthy people. According to European females in the camp, the percentage of ISIS supporters is even lower, at around 20 percent, and is constantly falling. So just who are these 20-30 percent, why are they still radical, and what does that tell us about how foreign governments should address the issue of what to do with their citizens still held there?