ROJAVA, Syria — “When the Islamic State comes back, I will put your head on one of these poles,” an ISIS wife shouted at her female Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) detention facility guard, indicating that the guard will be beheaded. Her ISIS comrade’s attitude toward the guard was equally threatening: “No, that’s too good for her. We have to sell her as a sex slave.”
It is a full year since President Trump, the Iraqi Prime Minister and coalition forces declared ISIS’ territorial defeat, yet this female SDF commander, head of security at the Ain Issa Camp we are visiting in late August, describes a small gang of ISIS women still operating in the camp. Nine of these ISIS women attacked her while conducting a routine check in the camp, grabbing hold of her hair and beating her until other SDF guards came to her rescue. While they beat her, they shouted, “What your women (YPJ soldiers) did in al Bab, we will do the same. We are not less than them.”
These ISIS women are afraid of no one. They fully expect the ISIS “Caliphate” to return. They openly share how they intend to take revenge on the SDF detention facility guards upon ISIS’ return. “Their husbands told them to take the human corridors out of ISIS and wait in the camps until they come to rescue them,” we were told by one of the former ISIS wives living in the camp who seems to no longer espouse the ISIS narrative and the group’s hateful rhetoric. While awaiting the return of the Caliphate, these women still dedicated to ISIS continue to violently enforce ISIS’ dress code over the rest of the camp, namely requiring that the other former ISIS wives wear niqab (the full-face veil) and vowing to violently punish those who speak out against ISIS.
From their standpoint, ISIS is not in any way defeated and their stint in the detention camps is merely an Islamic State-orchestrated “hudna,” or temporary ceasefire, while the group regains its strength. Over the last three years, as researchers for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), we have interviewed more than 175 ISIS men and women held in the Iraqi- and SDF-run prisons and detention centers throughout Rojava, Northern Syria. Most of the ISIS men and women we interviewed have already become disillusioned by ISIS’ un-Islamic nature, corruption, and extreme brutality, and have arguably begun a process of spontaneous deradicalization, expressed to us in the form of regret for joining the group, remorse in some cases over their own actions in the group, and condemnation of ISIS’ violent behavior.
But these ISIS women do not feel the same. “Some of the Syrians and Europeans uncover their faces for a while, but these women come to them at night and say, ‘You are becoming unbelievers and that’s not good.’ They beat them, so they continue to cover their faces. They are really dangerous,” the top Ain Issa camp security official told us. “They burned their tents. One had small nail clippers that she put between her fingers [held in a fist] before she went to beat the others. With these clippers, she slashed one woman’s forehead. She needed nine stitches to close the gashes,” she added.
Two-hundred-sixty-five women and 1,000 children are currently held in Ain Issa Camp, with special sections of the camp secured specifically for ISIS families. Among them are nine women of one national background who remain highly dedicated to the Islamic State and who brutally police the other women, the top security SDF commander told us. “This group is very close together and they are always working as a team. You cannot divide them. They insult the intelligence officers,” she states. Reflecting on one of her more recent encounters with such individuals, she furthermore explains, “I was inside and beaten by them. They have attacked me many times. One time, when I was between them, many of them came, and one them was holding me and another one beating me. They are really tough, very violent.” Although a battle-hardened YPJ soldier who once fought to defend the Yazidis from the ISIS onslaught in Sinjar, she reminds us of the danger posed by such women.
“In Camp Hol, where I served previously, the flesh of my hands was shredded by their fingernails,” she continues. “A lot of them were coming. I was new there and I was going to record the lists. One of them comes and I said, ‘I am not going to give you my details.’ I said, ‘Give me your details. I am going to send you home.’ Then a group of them with her came at me, an Uzbek, Khazak, etc. They shouted ‘Kafr! Kafr!’ [and began attacking me]. I escaped them,” she explains.
Ten thousand foreign ISIS women and children are currently detained in Camp Hol. A minority of them are considered by detention facility guards as violent ISIS enforcers. A well-regarded male security officer taking ISIS women to the market in Camp Hol was also brutally attacked. He was stabbed in the back by one of the extremist ISIS wives. “When these ISIS women attacked the security forces of the camp on two different occasions, they shouted, “Do you think we are scared of bullets? We are not scared of the bullets. We know how to use guns too!” stated a top female security commander in Camp Hol.
She also shared the story of her colleague working at Camp Ain Issa. “She [an ISIS wife] came from behind, here outside at this security post. The gate was open, and she came inside to beat me. She bit my arm and drew blood before I could fight her off,” she says, as she rubs her forearm, seemingly recalling the painful attack. As we listen to her story, the accounts of ISIS hisbah (morality police) come to mind. In some of the interviews, we have heard about the dreaded ISIS morality police, a group that imprisoned, flogged, bit with metal teeth, and even killed other women who failed to abide by the group’s strict interpretation of Islam. In fact, we learned they favored biting as a form of punishment. They often bit their female prisoners with metal teeth, piercing them on their breasts, arms and other soft part of their bodies, causing some to bleed to death.
Another security guard in Camp Hol had her arm broken by Syrian and Iraqi ISIS women who attacked her. In the sector where foreign women and children are housed, the top security officer in Camp Hol tells us that certain ethnic groups dominate the camp and are “still violent terrorists.” “They are very tough and are trying to control everyone. They are hisbah,” she further explains.
These ISIS enforcers who are still operating in Camp Hol mete out punishments in a series of escalations, according to this security officer. “They punish them first by delivering a written warning, then a knife, then kerosene in their tents, and then it varies what they do – burn their tents.” When verbal intimidation does not work, it is followed by a physical actual attack, which may include burning the tent, in which the inhabitants, including children, may or may not perish, beatings, having their personal items stolen, and even outright murder. A Yazidi woman is reported to have been beaten to death in Camp Hol. Likewise, a pregnant Indonesian woman in Camp Hol was recently beaten to death by these ISIS enforcers. We cringe in dismay when shown pictures by the camp official with extensive dark bruising covering her entire body. These women who cook for themselves in the camps basically have weapons at hand, such as in the case of ISIS women who have used kitchen knives to threaten other prisoners and, in Camp Hol, to stab a security officer in the back.
ISIS women enforcers seem to be present in all the SDF-run detention camps. Women have been punished by these ISIS enforcers for speaking to the press and many are therefore reticent to speak to us as well. It also appears that ISIS monitors local and international press and, via illicitly acquired and smuggled cell phones in the camps, reports back what detainees say about ISIS to these hisbah members active inside the camps, making certain that those who publicly denounce the Islamic State are punished. Multiple female detainees in Camps Roj and Hol, including the camp guards there, told us about tent fires set by ISIS women in which young children were burned alive. They also told us about being threatened with knives and having their possessions stolen by these ISIS enforcers for having appeared in the press. Male prisoners also expressed their fears about ISIS enforcers, both in the prisons and those freely acting back home, provided they ever make it back home.
All of the 13 women we have interviewed in Camp Roj, 3 in Camp Hol, and 4 in Camp Ain Issa (n=20) claim to be disillusioned with ISIS – some claim that they have even given up Islam. Many tell us that they became aware of their mistakes as soon as they crossed the border into Syria and were imprisoned in the madafa, the ISIS female guesthouses. They state they realized they had entered a totalitarian state, where they had no rights. Many told us how they had tried multiple times to escape, one having witnessed her father executed by ISIS in front of her eyes during a failed escape. While one can never know with utmost certainty, they appeared convincing in their claims of being totally disillusioned by ISIS. They seem emotionally exhausted and just want to bring their children home to safety and to face whatever justice is meted out to them. Not publicly charged with any crimes, unable to advance their cases through a proper legal system, and unable to manage their futures, these ISIS wives and mothers in the SDF camps shared how they live under constant uncertainty, stress, fear, depression and anxiety and are unable to escape the ISIS hisbah who still try to dominate their lives. With these ISIS enforcers active in the camps, alongside the current overcrowded conditions and tensions and outbreaks of violence, no one feels safe and secure. Even journalists and researchers are much more restricted in their recent access to these camps due to the security issues.
We have been in and out of Northern Syria seven times over the past year and, aside from ISIS-related security threats, we have personally witnessed the harsh conditions under which these mothers and children live. Summers are unbearably hot in the tents, dust frequently filling the air, creating breathing difficulties for children in the camps, while winters are unbearably cold. Women and their caretakers in the camp that we have interviewed have told us that medical care is scarce, that medicines are not available and that food that provides adequate nutrition is costly and difficult to procure. They have also told us that vaccinations for children are often not provided, or if provided not administered in a manner they trust, and that good schools and child development services do not exist. Fires break out in the tents, and some women threaten and bully the others – including threatening with knives and making threats to set their tents on fire. Aside from the ISIS women who still police for the group, the anxieties rife within the camp population also make tensions easily flare. “A French woman stabbed a woman on her way to the bathroom for differences that probably didn’t have anything to do with religion,” a female detainee from Camp Roj told us. “They just have so much anger they want to take out on someone.”
Tensions are, unfortunately, currently high in all the camps, especially with the overcrowding that occurred in recent months following massive surrenders and captures of ISIS women and children coming out of Hajin and Baghouz. The overcrowding has also fostered alienation and led to factions inside the camp. Hidden dangers, teeming lawlessness, and ungoverned spaces inside the camp seem to also lurk, as though resembling an anarchic slum. During our recent visits in one of the camps, we heard of physical brawls and fights among women, as we also heard about an ISIS wife who was somehow able to contraband and sell over a dozen cell phones in the camp. Camp administrators struggle to provide food, diapers and medicines while the detainees are unhappy about their overcrowded conditions and uncertain futures. This spring, after three children perished in a tent fire, the female detainees in Camp Roj staged a small riot. Those who were held responsible for it were reportedly taken out of the camp with their young children and punished by putting them into an interrogation unit with harsher conditions. Men in the nearby Derrick Camp also staged a riot and tried to violently overrun the camp. Guards were able to subdue the riot, though it was a serious incident involving violence on both sides.
As with all prisons, sexual threats also exist. One European mother in Camp Hol told us that she had been warned of rapes of young boys and girls in the camp and was horrified when she found that older boys had come to her tent when she was briefly absent and tried to lure her young boy out of the tent to go away with them. Samantha El Hassani, the American who was detained in Camp Roj with her four small children and recently repatriated to the United States, was known to have developed a relationship with a Kurdish soldier who supplied her with phone access and other items needed for living. Samantha was not the only woman with whom this man was having relationships, and to the credit of the YPJ female officers these affairs were quickly shut down when they were discovered. In Camp Hol, some of the women also say they fear predation by the many men who supply logistics to the burgeoning camp that houses over 70,000 women and children at present.
While they are in a vulnerable position, to the credit of the SDF, it is all female YPJ officers who guard them. These administrators shared with us that they adhere to strict protocols that prohibit use of violence whatsoever to punish or enforce the camp rules. A former camp Hol worker explained to us that instead of using violence, the SDF officers break up fights between detainees and then later engage whole families in moderated discussions to bring peace among them.
Yet, for some of the ISIS enforcers, there is no peace to be had, and there is no engaging them. They believe they are still at war. A former al Hol detainee told us, “Their men in ISIS told them to wait in the camps until they rescue them, to wait for when ISIS regroups and gains more land.”
When Kazakh ISIS family members were taken back to Kazakhstan, four families hid and refused the offer to be sent home. “They are the most radical families,” the Camp Hol official tells us. “They are waiting for Baghdadi.”
“It’s not a camp anymore, it’s an academy, for the youth. They recruit here,” she continues. In Ain Issa Camp, the YPJ security officer tells us that members of certain ethnic groups are very knowledgeable about the Koran and are also charismatic and she fears they can recruit anyone who is vulnerable to the ISIS ideology. “It’s not by their violence that they can get the good ones to join them, but by their ideas,” she explains, expressing hope that they will be taken home and removed as the scourge in her camp making it dangerous for the others. When we asked to interview one of them, she told us they refuse any interviews.
All of the ISIS women, many of them Europeans, that we have spoken to thus far in all three camps claim they are, and were for a long time, disillusioned of ISIS but could find no way to escape. While there are many claims of recruitment going on in Camp Ain Issa and Camp Hol, we did not come across any evidence of actual recruiting until our last interview in Ain Issa Camp with a European ISIS wife who appeared quite credible in her account. “I really think if they keep this camp a new Islamic State will come out of it,” she told us. “There is so much radicalization coming out of this camp. There are women going tent to tent, giving lectures. They want a new Islamic State. They tell the other women [that they visit,] ‘You heard about Baghdadi? He made a speech! There is new Calipha.’ They are very happy.”
Speaking of the ISIS enforcers in the camp, this same woman tells us, “They are diehard in their ideology.” She estimates that the enforcers include more than 30 women in Ain Issa camp, but none of them Europeans. Of the European women she estimates most have become totally disillusioned and long ago given up ISIS. “ISIS killed their husbands [for trying to escape, refusing to fight or work in ISIS].” By chance she and her European friends were singing in one of their tents on the day Baghouz was defeated, inadvertently angering the ISIS women in the camp. “We got attacked from all sides, throwing stones. When we go out [of the tent] they also attacked us. They said, ‘You are happy that the Islamic State is done.’ We said we didn’t know, but one of my friends said, ‘If I knew I would have had an even bigger party!’” This woman claims that after being radicalized in Europe that living under ISIS’s brutality was “the best deradicalization I could have.”
However, now she, and the others, live in constant fear. “I think here, there is more fear than when I was living in ISIS,” she explains. “When you are living in ISIS, you are afraid, but you go in your house and close your door, [whereas] this is a small Islamic State surrounded by a gate. [Here there are] emni women [ISIS intelligence], pro-ISIS people, Iraqis who are pro-Baghdadi… I am always protecting my children from this. In ISIS, I kept them from their videos and songs, but here I cannot. Children are singing this kind of stuff. They sing ‘Caravan! Caravan!’” Her children are old enough to be drawn in.
Indeed, inside these camps are thousands of young children, bored and without any purpose, vulnerable to anyone who tries to brainwash them into the ISIS ideology: a strong argument – alongside all the other dangers – for their home countries to repatriate them as soon as possible.
In addressing the question of the Syrian, as opposed to the foreign, ISIS women held in Ain Issa Camp, Berivan Khalid, co-chairwoman of the Executive Council of Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, tells us they are carefully evaluated for extremist views, and those deemed as no longer supporting ISIS are being allowed to mix with the general camp populations and are also being carefully transitioned home. The self-administration is also running other deradicalization efforts with Syrian ISIS detainees in other parts of Rojava. It is hoped that the Syrians sent home will not be rejoining ISIS upon their return, although ISIS is notorious for finding and contacting former members, as we have learned in our interviews among youth living in refugee camps in Iraq.
Bereft of regular news sources, rumors abound among the camp detainees. One such rumor has it that ISIS cadres and sleeper cells dotted throughout the area who regularly stage attacks, burn crops, and kill SDF troops will gain enough strength to storm the prisons and free the detainees to then rebuild the Caliphate. This scenario continues to feed the dreams of those who are still highly radicalized and terrorizes those who are not. This terror affects both male and female detainees. A German ISIS wife’s voice quaked with fear as she shared her dread of this possibility, “And if they come and take us back? What then?” When we expressed our opinion that ISIS cadres would not be able to retake Camp Hol given the SDF strength and the presence of coalition troops in the area, she was not comforted. Yet, with Turkish troops amassed on the northern border of Syria, some Rojava politicians and security officials we spoke to point out the difficulties of having to both defend themselves in the event of a Turkish invasion and guarding the ISIS prisoners. “It would be a difficult choice for us, whether to defend ourselves or continue to guard the prisoners, wouldn’t it?” Khalid says when discussing the issue.
Contrary to the claims made by main officials in the region and abroad, ISIS has not been defeated in this part of Syria, nor in nearby Iraq. Over the past two months alone, 60 terrorist attacks occurred in the SDF-controlled territory, involving suicide bombings, car bombs and shootings. ISIS cadres are still active in the area and possess capability to stage prison breakouts and attacks, which the group has carried out in the past as well. In this regard, a Dutch extremist was recently arrested for raising funds to provide financing for European women to escape from SDF camps and there have been reports of similar ongoing fundraising efforts occurring via the encrypted social network Telegram, which ISIS favors. Belgian women were also reported to have escaped from al Hol Camp, presumably into Idlib, as were some others.
Temperature rose to 120 degrees Fahrenheit during our August visit in Syria. In Camp Hol, the foreign ISIS women tell us they only recently received fans, but they operate by solar batteries and therefore only run for an hour a day. Likewise, at times, we encountered dusty areas where the winds would fan across the parched soil, creating brown clouds of fine particles rising 10 feet into the air and making it impossible to see at all and difficult to breathe. These dust storms exist in the camps as well.
On our trips into the SDF-administered camps, we witnessed hundreds of children literally play with, and on, rocks, strewn over the desert ground throughout the camp. These violent and overcrowded prison conditions without toys, playgrounds, protection, educational stimulation, adequate and nutritious food supplies, good medical care, and basics amenities like air conditioning when temperatures are regularly soaring over 100 degrees are hardly conducive to the health and safety of youth who are innocent of any crimes. Any casual observer would have to agree that it is not psychologically or physically healthy to leave innocent children in these conditions. Now with the ISIS enforcers on the prowl in all the camps, those mothers who have given up ISIS and who are trying on their own to reform themselves are in real danger, as are their children.
As President Trump reminded Western nations in the last weeks: It’s time to assume responsibility for the actions of those who grew up, radicalized and traveled to Syria from their countries and to now take them home. All of the adult ISIS detainees need to be brought to justice in their home countries and the SDF also needs to be unburdened of them to be freed to pursue the functioning democracy it has amazingly managed to set up amidst the ashes of war.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=169) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College.