5 min read

‘Al-Hol emirate’: How ISIS turns the prison-like camp into a stronghold

In January, 13 people were killed in al-Hol camp, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

1 February 2021

AMMAN — On January 23, a man was found dead in al-Hol camp in northeast Syria’s Hasakah province. The killing of the Iraqi refugee with a silencer was the ninth incident in January alone, which saw 13 people killed in the camp controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and housing the families of ISIS fighters. The most heinous incident involved another Iraqi citizen, who was found beheaded on January 16. There was also the assassination of Hamed Saleh al-Hadid, nicknamed Abu Ahmad a-Shamari, who was the head of the security committee of the Syrian Council, the highest administrative body managing Syrians’ affairs inside the camp. The assassination also claimed the life of a-Shamari’s son and severely injured his daughter.

While a-Shamari’s killer was identified as Muhammad Abu Aisha, an Iraqi citizen born in 1992, the perpetrators of most of the other incidents are still unknown. 

In response to the growing number of assassinations, the SDF conducted a massive raid campaign in al-Hol, which culminated in a siege of the camp’s third sector and the death of Abu Aisha, as well as an SDF fighter, a resident of the camp told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

Despite ongoing assassinations in al-Hol, January was “the bloodiest, in comparison to previous months,” an employee of a relief organization working inside the camp told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. In December, three assassinations resulted in the death of three civilians, while November saw six assassinations take the lives of  six civilians. The head of the Autonomous Administration’s (AA) Office of Displaced Person and Refugee Affairs, Sheikhmous Ahmed, disclosed the killing of “no fewer than 33 people by supporters of the terrorist organization [ISIS] in 2020.”

ISIS: A murderous prisoner

Al-Hol is unique from other camps in northeast Syria because it resembles a prison that is “surrounded by a military fence and is under severe guard by heavily-armed soldiers,” a woman from Deir e-Zor who had lived in al-Hol, previously described to Syria Direct. “The tents are like cells.”

However, ISIS “has people observe and monitor the camp from inside, especially those who work with SDF or promote their ideas,” a resident of the camp told Syria Direct, “which explains that assassinations in camps were not random but rather targeting those who work, in the open or in secret, with SDF.”  

Further, ISIS penetrates the security cordon imposed on the camp by “paying enormous bribes to members of the Asayish [Kurdish police] forces, who in return deliver money to the organization’s female cells inside the camp,” an employee of another relief organization in the camp told Syria Direct. He pointed out that “ISIS women in the camp have a lot of financial ability, which allows them to pay bribes to let them contact the outside, and also buy weapons to carry out the operations.” In this context, “one member of the Asayish was detained last month for giving a cell phone to one of the muhajirat [non-Syrian female members of ISIS],” the source added. “She was caught and confessed” to his cooperation with her. 

‘Hisbah’ in the camp

Al-Hol, which lies around 45 kilometers east of the city of Hasakah, was established in response to the 1991 Gulf War. At the time, it was a haven for thousands of Iraqis and Palestinians who fled the war. But in 2014, following battles between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—and ISIS, the latter took control of the camp, which became one of its military headquarters in the region. The YPG-dominated SDF took control of the camp in October 2015, and it was reopened once again as a camp for displaced persons in April 2016. 

The camp covers a 50-hectare area and consists of nine sectors, eight of which are designated for Syrian and Iraqi civilians, with the two nationalities separated from each other. The ninth sector is for families of ISIS members of all nationalities. Most are women and children under the age of 18, as well as small numbers of old men. A metal fence separates the nine sectors, each of which has its own main entrance. 

The latest UN figures put the population of al-Hol at 55,000 people, including 21,000 Iraqi citizens and 23,000 Syrian citizens, in addition to around 11,000 family members of ISIS or its affiliates, of whom 2,000 are Syrian, while others hold other Arab and European nationalities. 

Although ISIS appears to reach all the camp’s sectors, as the assassinations it is believed to be responsible for prove, the terrorist group is most explicitly present in the ninth sector, where it has established a “Hisbah” force, the organization’s police. It also imposes judgments within this sector against those who oppose it. 

In this context, Sheikhmous Ahmed warned that ISIS has “established an Islamic State in al-Hol” where its affiliates have their own courts and forces.

Children on the path to extremism

According to a worker with a children’s organization in al-Hol, the ninth sector hosts around 3,100 children between the ages of 12 and 18, and about 3,500 children under age five. While most of these children’s parents are “held in SDF prisons or died in ISIS battles,” the source added, “many have not undergone rehabilitation programs. Nor did they receive educational opportunities in the camp because their families refuse to send them to the education centers.” 

Children in the camp, even those with European nationalities, are deprived “completely of their most basic rights,” the European Parliament Vice President and Coordinator on Children’s Rights, Ewa Kopacz, said in a statement to the EU subcommittee on Human Rights on June 26, 2020. “No child should pay for his parents’ sins or inherit guilt or punishment for their parent’s actions,” she said.

The harsh humanitarian conditions surrounding the children of al-Hol on one side and increased ISIS activity in the camp on the other could lead to “the strengthening of extremist ideology among the children, especially since they are in an environment and conditions that encourage that,” the children’s organization worker warned. 

While ISIS operations in al-Hol’s sectors heralds further rise of the organization and reveals the weakness of the SDF’s security presence, it also negatively influences civilians’ already deteriorating lives in the camp. ISIS operations have driven some camp residents to “disregard working with the organizations there or with the SDF, for fear of being targeted by ISIS,”  a camp resident said. 

Leaving the camp may appear to be a solution—particularly for Syrian residents—but they do not have the choice to leave. Although the AA announced in November its intent to empty the camp of Syrians and return them to their areas, only eight groups have left so far. The latest was on January 19 and included 100 families. 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

Share this article