BEIRUT – The deaths stacked up: a policeman shot dead with a pistol equipped with a silencer, a local official gunned down, his son wounded, an Iraqi man beheaded. In total, 20 men and women were killed last month in the sprawling camp in northeastern Syria housing families of the Islamic State group.
The slayings in al-Hol camp — nearly triple the deaths in previous months — are largely believed to have been carried out by IS militants punishing perceived enemies and intimidating anyone who wavers from their extremist line, say Syrian Kurdish officials who run the camp but say they struggle to keep it under control.
The jump in violence has heightened calls for countries to repatriate their citizens languishing in the camp, home to some 62,000 people. Those repatriations have slowed dramatically because of the coronavirus epidemic, officials say. If left there, the thousands of children in the camp risk being radicalized, local and U.N. officials warn.
“Al-Hol will be the womb that will give birth to new generations of extremists,” said Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who focuses on jihadi groups.
It has been nearly two years since the U.S.-led coalition captured the last sliver of territory held by the Islamic State group, ending their self-declared caliphate that covered large parts of Iraq and Syria. The brutal war took several years and left U.S.-allied Kurdish authorities in control of eastern and northeast Syria, with a small presence of several hundred American forces still deployed there.
Since then, remaining IS militants have gone underground in the Syrian-Iraqi border region, continuing an insurgency. Though attacks in Syria are lower than they were in late 2019, IS sleeper cells continue to strike Syrian government troops, forces of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and civilian administrators.
Al-Hol houses the wives, widows, children and other family members of IS militants — more than 80% of its 62,000 residents are women and children. The majority are Iraqis and Syrians, but it includes some 10,000 people from 57 other countries, housed in a highly secured separate area known as the Annex. Many of them remain die-hard IS supporters.
The camp has long been chaotic, with the hardcore militants among its population enforcing their will on others and seeking to prevent them from cooperating with Kurdish authorities guarding it.