Inside al-Hol, the 'toxic' Isil prison camp where radicalised women have taken control

Josie Ensor
Displaced Syrian women and children at al-Hol - AFP

Radicalised Islamic State women held in al-Hol detention camp in northern Syria have been mobilising friends and family to organise a prison break.

Fears are now growing of a possible escape as the Kurds who operate the camp have been forced to redeploy troops to the border to fight the Turkish invasion into northern Syria.

Hol, a sprawling settlement holding some 68,000 Isil wives and their children and run by the UK’s Kurdish allies, has variously been described as a “ticking timebomb”, a “mini caliphate”, and “Camp Bucca II” after the notorious US-run detention centre in Iraq which spawned Baghdadi and his cohort.

It is a camp full of women refusing to give up on the Islamic State, and their sons and daughters, brainwashed by years of Isil indoctrination.

Those traumatised, radical and bored women have managed to get hold of phones, and more recently even knives and guns, according to reports.

Al-Hol holds some 68,000 Isil wives and their children, and is run by the UK’s Kurdish allies Credit: AP/Maya Alleruzzo

The guards, who numbered around 400 before this week’s redeployment, admit privately that the women have effectively taken over the day-to-day running of the camp. 

The women have been attempting to smuggle themselves out for months. The mission took on an added urgency after Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month called on them to “rise up”.

“Get us money or get us out of here,” they wrote on one of their encrypted Telegram accounts seen by The Telegraph. “We are standing strong for Allah, but God help us the situation here is bad.”   

The precarious security situation in Hol is worsening by the day.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has for months been sounding the alarm, warning that they have neither the money nor manpower to contain the radicalised and increasingly violent detainees. 

They pleaded with member countries of the coalition, which backed them in their fight against Isil, to take back their citizens, to no avail.

Now battling a Turkish invasion that threatens their very existence, the Kurds have been forced to redeploy troops from the camps to the border.

Watching over Isil has become a "second priority", Gen Mazloum Kobani, commander of the SDF, put it bluntly this week. "Nobody has helped in this regard. This is a very big problem.”

“Big problem” could soon prove to be an understatement.

“Al-Hol is truly the most bizarre and toxic place I've ever visited,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted after returning from a recent visit.

“Imagine an underfunded camp in the middle of the desert, with some tents set up in hours, housing deeply traumatised, radical, bored women and children accustomed to seeing violence around them.”

The most extreme among the women in the camp, the Russians, the Tunisians and Central Asians, have established a pecking order with them at the top. The Europeans largely keep their heads down, hoping that their governments will come for them.

The camp guards split the 10,000-strong foreign contingent from the 60,000 Syrians and Iraqis after an influx of diehard supporters flooded out from Isil’s last stronghold of Baghuz in the Spring and tensions between them rose.

The women have appointed “morality police” known as Hisba and have even started an unofficial sharia court, passing down judgement on others deemed to have flouted the jihadists’ punishingly strict interpretations of Islamic law.

“They punish them first by delivering a written warning, then a knife, then their tents are burned down,” one SDF guard said. Some 128 tents were set on fire last month alone, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Women shop in the marketplace at Al-Hol camp, home to families of Islamic State fighters, in Hasakeh province Credit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

If the perceived crime is serious enough, they have paid with their lives.  

A 14-year-old Azerberjani girl was strangled to death by Hsba members, among them her own grandmother, for not covering her face.

A Chinese Uighur, who had been accused of having an affair with an Iraqi refugee in a neighbouring part of the camp, disappeared one day only to be found later in a septic tank with her head caved in from what medics believed to be blows to the head from an iron bar.

Last week, Syrian teenager Abdullah Ahmad was stabbed to death because he had allegedly turned away from the caliphate and had been “collaborating with infidels”, referring to the Kurds.

There are also the escalating attacks on their Kurdish guards, many of whom patrol the camps unarmed. In the latest incident over the weekend, Isil women sliced the throat of a burial worker, leaving him in critical condition.

After weeks of violence, the Kurdish administration warned that the women had now become "as dangerous as the thousands of Isil fighters being held in SDF detention centres.”

Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Toronto, who specialises in extremism and visited the camps last week, agreed.

He said the women believed that they were waiting for the men to return for them and reinstate the caliphate. They see this period of “hardship” as simply a test from God of their commitment to the cause.

“It was clear from our experience at Hol and in the prisons that the recent speech by Baghdadi calling for a prison break has indeed had a mobilising effect, with these prisoners galvanised by the sense that Isil leadership still cares for them and is perhaps working to get them out,” he told The Telegraph.

“They in turn want to show the leadership that they are still committed and carrying the torch, even in the most dire conditions.”

In other smaller camps, the Kurds have managed to carry out limited deradicalisation work. In Roj, for example, they have banned the face-covering black niqabs and children have begun attending structured educational classes.

Authorities have been able to do little at Hol, which hosts families from more than 55 different countries - many of whom have no shared language with the guards. There is even some evidence that, rather than being deradicalised, some have become more extreme in their beliefs.

A number of international organisations are looking to set up projects inside the camps. Ms Tsurkov, who has been consulted by some of them, said she warned many of the women were now “too far gone”.

“The children in the camp are redeemable, but they cannot successfully undergo any CVE (countering violent extremism) programming while surrounded by the most hard-line Isil supporters in the world,” she told The Telegraph.

“With regards to the women, some are too far gone. They live in a parallel universe in which Isil is the oppressed one and was attacked for no reason. Anyone going to these sessions now is at risk of being murdered.”

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) said this week that those residing at Hol face a "purgatory-like existence." Unlike locals, foreigners are being detained without charge.

British Isil bride Shamima Begum pictured in al-Hol camp earlier this year Credit: Sam Tarling

Only a few countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have repatriated their citizens on a large scale, with the occasional exception of a few young children whom Western governments have agreed to take back. The UK has taken the hardest line. More than 30 British children have been languishing in the camps, some for as long as two years.

Agencies like IRC warn that the longer they stay there they harder it will be to rehabilitate them.

But President Donald Trump’s decision to green-light the Turkish offensive on Kurdish-held areas in the north of the country has plunged the fate of the camp's detainees into uncertainty.

Mr Trump had discussed with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey taking control of the Isil prisons and camps.

Mr Trump, in what some have read as a bluff, told the Turkish president that if he was so determined to take control of Syrian land then he should also take over the running of Hol.

Turkey has little interest in taking on such a headache, and made that clear on Wednesday when Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for the Turkish presidency, told the BBC it was “Europe’s problem”.

Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and former defence minister, said fears of an escape were not overblown. 

“Did we defeat DAESH (Isil) so another state could illegally expand into the very land we liberated?” he tweeted. “Now 20k detainee fighters are a step closer to freedom.”

But still the UK has no answer to the question of what happens next. Sources told the Telegraph there is no plans for the SAS or other special forces working with the coalition to step up and help secure the camps.

Reports suggest the women of Hol have already started rioting in reaction to the news, attempting to exploit the chaos.

“Turkey let us into Syria,” one told the Telegraph, referring to Ankara’s open-door policy which saw thousands of Isil recruits stream across the border. “Mashallah, Turkey will let us out.”