Syria refugee camp 'womb' for new generation of IS extremists as killings surge

·3-min read

Killings have surged at a huge refugee camp in Syria housing Islamic State sympathisers, prompting warnings it is the "womb" for a new generation of extremists.

Twenty men and women were killed last month in al Hawl, which houses more than 60,000 people in the north east of the country.

It is more than triple the deaths of recent months, and among those murdered were an Iraqi man who was beheaded and a police officer shot with a silenced pistol.

IS militants punishing enemies and intimidating those who stray from their extremist line are largely believed to be responsible, according to Syrian Kurdish forces running the camp.

The violence has prompted a fresh warning that the thousands of children in al Hawl risk being radicalised if they stay there.

There is a call for repatriations - slowed by the coronavirus pandemic - to speed up for the 10,000 foreign-born people in the camp.

"Al Hawl will be the womb that will give birth to new generations of extremists," said Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who studies jihadi groups.

The camp houses people who fled Islamic State, as well as the wives, widows, children and other family of the group's fighters. More than 80% of residents are women and children.

Al Hawl was reopened by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in 2016 and its population swelled after IS lost its last remaining territory two years ago.

Violence is not uncommon, with IS supporters holding their own trials of those suspected of opposing them and adolescents - so-called "cubs of the caliphate" - often carrying out stabbings.

The latest victims were all Syrian or Iraqi.

Nearly all were killed in their tents at night - shot in the back of the head at close range, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activist collective the Rojava Information Center (RIC).

On 9 January, a gunman chased a police officer and shot him dead with a pistol and seriously wounded another officer with a grenade.

A council official dealing with Syrian civilians in the overcrowded camp was shot and killed the same day, and his son was also seriously wounded.

In the same month, an Iraqi man was decapitated - his head found some distance from his body, said the RIC. It's believed he was murdered for allegedly cooperating with authorities.

"There are several reasons behind the increase of crime - including attempts by Daesh (IS) members to impose their ideology in the camp against civilians who reject it," said jihadi researcher Abdullah Suleiman Ali.

It might also be linked to an amnesty programme for 25,000 Syrian citizens that began in November.

It allows people to leave if they agree to register and work with authorities - and there is speculation the increase in killings could be a way of keeping residents in line.

Syrian-Kurdish authorities running al Hawl warned last month of efforts to revive IS and said they couldn't face the crisis by themselves.

"Contacts are ongoing between the camp and Daesh commanders outside who direct their members inside," said the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Two weeks ago, United Nations counter-terror head Vladimir Voronkov also urged countries to repatriate children due to the risk of radicalisation.

There are about 27,000 non-Syrian children in the camp, 19,000 Iraqis and 8,000 from other countries, but the COVID crisis has slowed repatriations dramatically.

Iraq has taken back very few, while Save The Children says only 200 from other countries were repatriated last year, down from 685 in 2019.