The Terrorism Landscape: IS Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq


This is a summary of the presentation by Amarnath Amarasingam at The Terrorism Landscape: Emerging Trends Intelligence Webinar. You can request the recording of the webinar here or listen to a portion of the discussion in the bonus episode of the Intelligence Brief Podcast.

Amarnath Amarasingam is an Assistant Professor at The School of Religion and cross-appointed to the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Amarnath’s research revolves around terrorism, radicalization, online communities and post-war reconstruction. During the HENOLDT Analytics Intelligence Webinar, Amarnath spoke about the current and future plight of ISIS prisoners held captive in Syria and Iraq.

Consequences of the Fall of the Islamic State

The foreign fighter population, following the fall of the Islamic State, is currently held prisoner in northeast Syria and parts of Iraq. Amarnath considers the foreign fighters flow to Syria to be of unprecedented nature. Even though there have been foreign fighter mobilizations in the past in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya Somalia etc., Syria was, according to Amarnath, a first in terms of the number of people,  who came into the conflict and the variety of countries that they came from. It has not been replicated since and it was a fundamental game changer in terms of the foreign fighter conflict. Within three years they ran a de facto state in many major cities and, as Amarnath pointed out, it started to crumble fairly quickly, starting in 2017.

In Mosul, on March 31st, ISIS controlled the entirety of the city and much of the countryside. However, a few months later, that territory was all taken back by the Iraqi forces. The same thing happened in Raqqa, where in May 2017 ISIS was controlling the entirety of the city and running it as a de facto capital including large swaths of the Raqqa countryside as well. However, a few months later, that was also taken back by the Syrian democratic forces.

As Raqqa fell, many of the fighters, foreign fighters included, started moving south to major cities in Deir ez-Zor, and eventually ended up in a spit of land, known as Baghuz Fawqani, which ultimately fell on March 23rd, 2019. According to Amarnath, there was an underestimation of how many people were in the area. The resources that were put into place to service individuals who were coming out of it were unprepared for the vast number of foreign fighters and local recruits, who came out of this place. All of the men were taken to a variety of prisons in northeastern Syria. All the women and children were taken to a set of ‘open-air IDP (internally displaced people) camps’. Amarnath Amarasingam visited most of these IDP camps in 2018 and 2019.

Al Roj Camp in Al-Hasakah

A lot of the foreign fighter women and children were held in Al Roj Camp in Hasakah. On October 2020, this camp hosted, according to Amarnath’s information, about 2,300 individuals. The camp was established to house refugees fleeing from ISIS, like most of the other camps in the area. However, after the fall of ISIS, the final holdouts of the Islamic State have left their cities and also arrived at these camps, meaning they are forced to live amongst the people who fled the Islamic State. Since people who fled the Islamic State are now sharing this camp with some of “the most die-hard members of the Islamic State”, according to Amarnath, a lot of violence and conflicts have arisen.

One example Amarnath shared is that of several western women, who received a whole host of threats in the Al Hol Camp, and now have been moved to the Al Roj Camp, presumably for their own safety. That means that a lot of the western women, particularly Canadians and Americans, are now in the Al Roj camp waiting to be repatriated. This camp, even though it is smaller and a bit cleaner compared to other camps, is still facing ongoing issues of child protection, freedom of movement, gender-based violence, and sanitation hygiene to name a few. Demographics of the camp are, according to the UN, mostly 18 to 59, men and women.

The Plight in the Camps and the Future of its Inhabitants

There are a lot of NGOs in the camp providing education, but it is not possible to indicate how many people are going and benefiting from this education. Since the end of the conflict in 2019, many women inhabiting the camp have also given birth. Additionally, a lot of the children who were living in the camp in 2019 and were then under the age of five, have grown older in the camp; therefore there are a lot of ongoing issues associated with child safety to consider as well.

Al Hol Camp

The Al Hol Camp, on the other hand, can only be described by Amarnath as “an emergency situation”. Unlike the previously mentioned 2,300 people in Al Roj Camp, there are 64,000 people in the Al Hol Camp. 94% of them are women and children and that is the first thing one notices when walking into Al Hol.

It’s basically a sea of kids,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, who visited the camp in 2019. “They’re under every rock, they’re beside every tent they’re throwing stones at you, they’re running around all over the place. It’s just a sea of children and it is a massive camp. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there. It’s a gigantic camp.”

In terms of demographics, about 48% are Iraqi, 37% are Syrian, and about 15% are foreigners. The foreigners are all housed in what’s known as “the Annex”, right next to the entrance of the camp. 53% are children under the age of 12. That number has of course changed over time, and it is worth noting that all of these children are getting older inside these camps.

“It can only be described as an emergency situation,” said Amar, reiterating that “children are dying daily, and there aren’t many field hospitals in the camp itself and to top that off, much like in Al-Roj Camp, the most die-hard holdouts of the Islamic State are living amongst refugees who fled the Islamic State in 2016.”

This is a snippet from the Intelligence Webinar The Terrorism Landscape: Emerging Trends. You can request the recording of the webinar here.

The Ongoing Concerns of Violence

According to Amarnath Amarasingam’s data, there have been incidents of stabbings, killings, and shootouts. The day he visited the camp in 2019, there was an active gunfight that broke out between SDF guards and some women, which resulted in an immediate withdrawal of him and his team.

“There is a lot of violence and a lot of anger amongst the children against the SDF guards,” says Amarnath. ‘One of the things that one of the guards told us is that all of the women in the camps, and here in particular, are telling their children that the 300 or so SDF guards that are guarding Al Hol are ‘the ones that killed your father’.”

On top of that, a lot of people have been smuggled out through bribes, which is a constant occurrence. Weapons are also being brought in, largely through repurposed NGO kits. The plastic forks and knives that NGOs bring get slowly repurposed into weapons, which then are used against the guards and against each other. Amarnath pointed out a case from a few years ago of an Iraqi man, who was followed back to his tent and stabbed to death by a group of women because he had dared to criticize the Islamic State while waiting in the food line.

The Current Plight in Iraqi Prisons

Unlike the Syrian ones, the Iraqi prisons have different problems. One of these issues, according to Amarnath, is the way in which a lot of the fighters were brought into the camps. The screening process seems to be flawed since it is often dependent only on the word of community members. There is apparently not much differentiation made between fighters and residents.

“So if you happen to live in an Iraqi city that was taken over by the Islamic State, sometimes it’s assumed that you were a supporter, even though you probably had no other choice than to work for them or continue to live in these cities in inhumane conditions.”

More about the violations of fair trials in Iraq can be found in the Human Rights Watch World Report 2021, which Amarnath Amarasingam referenced as well, emphasizing the lack of due process before a death sentence.

The Impact on Children Held in the Camps

The main issue for the children, who are now living in the camps, is that of interrupted education. Many of them did not go to school when they were within ISIS territory.

“Amarnath considered that ‘there is this assumption that they all went to ISIS schools and they are all potentially radicals and brainwashed. From what I have been able to gather, I think most of the parents actually kept the kids at home because they were afraid of drone strikes and other threats like that.”

As a result, the children have been out of school for three to six years. Amarnath mentioned there is education happening in the camps, but it is not in any way the same as attending a school.

On top of that, most likely all these children have experienced the death of a parent, of a sibling or parental separation, as well as early exposure to violence, sometimes direct exposure to executions as well, drone strikes or even beheadings.

Currently, they are faced with the ongoing refugee experience and with continued displacement from Iraq to Syria or within Syria, or even to other parts of the world.

“It is the typical kind of IDP experience, but with a layer of added trauma that we’ll have to deal with, as some of these kids make their way back to their home countries,” said Amarnath.

Security Concerns Regarding Foreign Fighters

Amarnath cited two studies that he has looked at, mentioning that one of the main conclusions is that many of the fighters are not returning or have not returned back to their homes. According to the studies, the vast majority of fighters who went into conflict zones died in various battles. The average percentage of foreign fighters returning to European countries is about 30% according to RAN (Europe’s Radicalization Awareness Network).

Looking to understand if the people returning are indeed attacking, Amarnath considers two studies on this topic; the findings from one of them, by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies said only about 18% of perpetrators had travelled to jihadist-controlled territories in the attacks that they looked at between 2014 and 2017; another study, Assessing the Islamic State’s Commitment to Attacking the West, by Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser, also said that about 23% involved at least one returnee from Syria or some other zone of jihadi conflict. The conclusion, as Amarnath points out, is that most of the fighters are not returning, and most of them, when they do return, aren’t necessarily attacking.

However, the concern is that when they do attack, or in the attacks that they were involved in, a large number of people have died. The takeaway is that:

“They are statistically less likely to come back, they’re statistically less likely to attack, but if they do, they tend to be more deadly, largely because of their training or experiences that they’ve had in the battlefield,” concluded Amarnath Amarasingam.

The Children in Al Hol: Threats or Victims?

During the webinar, Anne-Lynn Dudenhöfer asked Amarnath Amarasingam to discuss the future of the children in the Al Hol Camp, since the demographics show 53% of the inhabitants are children under the age of 12.

Amarnath pointed out the issue of managing risks within the camp in the future since the children are going to grow into adults. He made a strong case for bringing the children back home to avoid having them grow up in an untenable emergency situation, both from a healthcare perspective and an education perspective.

“Many of them have died in the camp due to malnutrition, so it’s not really – much like any IDP camp around the world – a place for children. A lot of western governments, except the United States, have decided that they are just going to leave the people there to rot, and that includes the children. From the Canadian angle, for example, the problem is “only 26 kids and 15 women.” Apparently, a wealthy western country can’t incorporate 26 children into their society and provide them with assistance.”

Amarnath considers the broader concern of radicalization of children as wildly overblown and leaving the kids in the camps as worrisome since they are exposed to everyday violence and everyday deaths, particularly in Al Hol camp. Finally, he made a plea to look at these children through the lens of victims as opposed to through the lens of security.

“The idea that these kids are just going to be programmed to launch attacks when they’re older, is a bit ridiculous. These kids went there with no fault of their own, sometimes they were born under ISIS custody. They’re victims of what their parents decided to do, not potential security threats.’”

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