The Dangerous Dregs of ISIS
A few days before the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate, I visited one of the new “pop-up prisons” that had been hastily converted to hold thousands of surrendering ISIS fighters in Syria. The numbers wildly exceeded all expectations, including estimates by U.S. intelligence. The most striking sight at the prison entrance was a mound of human hair lying on the raw concrete floor. Clumps of it—some brown, some graying, most of it greasy or matted—had been shaved off the heads and faces of fighters before they were taken to group cells. “Lice,” one of the guards told me.
The prison at Dashisha, in eastern Deir Ezzor province, had been an oil-storage facility. In just four days, the compound of modest brick and stucco buildings had been filled with fifteen hundred fighters from countries on four continents, including France, Libya, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, and the United States, the warden told me. Average-sized rooms had been fitted with metal doors; each cell had a small barred window that I had to stand on my tiptoes to peer through. Each one was crammed, wall to wall, with dozens of men squatting on the floor. The ISIS fighters wore new T-shirts, in army green, and whatever trousers they had on when they were captured.
After five years of war with the Islamic State, the biggest problem for the winners is coping with the losers. The aftermath has produced one of the world’s most perplexing postwar challenges: there are tens of thousands of captured ISIS members whom no nation wants to repatriate, and the local militia holding them has neither the resources nor the personnel to keep them indefinitely. More than five thousand ISIS fighters surrendered in the final month of fighting alone. Thousands more were captured earlier in the conflict. They’re dispersed among the new pop-up prisons in northeast Syria. A few hundred of the most severely wounded are in a small hospital, with the foreign fighters crowded in its basement for security. The hospital stench was overwhelming, even through a mask. “Sepsis,” a medic told me. Between December and March, another sixty-three thousand family members of ISIS fighters—wives enveloped in black niqabs that cover their faces, and bedraggled young children—also poured out of Baghouz, the last ISIS redoubt in Syria. They’re held separately, most in tents, at a dusty, malodorous camp in al-Hawl that already held ten thousand. The prisons, the hospital, and the camp are all bursting.
“There is nothing else in the world that compares to this unprecedented humanitarian and security situation, which is legally complicated and politically fraught,” a senior State Department official told me. So far, the local Syrian Democratic Forces militia (S.D.F.), the U.S.-led coalition of more than seventy countries, and several international relief agencies have been improvising—“total ad-hockery,” in the words of a senior U.S. military commander involved in Syria.
Just sorting out the fighters’ real names and nationalities has been messy. Many use noms de guerre. Few have identity papers or passports. Some don’t want to reveal their identities—or their roles with ISIS. I interviewed three of the prison’s foreign detainees: a middle-aged misfit from Chicago, who was lured to Syria by ISIS propaganda; a Moroccan who, as an “emir of morality,” acknowledged witnessing at least ten stonings of women accused of adultery and the burning of some forty Yazidi women who were put in a cage, covered with fuel, and set on fire; and a lanky Turk with a prosthetic leg, which was his souvenir from a U.S. air strike. The Turk, Farouk Asser, insisted that he once worked at a pizza parlor in Istanbul and, after joining ISIS, merely worked as a cook and at a local police station. Every few sentences, the warden muttered, “He’s a liar. He’s a liar.” Asser, according to the warden, was one of the early ISIS recruiters who helped foreign fighters cross the border from Turkey into Syria.
The pop-up prisons are combustible politically and vulnerable physically, a dozen U.S. diplomats and military officials told me. ISIS has its roots in an earlier prison culture—notably in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, two infamous prisons in Iraq that were run by the United States between 2003 and 2011. Its founding “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was held at Camp Bucca for nine months, in 2004. He and other future ISIS leaders created an embryonic network there.
The movement grew rapidly after Baghdadi pronounced, in 2012, that its first priority should be “releasing Muslim prisoners everywhere, and chasing and eliminating judges and investigators and their guards.” Over the next year, Al Qaeda in Iraq attacked eight prisons. In July, 2013, more than five hundred inmates—including top Al Qaeda leaders sentenced to death—were freed in final simultaneous attacks on two prisons, including Abu Ghraib. Many inmates escaped into Syria, where Al Qaeda in Iraq evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The prison raids—the so-called breaking-the-walls campaign—provided the first evidence that Baghdadi’s men were “a professional military force capable of planning, training, resourcing and executing synchronized and complex attacks,” as the Institute for the Study of War reported. By 2014, ISIS had enough men to blitz across Syria and Iraq, and captured territory the size of Britain. Despite its recent loss of terrain in both Syria and Iraq, U.S. military and S.D.F. officials told me, ISIS underground cells still have those basic capabilities. Prison breaks, they added, are almost certain to be one way that the group tries to rebuild.
The first prisoner I interviewed at Dashisha was Lirim Sulejmani, the American from Chicago. He had surrendered two weeks earlier. He was balding and thin; he told me that he was forty-three. His arms were awkwardly handcuffed behind him with thin plastic bands. He seemed detached, and both physically and psychologically defeated. We sat on the floor of the prison’s makeshift office, which had no furniture. His wife and three children were probably at the al-Hawl camp, he said, but he wasn’t sure. He was sucked into ISIS by its utopian promises. “I wanted to make hegira,” he told me. “I wanted to live under Sharia,” or Islamic law. Hegira, traditionally used to describe the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution, had become an ISIS buzzword—and a recruiting tool. The pull is as powerful as the idea of jihad. After Baghdadi declared the Islamic State, in 2014, he appealed to Muslims worldwide to make hegira, to re-create a country that ruled as in the Prophet’s time, fourteen centuries ago.
Up to three hundred Americans attempted to join or succeeded in joining jihadist movements in Syria and Iraq, according to a 2014 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Dozens were arrested before they left the United States. More than a hundred ended up fighting with ISIS, according to Chuck Hagel, who was then the Defense Secretary. A few rose to leadership positions. The Americans tended to fall into three categories: the early pioneers and ideologues who brought skills with them; the “networked travelers” who had personal connections with others in ISIS; and the loners, lured by propaganda, who made their own way to the Islamic State. When ISIS lost its last piece of territory, on March 23rd, fewer than two dozen Americans—fighters and family members—were found among the tens of thousands, U.S. officials told me. Sulejmani’s family accounted for five of them. Many other Americans are presumed to have died, possibly in U.S. air strikes.
Sulejmani seemed to fit the loner category. He reminded me of misfits I’ve interviewed in war zones well beyond the Middle East, including unemployed Brits who became mercenaries in Angola and American Vietnam veterans who signed up to fight in the Rhodesian civil war. Sulejmani told a woeful life story. He was born in Kosovo but fled, with his mother and siblings, during Serbia’s war there, two decades ago. He ended up in Northbrook, a Chicago suburb. He had limited training; a series of jobs didn’t seem to last long. He married a woman of Polish descent. One of their daughters died young. He later looked for work in Canada, where his wife had contacts. ISIS lured him more than three years ago, with promises of an engineering job and housing—and a community where he would fit in. His family made their way to Syria through Turkey. He was dispatched briefly to Iraq, for military and religious training. He learned to operate an AK-47 automatic rifle but claimed he never fought, even though he stayed with ISIS as it retreated from Raqqa, the Islamic State capital, to towns and villages and, finally, a farming hamlet on the Euphrates River. In the end, U.S. officials told me, the ISIS loyalists in Baghouz were the most hardcore.
“I shot about twenty bullets when I was doing the training in Mosul. And I shot one bullet in a house, by accident, in the ceiling. That’s as much fighting as I did,” Sulejmani insisted. “I carried the gun since the first day when I came to Dar al-Islamiyyah [House of Islam] until I left Baghouz. Towards the end it was rusted, but my goal wasn’t to come fight. It was making hegira. I was pushed a certain way, which I went. I liked to give it a try. It just didn’t work.” He shrugged.
Among the ISIS fighters, the truth is often ephemeral. Many of them lie either to their captors or to themselves, a senior U.S. commander involved in Syria told me. Sulejmani recounted having a hard time fitting in, refusing to go to the front lines because of back problems, scrounging to feed his family, and spending time with a group of Albanians who joined ISIS.
I asked if he still supported Baghdadi, who appeared only once in public, to declare the Islamic State, in 2014. Since then, the self-appointed caliph has issued only a handful of audio messages. The last one was in August, when he admitted that ISIS was losing ground. “Right now, to be honest with you, and you don’t have to write this down, for me he’s been dead for over two years,” Sulejmani said. “I did not hear from him. Do you know if he’s alive?” When I said I didn’t, he mused, “It’s been a disappointment. It’s been a betrayal of, the way I see it, for people that were called to make hegira.” U.S. and S.D.F. officials believe that Baghdadi may be in the desert region along the Iraq-Syria border.
If given the chance to live in another caliphate, I asked Sulejmani, would he do it again? “I would,” he said. “For me, at this point, everything is religious. This world, sooner or later, will end, like it ends for everybody. For me, it’s important what comes after. I had a mother—she passed away. Father, passed away. Had a daughter—she passed away. We all die. My belief is that we’re put in this world to worship Allah. So, Inshallah [God willing], there will be Jinah, or paradise, after it.” So, I asked, why hadn’t he become a martyr, or shahid, in the language of jihadists? “I like life,” he said. “I did not come to die here. I came to live under Sharia. I mean, it was open enrollment.”
After the mass surrender of ISIS fighters and families, I asked, will there be enough people who believe that creating a new caliphate is still worth it?
“I believe so,” he replied.
The camp for the dregs of ISIS in al-Hawl was one of the dreariest places I’ve seen over forty years in the Middle East. On the morning I visited, it was chaotic and cacophonous. Litter was everywhere. The whole area stank. Trucks were still hauling people in, even though a U.N. agency had declared the camp “extremely above capacity.” More than seventy-three thousand people were living in an area of less than four square kilometres.
They were divided into two groups, held behind high chain-link fences that were topped with barbed wire. Iraqis and Syrians, who accounted for more than eighty per cent, were on one side. I went into the “annex,” on the other side, which held more than ten thousand foreigners from dozens of countries. Most were the family members of male ISIS fighters. Women who had arrived recently were huddled with dirty children next to their possessions in little bundles on the ground. There weren’t enough places to put them. Rahila Osman, a small Uighur woman with two children, came up to ask if I was with an N.G.O. “We’ve been here three nights out in the cold—no blankets, no tent,” she said. She had moved to the Islamic State from China’s western Xinjiang Province, three years ago. Her husband had been killed in an air strike by the U.S.-led coalition in Hajin, late last year. Like every other woman I saw, her face was completely covered by a black veil. I asked if she still believed in the caliphate. “I do,” she said. “I want to keep my niqab.”
The foreign women included both victims and perpetrators. Women were among the earliest targets of ISIS, for slavery and sex trafficking. Many women who ended up in al-Hawl had experienced gender-based violence, according to the U.N. Population Fund. A “high number” of adolescent girls were already mothers, or pregnant; some had been child brides. Many women had children by two or three men, because their husbands were killed fighting for the Islamic State, so they wed again, voluntarily or involuntarily, to survive, S.D.F. and U.S. officials told me.
Yet thousands of women in al-Hawl were also “suspected foreign fighters,” the U.N. reported. Women played valuable roles in ISIS, ranging from suicide bombers to spies, morality police, and assassins. They were among “the most brutal enforcers,” according to a report by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. ISIS had all-female units. The al-Khansa Battalion was made up largely of foreign women from Europe; the majority of them spoke French. The Aumahat al-Moaminin Battalion was led by Iraqi women. The most lethal unit was the special-operations battalion named after the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid. Mariam Nasser, a twenty-three-year-old from the Maldives, had two children by two husbands. The first husband was killed and the second was captured. She acknowledged that she had military training. “Every man carried a gun,” she told me. “Every woman, too.”
Among the people I met, destitution did not deter their loyalty. Salimah Athilayabah, a twenty-two-year-old Chechen from Russia, lived in one of the camp’s few cinderblock facilities covered with a bright-blue tarp roof. It held dozens of women and children, many of them crying. The shelters had no furniture, only mats on the ground; several of them were shared. Athilayabah told me that she had joined ISIS four years ago. “We and everyone like me came to assist God,” she told me. Her husband was killed two years ago, in a coalition air strike. “Every day, we saw death and killing and had fear from the air strikes,” she said. She had finally fled Baghouz with her children, two months earlier. “Still,” she said, “there’s a caliphate in our hearts.”
International agencies are scrambling to provide shelter and food for the ISIS families. Without a longer-term plan, however, U.S. officials fear that the camp, like the prisons in Iraq, will become an ecosystem that perpetuates ISIS ideology—and just breeds another generation. Sixty-five per cent of al-Hawl’s residents—some forty-eight thousand—are under the age of eighteen. Almost a quarter of them are under the age of five.
In their final days, the Islamic State’s fighters and families surrendered to the S.D.F. The militia of Kurds and Arabs, which is backed by the U.S.-led coalition, has absorbed ninety per cent of the costs of converting, staffing, and protecting the makeshift prisons and providing for the prisoners, General Mazloum Kobani Abdi told me. But it is not a state, and it has neither the resources nor the institutions to cope long-term with the aftermath of the Islamic State. The coalition that pressed the S.D.F. to fight ISIS has provided little financial or logistical help now that it has succeeded. “We are cutting the costs from the salaries of our soldiers,” Mazloum said. The situation is not sustainable.
To deal with the thousands of Syrians in ISIS, Mazloum launched a makeshift rehabilitation program. The pilot project was in al-Karamah, a town near Raqqa and a bastion for the kind of ultra-conservative Salafis who joined ISIS. I saw many men on its streets wearing short thobes, with hems above their ankles, a telltale sign of devout Muslims who emulate practices from the Prophet Muhammad’s time. “This region is agricultural and tribal and very traditional,” Mohammed al-Zeeb, a sheikh in the Afadla tribe, one of the largest around Raqqa, told me. He heads the local rehabilitation program. “Most of our people were with ISIS, frankly.” Some four hundred men from al-Karamah joined the jihadi movement.
The promise of rehabilitation was a key building block in beating ISIS. Mazloum’s original militia was Kurdish. To take the fight into Syria’s Arab heartland, he had to mobilize tribal support and thousands of Arab troops. The quid pro quo was Mazloum’s vow to return the Syrians in ISIS—if they had not engaged in major felonies—to their communities. “I met with all the tribes before any campaign for liberation,” Mazloum explained. “I asked them to pull out their people in the tribes from ISIS. And we promised them that anyone who is returning from ISIS, we will give him a credit for his life and will not punish him or treat him badly. Secondly, because we are liberating Raqqa or tribal land, the tribes should give a lot of people to join the S.D.F. This is one reason for our success. We recruited about three thousand people from Raqqa.” For the last brutal months of the war, tribes in Deir Ezzor recruited about ten thousand Arab fighters to join Mazloum’s force.
Since 2017, when al-Karamah was liberated, a hundred former members of ISIS have gone through rehabilitation. (Another hundred or so died fighting for the Islamic State; many were suicide bombers, the sheikh said.) The survivors were held in a rehab center instead of a prison, most for at least a year. They went through retraining on Islam, but treatment and socialization were just as important. The sheikh showed me a video, on his cell phone, of a graduation ceremony a few days earlier for thirty-eight men. Most were young. All were dressed in sweatsuits. Their heads were shaved.
“These prisoners will go back to their families and go back to help with the rebuilding of this county,” a tribal elder told the former jihadis. “They will not ruin this country because they have become different. They were imprisoned, but not imprisoned like arrested or humiliated. We raised them and embraced them, the tribal men and leaders, to bring them back to the correct path.” Each of the graduates made his way down a receiving line, shaking hands with each elder.
Hamoud Ahmad Khalf, thirty-six, was released from the program in September. He fit a common local profile. As a younger man, he had to serve in the Syrian Army. He defected after Daraa, where the Arab Uprising began, in 2011, when the government ordered troops to turn on fellow-Syrians. He went back to al-Karamah and worked for the municipality. When ISIS seized the area, in 2014, he was told to pledge bayat, or allegiance, or lose his job. Because of his military training, he told me, he was recruited for the ISIS police. Like many Syrians, he claimed, he had a low-profile job taking community complaints. “It was the foreigners in ISIS who had all the power,” he said. He was injured in an air strike by the U.S.-led coalition, and still had shrapnel in his knee; he relied on crutches to walk.
Ayman Hussein Essa, a strapping, muscular twenty-five-year-old who could have been a fullback, had graduated from the program five days earlier. He had been in rehabilitation—he called it jail—for a year and a half. He claimed to have repented. “We have paid the price,” he told me, as we sat on the floor of the sheikh’s modest office, lit by a single light bulb. “We were in jail, so I guarantee we will never go back to ISIS, no matter what happens.” Essa left school in the fifth grade. The sheikh said the former ISIS supporter could neither read nor write. “I don’t even have a phone,” Essa told me.
Both Essa and Khalf were unemployed. “All of those who have been released,” Essa said, “are still waiting for a job opportunity—or any opportunity.” The field for recruitment by a revived version of ISIS or another movement may still be ripe.
Rehabilitation hasn’t worked for everyone who went through it. The S.D.F. released a thousand captured Syrians who collaborated with ISIS. But dozens simply turned around and went back to ISIS. “We just start step one,” the sheikh told me. “The first step needs to lead to a thousand steps to correct them.” Salar Malla, Mazloum’s aide-de-camp, was more sanguine. “We have two battles to fight—one military and one mentality,” he told me. “We are only winning one of them.”
In mid-February, as ISIS fighters started surrendering in droves, President Trump tweeted a demand to European allies, notably Britain, France, and Germany, to take back more than eight hundred European fighters captured in Syria. “The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” he wrote. “Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!”
Citizens of more than eighty nations have joined ISIS, but few of their governments have stepped up to take them back. “The United States will continue to repatriate and, when appropriate, prosecute its citizens, as we have done in the past,” a State Department official told me. Kazakhstan, Macedonia, and Morocco announced repatriations of some of their citizens. Iraq has pledged to eventually take back its citizens, although at least thirty-one thousand are in Syria. Twenty thousand ISIS suspects were already detained during a parallel military campaign there. Iraq has also been widely criticized for summary justice of ISIS fighters and supporters. Last year, the Times reported on the trial of a forty-two-year-old Turkish housewife who had travelled to the Islamic State with her husband. It lasted ten minutes; she was sentenced to death by hanging. In the course of the next two hours, thirteen other women were sentenced to die.
Most other countries are reluctant. The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, said that the Germans in ISIS could be repatriated only if it was certain that they could be tried. Gathering sufficient evidence to detain, try, or imprison any of the ISIS fighters is an enormous challenge—unless, as one Western official told me, they were depicted in social-media videos actually beheading people. Britain stripped citizenship from some ISIS members rather than take them back. Other countries aren’t ready to take them in. “We may not be in a position, as each and every one of them comes back to Canada, that we’re at that stage where we can arrest them,” Gilles Michaud, of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, said, in February. France could have a problem repatriating the wives of fighters. Under French law, the women could accuse the government of abducting them from Syria against their will; a judge could be compelled to free them, a French official told me. Some countries, notably Libya and Yemen, have their own wars; there’s no reliable government to take, much less try, their citizens. They also have their own ISIS branches. Other ISIS followers, such as the Uighurs from China and the Chechens from Russia, are persecuted minorities at home—and don’t want to return to their homeland, even if they were offered repatriation.
Some governments are even reluctant to lock them up at home, for fear that ISIS ideology would infect others in their jails. Richard Reid converted to Islam in a British prison. In 2001, he tried to ignite an explosive hidden in his sneaker on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. The so-called shoe bomber is now in a maximum-security prison in Colorado, where he is prohibited from praying with other inmates.
As governments balked at repatriation, the S.D.F. appealed last month for the creation of an international tribunal “for justice to take its course.” So far, there’s been little interest in that option, either. A week before the S.D.F. ousted ISIS fighters from Syrian territory, Mazloum was thinking more about the unintended consequences of the war. “All of those people spent five years of their life serving in the ISIS caliphate,” he told me, at his forward operating base, near the Iraqi border. “All of these people still believe in the ISIS ideology. We are forced to solve this problem with the countries that they belong to. If we don’t, it’s going to be dangerous for all of our futures.”