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The Factory: ISIS Expansion: Isolation Camps and Tribal Feuds

Hazem El Amin- Alia Ibrahim
April 26, 2019

This is the first in a series of investigative stories published by “Daraj” and titled “The Factory,” examining the prospect of an ISIS rebirth, by studying the conditions that initially led to the organization’s evolution, and seeing whether or not these same conditions are still present today, thus paving the way for another comeback. These investigations explore Isis tribal structure, and the role of its “prison academies” in manufacturing the next generation of leaders. We also look at tragedies that unraveled in the wake of Isis military defeat, and which the region’s governments are having difficulty to address.  

Hiba’s brothers and paternal uncles are searching for her. They want to kill her because she escaped the fate they had decided for her when they married her off to an Islamic State militant in the city of Al-Rutba, Iraq. 

Now, uncles on her mother’s side did not necessarily believe her abdication deserved death. They themselves fled the city when Isis seized it and killed fellow members of the police force to which they belonged. Yet being against Hiba getting killed does not mean offering her protection. 

Hiba believes her death would be a far better relief for her maternal uncles than seeing her alive with a daughter fathered by an IS militant.  “They threw me out of the house, along with my mother and sister,” she tells us, “so we went back to Al-Rutbah, where Isis murdered my sister and kept me alive just to wait and give birth. Then my mother and I escaped again.” 

Having the same enemy did nothing to shake the uncles’ belief that only Hiba’s death would restore their dignity. Through their niece, Isis has offended the honor of the whole family. Hiba believes her uncles hope her brothers find her and do her in on their behalf. 

The killing of women goes completely unnoticed in the large swathes of Iraqi territories Isis retreated from. Here, women are dropping, one after another. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of them have been murdered. Their deaths are met with an overwhelming, complacent silence. In this tribal environment, a woman’s life is the easiest settlement not only in the clan’s attempt to reclaim its lost honor, but also in its manœuvres to reestablish itself in the land.

Hanaa Edward’s “Al-Amal Association” has provided a hideout for Hiba in Baghdad. Edward explains that women are not targeted only by “honor crimes.” Oftentimes, their killing is also motivated by inheritance issues. 

A relative who helped Hiba escape says the latter owns a house in Al-Rutba, upon which her maternal uncles have their eyes set. They want her killed so they can seize the property. 

Hiba’s story takes us directly into the heart of this “community of the defeated” in post-Isis Iraq. After their death, retreat, or disappearance, Isis fighters left their families behind: over 200,000 women, children, and the elderly. Of those, 31,000 live in the Al-Hawl makeshift camp in Syria, awaiting permission to reenter Iraq.

And those are only Iraqi families. Authorities believe that the number will double if families of Syrian and other foreign Isis members were taken into account. Iraq, a vulnerable state on many levels, is expected to accommodate them all.

“This is, without a doubt, one of the biggest crises the whole world will have to contend with,” says Barham Salih, the Iraqi President, in an interview with Daraj. “There will be inevitable struggles both on the judicial level and inside detention centers, in addition to legislation disputes, all made worse by the lack of resources. It’s a huge affair. Securing fair trials should be a shared responsibility, not one that Iraq should bear the brunt on its own.”

A high-ranking Iraqi official points out that Isis militants are not the biggest issue here: “Whether they’re French, New Zealanders, Chechens or Tunisians, they’re murderers and must face trial. But women and children pose a whole other dilemma. Women in Al-Hawl, for example, have been radicalized. They have been converted. When it comes to their diehard beliefs, it is not easy to level with them. Add to that the fact that their countries refuse to take them back. Their rehabilitation will be quite an undertaking. This is pure lunacy. And then you have boys who are now 11 years-old and will soon become young men. Things will only get worse.”

“This is, without a doubt, one of the biggest crises the whole world will have to contend with,” says Barham Salih, the Iraqi President, in an interview with Daraj.

In its local implications, in Syria and Iraq, the problem takes on even thornier aspects. For four years, Isis had lorded over an immense area, with dozens of cities and thousands of villages under its jurisdiction. That created a new social reality that came to light on the heels of Isis departure. 

Unheard-of tragedies were laid bare that the current legal system is grappling with. There are, for instance, scores of unconventional marriage contracts, unrecognized by the state, with transnational families of various nationalities and races. Isis’ strict rules, coupled with severe ideological upbringing, have steeped the tribes in a culture of violence and murder. 

Most affected by these calamities are women and children, the weakest elements of a tribal community that is now stranded across both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, and in the countries’ rural areas. 

The international community, by its collective shrug over this disaster, is laying the ground for another, the signs of which are beginning to emerge. 

Given the lack of any alternative solution, the so-called “isolation” camps that authorities have begun to set up are due to last for a long time. Iraqi security officials say these camps are bound to become “terrorism academies.” They are rife with every violence-inducing ingredient: religious and ideological predispositions, corruption, scarcity and mismanagement of resources, as well as persecution and constant abuse of their inhabitants.

In spite of all that, however, “isolation camps” are considered the most compassionate solution, devised by the more lenient figures in the administration. The latter have been suggesting the camps be built away from cities and residential areas. The vast, sparsely-inhabited western Iraqi desert is seen as a perfect location. 

Experiments with these suggestions have already started in the camps of Hammam Al-Alil in northern Iraq and Al-Hawl in northern Syria. 

It takes a visit to one of these camps to begin to imagine the dark future awaiting its indwellers. Here, thousands of children on the cusp of puberty and adulthood are being indoctrinated, and their mothers abused in front of their eyes by Isis’ defeaters, the children’s own clansmen, uncles and cousins and men from the city.

The conquerors are recreating the same violent mood under which Isis was originally born. Add a corrupt authority on top of that and the outcome is inevitable: Isis will be revived. 

Muhammad is a young man who had joined ISIS only a week before it was defeated in Mosul, after which he took refuge with a crowd of his own tribesmen. But they are treating him like a slave. In the day, he cooks for them. And at night, he offers them “sexual services,” as one recipient of such services boasted to us. 

Iraqi and Syrian desert tribes switched allegiance from Isis to the victors. And in the name of their new allegiance, they are killing their women, rejecting their own offshoots who had formerly joined Isis, stirring accusations against their opponents and negotiating deals with the victors. And women remain the weakest link in these uncertain times where a thirst for revenge is striking deep roots. 

Edward’s corroborated investigations have revealed that post-Isis, “families are brutally tortured. Women are being subjected to sexual and other forms of abuse, while terrorists are being released with bribes.” This women’s rights activist has no doubt that “confining more than 200,000 families in isolation camps, will lead to Isis return.”

“The only solution is for them to return home,” argues Haider al-Abadi, the former Iraqi Prime Minister, and de facto commander-in-chief of the armed forces during the fight against Isis. “But their folks do not want them back. That is why we initially planned a gradual return for them over six months to one year. However, the plan was not implemented. It fell through and  families were left to fend for themselves with no solution in sight. It is a dangerous situation. Isolation camps generate new terrorists. And as far as I know, Isis is very active in those camps.” 

This lack of vision on part of the authorities is what hampers the repatriation of the 31,000 Iraqi refugees held up in Al-Hawl camp by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Americans have been pressuring the government to extradite them, but there is no vision for their assimilation into society. An anonymized Iraqi security official explains to Daraj that “even isolating them in a desert camp is not possible, as that requires security and financial resources that aren’t available,” 

President Salih seconds that opinion:  “We’re talking about 30,000 people in Al-Hawl camp alone. Think Guantanamo multiplied by a thousand, with one added complication: women and children.” Salih admits that “the Iraqi judiciary has also been inadequate in coping with Isis’ aftermath.”  The sheer magnitude of the cases has led the president to suggest a special tribunal be erected outside of Iraq. 

The state has so far carried out 700 executions of former Isis officials and members. Many more death penalties are still pending. Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher on Islamic movements, says approximately 23,000 Isis members were killed in battles. The Iraqi law drafted during the war on Isis applies the capital punishment across the board to all fighters. That has cast doubts over the law’s fairness. It put Iraq under the scrutiny of international human rights organizations. 

What makes matters worse, is that other countries are not willing to take part in prosecuting their own nationals who had joined Isis. They are impelling Iraq to execute the task alone, according to several Iraqi officials interviewed by Daraj. 

During our visit to one detention center, a delegation from the French Embassy in Baghdad was meeting with twelve French Isis members detained there. France refuses to repatriate and bring those detainees to trial. 

The same goes for Jordan. In an interview with Daraj, a Jordanian official explains that since Jordanian Isis fighters committed their crimes in Iraq, they should be prosecuted there. 

In theory, Iraq does not mind taking on the job. But bringing to trial thousands accused of major crimes is a very costly operation. 

In the meanwhile, the documented abuse taking place in Al-Hawl foreshadows the fate of future isolation camps. While the current political conditions are not ripe yet for an Isis resurrection, the camps provide a springboard for it. In fact, security officials in Iraq dread that an Isis relaunch is drawing near. Incidents of recent Isis activities justify their fears. 

A federal police officer tells us that children scared him the most: “Some of them had been without food for three days when we arrested them. But they stayed strong. And when an officer happened to utter the word ‘Caliphate,’ the children shouted in unison: “Forever! Forever! Forever!”

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