AL-HAWL, Syria (North-Press) – Behind the angelic façade of money transfer from all over the world to ISIS wives and children in al-Hawl camp in northeast Syria under the pretext of zakat (alms-giving in Islam) and social solidarity lurks the egregious reality of weapons smuggling and fundraising for the jihadist group.
“Some ISIS women are receiving large amounts of money, exceeding $3,000 monthly, from their relatives and friends in Turkish-backed opposition areas in Idlib and also from abroad, mostly from Turkey and several European countries,” Rashid, who works at a money transfer facility in the camp, told North-Press.
Approximately 11,000 foreign women and children of ISIS militants from about 54 countries are held in a separate part of the camp known as the ISIS Foreigners’ Section, while the remaining 63,000 individuals, including Iraqi refugees and Syrian internally displaced people (IDPs), live in the other part of the camp, which has a big market with several money transfer shops.
Al-Hawl camp, and dozens of other camps hosting hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and Syrian IDPs, are controlled by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a local security force known as the Asayish.
While access to al-Hawl is extremely restricted, the ability of its residents to receive funds sent from abroad presents a new challenge to camp authorities.
Receiving and saving large amounts of money
Camp authorities said there are dozens of international aid organizations, including UN organizations, operating in the camp, distributing food baskets monthly in addition to non-food items such as blankets, mattresses, kerosene heaters for winter and fans for summer, in addition to the medical supplies donated by the WHO, Doctors Without Borders, and the local Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) organization.
“A woman with children spends about 10,000-15,000 SYP a day, about 450,000 SYP ($250) on walnuts, juice, and sweets, which we call luxury food, that is not available at all for the refugees in the other section,” says Ahmad, a salesman who has a mobile shop and comes to the foreigners’ section market every day. Ahmad said some ISIS families receive more than $2,000 a month, but spend maximum $300.
Omar, a 9-year-old Uzbek child buying ice cream for his brothers, said his mother cooks chicken and rice almost every day. “My mom has a lot of money; she said she is saving it for us and that we will need it when we grow up,” he said when asked about his family’s financial situation.
There is only one money transfer facility in the ISIS foreigners’ section, where camp authorities established a separate market a few months ago for foreign women in order to prevent them from shopping in the camp’s main market after Russian and Turkish ISIS women stabbed security guards in the main market multiple times last summer.
Foreign ISIS woman carrying a 10-kg bag of popular expensive brand of rice, which is exported from Iraqi Kurdistan and sold in Syria for about $20, equivalent to the monthly salary for a government civil servant in the region. This shows the prosperous financial condition of ISIS foreign women in al-Hawl camp, Syria, May 28, 2020. (Photo: Feyad Mohammad/North Press)
When camp authorities were asked about the extra amounts the women save, the answer was shocking. “Last month, we found a big tent used as a warehouse for dozens of 25-litre kerosene containers, to be used in making explosive devices,” said a camp security officer who preferred to remain anonymous to avoid the women’s retaliation.
“Although none of the women are allowed to have mobile phones, they smuggle in a lot of mobiles with internet and follow the news,” she said. “Two months ago, some women caught me and my colleague while we were patrolling among the tents and tried to smother us, but security guards interfered and saved us.”
“They smuggle weapons as well, and we confiscated some a few months ago,” she said.
The security officer also raised concerns that international organizations’ vehicles and teams distributing aid are not checked by the camp security. “Unfortunately, we have reports that some international organization staff are smuggling large amounts of money to ISIS women, and our investigation is still ongoing,” she said.
The officer also pointed out that it’s not easy to control 11,000 women and children, the majority of who are violent, with only a few dozen security guards.
“Foreign ISIS women in al-Hawl camp are a well-funded ticking time bomb and still pose a considerable local and international threat,” she concluded.
From escape attempts to staying & establishing quasi-caliphate
Since March 2019, ISIS women made dozens of attempts to escape the camp to the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition areas and then to Turkey, but most of them were foiled by camp guards and security intelligence.
“Last year, five ISIS women bribed guards with $2,000 per person to get them out,” a camp security official who preferred to be unidentified to avoid retaliation told North-Press. “They were discovered by our intelligence just before they reached Idlib province.”
“Some senior-ranked women escaped a few months ago, making use of the security vacuum when some of our guards were relocated to the Turkish border to face the Turkish invasion,” she said.
Talking to the women in the ISIS foreigners’ section is quite difficult, as most refuse to talk to anybody coming from outside the camp. “They consider consider anyone from outside the camp kufar (non-believers),” said a security guard. “Women from Russia and Uzbekistan even refuse to answer greetings, but German, French, British, and Australian women are bit more open,” he said.
Aysha, a Russian woman, said she has tried multiple times to escape, either by smugglers or by repatriation, but all in vain. “I am staying here the rest of my life, and not sad about it because God’s destiny is a gift for his believers, and it seems our Islamic State is rising again from here,” she said.
Foreign ISIS woman with her children in clean, neat, expensive brand-name clothes eating ice cream - a scene completely opposite to the other side of the camp, where ice cream, cookies and neat clothes are luxuries. Al-Hawl camp, Syria, May 28, 2020. (Photo: Feyad Mohammad/North Press)
A group of six children from Uzbekistan agreed to talk. “We don’t want to move out of this place; my mom told me that we will go to paradise if we stay here,” said ten-year-old Huzayfa when asked whether they want to return to their home country.
Eight-year-old Uzbek Abu Bakir said he enjoys the lessons his aunt gives to a group of 25 children. “Our heroes of Islam fought against kufar bravely in the last 1,400 years; this is why we hear about them, so we will stay here and do the same,” he said.
Zahida, an Australian woman waiting at a money transfer facility to receive a remittance from her relatives in Turkey, said she wants to leave the camp, but her government rejected her. “Here is not bad for me; I got used to it and have sisters and friends.”
A two-day tour in the ISIS foreigners’ section talking to several women and a dozen children revealed that the tendency of escape among most women has changed, and most now consider staying.
Two foreign ISIS women shop in their specified market. One counts money and the other perches a dotted cap on her head and carries a mineral bottle of water. Al-Hawl camp, Syria, May 28, 2020. (Photo: Feyad Mohammad/North Press)
ISIS court and religious police in the camp
Foreign ISIS women have reportedly set up their own court and religious police, who have been meting out punishments, including killing Iraqi refugees and Syrian IDPs on the other side of the camp - even killing children when they disobey orders of the ISIS council.
The women also set up a group of children, training them to be what they called “cubs of the caliphate.” These radicalized children are trained to slaughter chicken and goats first as practice to behead humans and become suicide bombers, security sources told North-Press.
On the day that North-Press toured the camp last week, an Iraqi refugee was found dead from injuries sustained when two alleged Islamic State members beat him to death in his sleep.
“In 2019, 24 refugees and IDPs were murdered using hammers or knives, and in 2020 so far seven have been killed,” the camp security officer said. “Investigation of some cases showed that most perpetrators come from outside the camp, sneak in at night, and kill the person whom the ISIS court in the camp sentenced to death.”
“After the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in a speech broadcast on their Telegram media channel, the new ISIS caliph ordered his followers in the camp to kill anyone working with camp authorities,” she said.
Last year, an Azerbaijani woman smothered her 14-year-old granddaughter to death for refusing to wear a veil outside her tent.
Residents, guards, and aid workers all describe the situation in al-Hawl camp as unstable. Nothing quite like the camp has ever existed before, which is partly why both local and international authorities are struggling to come up with adequate solutions.