The Platform

Women at al-Hol refugee camp. (Y. Boechat/VOA)

The al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria holds approximately 62,000 people, mostly women and children. The term “camp” doesn’t capture the true nature of the place. It is a breeding ground for the next generation of Islamic State militants. Islamic State ideology is spreading there like wildfire.

Current U.S. policy is failing to address the poor security and growing radicalization in the al-Hol camp. The U.S. needs to take active measures to diminish the resurgence of ISIS and its violent ideology. To support de-radicalization, the U.S. should support the creation of rehabilitation centers.

The Syrian civil war sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and has given rise to over 5 million refugees outside Syria and 2.8 million internally displaced persons. Instability and violence in Syria threaten U.S. interests. Its Northern Idlib province has been infiltrated by militant groups such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Islamic State. The al-Hol camp in Syria holds women and children who perpetuate Islamic State’s ideology. Their radicalization is a testament to the failure to address the root causes of extremism. Without addressing those causes, the global war on terror will go on forever.

Current U.S. policy towards ISIS in Syria includes a U.S. military presence in eastern Syria. While this presence has been successful in eliminating high-value targets, it does not address the poor security within the al-Hol camp or the women and children vulnerable to ISIS propaganda and radicalization. The U.S., with the help of its allies and partners, should create a pathway to transfer the women and children living in the al-Hol camp to rehabilitation centers, to disengage them from extremism.

Rehabilitation centers can fill the gap in the education of children. They can provide psychological and religious support for these radicalized youth and children. They can teach skills to replace the violent ISIS ideology that has been fed to them since birth. Additionally, the centers can provide basic education and sports activities to mend their gaps in social and development skills.

Rehabilitation centers can address the grievances women and children suffered during the Syrian civil war, especially economic and political marginalization. Research highlights economic marginalization as a major source of frustration identified by those who joined violent extremism groups. The centers should work to reintegrate women and children back into society by helping them get access to jobs and access to basic human rights such as the right to work, education, and social services – rights that they were denied during the years of conflict.

Host countries might be reluctant to receive returning individuals who went through the rehabilitation process, out of fear that they might commit terrorist attacks. Surveillance of some may be necessary. Countries should work with their respective law enforcement agencies to accept their citizens back to their country of origin and monitor their behaviors.

Establishing rehabilitation centers for radicalized women and youth from the al-Hol camp will create a pathway toward de-radicalization. This policy has many benefits for the United States. It fosters education, addresses underlying grievances, and prevents the spread of ISIS propaganda. All are crucial in the fight against extremism. After all, these efforts will not just counter ISIS’ ability to operate; they will prevent the radicalization of another generation of militants. They are the building blocks for future stability and peace.

Swini Adikari is a graduate student at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. She will graduate in May 2022, with a Master's degree in Security Policy Studies, with a concentration in Transnational Security. Swini's main interests and focus lie in the field of counterterrorism and non-state actors in the Middle East and East Africa.