ISIS infiltrated a refugee camp to recruit fighters. Inside the Biden admin’s plan to stop it.

“This place is a literal breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS,” said Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command.

The al-Hol camp in Syria presents a “complex problem,” a senior administration official said. “There are humanitarian elements to it, but there’s a security element, as well.”Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images file

The Biden administration has enacted a new plan to reduce the population of a sprawling refugee camp near the Iraq-Syria border that has become a haven for the Islamic State terrorist group to recruit members, plot a comeback and carry out some of its most brutal tactics — including the torture and sexual abuse of women and girls — according to five senior administration officials.

The core of the administration’s effort is to work with other countries to repatriate refugees from the al-Hol camp in rural Syria. The administration’s main focus is on Iraq, according to a U.S. military official and a Biden administration official. Six European countries and Australia have so far agreed to transport dozens of their citizens being held at the camp back to their homelands in the coming weeks, those officials said.

The Australian government, for instance, is already working to repatriate dozens of Australian citizens, mainly women and children related to ISIS fighters who are dead or in jail in Syria, the officials said.

Jason Koutsoukis, the senior media adviser for Australian Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, did not confirm the plans.

“The government’s overriding priority is the protection of Australians and Australia’s national interests, informed by national security advice,” he said by email. “Given the sensitive nature of the matters involved, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”

Refugees who fled Mosul, Iraq, during fighting between government forces and ISIS behind a fence at the camp in December 2016.Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images file
An Iraqi refugee hangs her laundry at al-Hol.Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images file

The Biden administration is offering other countries support for repatriating their citizens, the five officials said, including helping verify their identities, providing advice about rehabilitation options, talking through legal challenges and offering logistical support, such as transporting al-Hol residents out of northeast Syria on U.S. military aircraft. 

The refugee camp, opened in 1991 during the first Gulf War, has exploded into a humanitarian disaster and a serious international terrorism threat. Biden administration officials told NBC News they have been alarmed by the speed with which the camp has grown to include tens of thousands of relatives of suspected ISIS members and become a breeding ground for people loyal to ISIS.

The camp’s population lives in ragged white tents, facing punishing desert heat and frigid cold at night. They have poor sanitation and limited access to running water. Children, who are the majority of the residents, receive very little schooling, according to aid organizations like Save the Children. Parts of the camp are impossible to control, and ISIS, with the help of thousands of women still thought to be loyal to the group, is recruiting new fighters by offering residents basic services or forcibly enlisting them with threats and violence, according to the U.S. military.

Children gather at the al-Hol camp, which houses families of ISIS members, in Syria's Hasakeh province in May 2021.Baderkhan Ahmad / AP file

“This place is a literal breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS,” Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement after having recently visited al-Hol. “ISIS seeks to exploit these horrific conditions.”

The growing terrorism threat poses a political problem for President Joe Biden, threatening to undermine his vow not to allow ISIS to reconstitute. Biden has insisted the U.S. can continue to effectively fight terrorism despite an increasingly shrinking troop presence overseas, pointing to two operations this year: a raid by U.S. special forces in northwestern Syria that led to the death of ISIS’ top leader and a drone strike in Afghanistan that killed the head of Al Qaeda

The situation at al-Hol threatens to undermine all of that.

“It’s a complex problem. There are humanitarian elements to it, but there’s a security element, as well,” a senior administration official said. “We are trying to look for creative approaches and new energy and resources to get at this same problem that has been evolving over the last few years.”

In the past three years, al-Hol has grown from 10,000 to roughly 57,000 residents, about 90% of them women and children, according to the U.S. government. About 40,000 of the children are under age 12, the government data says, and at least 80 babies are born there every month. And about 8,000 of the women are “jihadists and wives and widows of ISIS fighters” who have organized their own “religious police units,” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently reported.

A recent nearly three-week operation at al-Hol — conducted by the Syrian Democratic Forces, with the U.S. military providing intelligence and surveillance — found women and girls who were chained, tortured and sexually abused, according to the U.S. military. A Yazidi girl found inside a tent had been held captive by ISIS for eight years, routinely raped and sold as a slave since she was taken from her family in Iraq when she was 9. 

The operation led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are nominally in charge of the camp, resulted in the arrests of hundreds of ISIS fighters and the discovery of dozens of tunnels where the group’s operatives had stored weapons and supplies, including more than 50 pounds of explosives. 

Administration officials are particularly worried that the tens of thousands of children at al-Hol are especially vulnerable to being recruited by ISIS or forced to join. 

Members of the Syrian Kurdish Asayish security forces inspect tents at the al-Hol camp in August during a security campaign against ISIS sleeper cells. Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images file

“We’re really concerned that al-Hol is deeply tied to one of our primary objectives for all of Syria, which is to prevent the resurgence of ISIS,” the senior administration official said.

U.S. officials have said that there is no military solution to al-Hol and that instead they are trying to stop the growth of ISIS through diplomatic outreach. Officials at the State Department, the National Security Council and the Defense Department are working on the plan, which also includes improving living conditions for those who cannot leave. 

The U.S. is adding the issue to diplomatic and military engagements, the five administration officials said, including asking every country with citizens at al-Hol what the hurdles are to repatriating them.

“The United States supports and applauds recent repatriations,” a spokesperson for the NSC said in a statement. “Our effort to encourage repatriations and offer support is ongoing.”

The NSC spokesperson deferred to the countries that have agreed to repatriate their citizens for comment on their efforts.

The camp’s size and makeup dramatically changed in March 2019, when the Syrian Democratic Forces defeated ISIS fighters at Baghouz, Syria. The battle there was seen as ISIS’ last stand, and ISIS’ defeat marked the fall of its self-proclaimed caliphate. 

Smoke rises behind destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the village of Baghouz in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border in March 2019, a day after the ISIS "caliphate" was declared defeated by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images file

Many ISIS fighters were killed, but some of them, as well as their family members and sympathizers, fled to al-Hol. Within weeks after the fall of Baghouz, the population at al-Hol had doubled to more than 20,000.

It has continued to grow. Today, al-Hol includes multiple enclaves, including a separate space for women and children of ISIS fighters.

One of the issues plaguing the Biden administration, as it did the Trump administration, is that officials do not have clarity about who precisely is at al-Hol. Residents do not have to declare their nationalities, so estimates are rough and difficult to verify. Further complicating matters, some residents lie to be repatriated somewhere other than their home countries.

Of the roughly 57,000 residents there now, U.S. officials say, an estimated 28,000 are from Iraq and 18,000 are from Syria. They say about 10,000 more residents of al-Hol are foreign-born, neither Syrian nor Iraqi.

The U.S. has made efforts to repatriate all its citizens in the camp, but some countries have been reluctant to do the same despite years of U.S. efforts to persuade them. Many of them do not have passports or other documentation to prove their citizenship, and foreign governments are concerned they could be ISIS sympathizers or, worse, former fighters who could pose threats inside their countries.

A woman and her baby, who were evacuated from territory held by ISIS militants, in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, in February 2019.Felipe Dana / AP file
Women and children line up at a screening point run by the Syrian Democratic Forces outside Baghouz in March 2019.Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images file

“Most of the residents can and should be rehabilitated and returned to society. Just like all people, they wish to contribute to society and raise their families in peace,” Kurilla said in a statement. “Most of them reject and fear ISIS. Most wish to return safely to their homelands, to reenter the workforce and return their children to school.”

Administration officials want to reduce the population at al-Hol to a manageable level that humanitarian aid groups and trained guards can handle. The officials would not put a specific number on the ideal population size, referring to when the camp held 5,600 to 10,000 residents.

Iraq has become the administration’s top priority for achieving that goal — nearly half of the residents at al-Hol are Iraqi citizens. 

Biden administration officials contend that if the government in Baghdad took back all Iraqi citizens at al-Hol, the problem would be far more manageable. The Iraqi government is working to repatriate several thousand of them, about 150 families; at that pace, it could take up to seven years for all the Iraqi citizens at al-Hol to return home.

Top U.S. diplomats and military officials are asking the Iraqis to speed up their efforts. But the Iraqi government has pointed out that some al-Hol residents cannot return to where they came from in Iraq, so resettlement is not as easy as it might seem.

The next largest population at al-Hol is even more complex — Syrian citizens who fled not just ISIS but also Syria’s Assad regime. They still cannot return home because the areas they are from are controlled by the government or because they would be viewed as ISIS sympathizers. 

Laundry dries on a chain-link fence at the al-Hol camp in March 2019.Maya Alleruzzo / AP file

Without any other country to go to, the Syrian population could remain in the camp the longest, administration officials say.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, meanwhile, are enhancing security since the clearing operation this month, according to the U.S. military. They have added fencing and more surveillance. But U.S. officials are concerned that the Syrian Democratic Forces’ attention could get pulled elsewhere given the continued fight against ISIS outside al-Hol and the threat they are under from Turkish forces.

Syrian Democratic Forces officials did not respond to requests for comment on the humanitarian and security situation in the camp. 

The U.S. is also urging countries to help address the deteriorating living and security conditions. 

“Our intent is to try to see if we can reinvigorate our efforts and also look to see if there are some other approaches that perhaps we may have missed,” a senior administration official said.

CORRECTION (Oct. 6, 2022, 9:15 p.m. ET): The caption on a photo of children at the al-Hol camp in a previous version of this article misstated when the photo was taken. It was taken in May 2021, not May of this year.