AL-HOL, Syria — Inside the sprawling refugee camp in this arid corner of northeast Syria, the kids are everywhere.
They’re playing soccer next to a sea of tattered white tents. They’re running along a fence littered with trash and empty bottles. And they’re holding up their middle fingers and throwing rocks as an armored U.S. military vehicle approaches.
Of the roughly 54,000 residents in the al-Hol refugee camp, nearly half are children under the age of 12. Most fled here with their mothers and extended family members in late 2018 and early 2019 as the Islamic State terrorist group lost the last of its territory in Syria.
The plight of these children is a chief concern among U.S. military and State Department officials.
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 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.
“ISIS can plant a seed in one of those areas based on the conditions and try and grow and foment its radical ideology,” Maj. Gen. Matt McFarlane, the U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria, said in an interview at the camp last week.
McFarlane and other top military officials visited the camp to get an update on operations. U.S. officials denied NBC News’ request to interview camp residents, citing security concerns.
The situation at the refugee camp changed dramatically three years ago after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) defeated the last ISIS stronghold in Baghuz, where the most extreme fighters had been dug in for months with their families.
While most ISIS fighters were killed or captured, their families were bused to the refugee camp as a temporary holding place, but with no long-term alternatives. The autonomous government in the region had been running it since 2016.
Within weeks, the population skyrocketed from about 10,000 to more than 73,000 residents.
Today the camp is split into eight sections and a foreign annex. Four of the sections hold about 27,000 Iraqi citizens. The other half are filled with 18,200 Syrians.
The foreign annex holds roughly 8,000 people from about 50 different countries. The largest group there are 1,500 Russian citizens, with the 1,300 Chinese citizens and 1,100 Turkish the next largest. But the annex also holds Australians, French, Dutch and many other citizens, including individuals who traveled from other countries to join ISIS.
The SDF began providing security to the camp in 2016, but as the population swelled, conditions worsened, until eventually criminal violence and acts of brutality by ISIS made this one of the most dangerous places on earth per capita, according to the aid group Save the Children.
In September, the SDF conducted an operation to root out ISIS fighters inside the camp. Over 24 days, they rounded up about 300 ISIS fighters, killed several more, and confiscated weapons and explosives. Many ISIS leaders were found among the Iraqi citizens. Dozens of ISIS henchmen were found to be living in a section housing Syrian citizens that had been the most violent area in the camp, officials said.
The September raid, called Operation Hammerhead, revealed ISIS had hand grenades, explosives and materials hidden in crude caves and holes, weapons they used to fight back during the operation, killing two SDF soldiers and wounding others.
“They can smuggle things in using water deliveries, using food deliveries,” McFarlane said. “Sometimes it’s by actually paying off different guards.”
The SDF and autonomous government in the region are now constructing tall steel fences and checkpoints around the camp to separate the sections and improve internal security.
Since the raid, overall violence has dropped considerably, McFarlane said. Then last week two Egyptian girls were found beheaded in the foreign annex, suspected victims of Islamic police. Now, officials here fear the violence could be on the rise again.
McFarlane, who oversees Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, said that when living conditions deteriorate, the population becomes more vulnerable to being recruited or forced to join ISIS.
In November, the temperature drops in northeast Syria as winter settles in.
But Jihan Hannan, the director of camp administration, said there aren’t enough clothes for all the children living here. The camp needs basic winter gear and supplies like new tents, warm clothes, blankets and kerosene.
More than 30 humanitarian organizations and agencies support al-Hol, but the war in Ukraine has hurt its funding this year as many groups diverted humanitarian money to Ukraine, Hannan said.
She said one aid group has warned her it will stop providing water to the camp by March.
“The concern is ISIS can, if we don’t address these conditions you see behind us, use this environment, these dire conditions, to continue to try and inspire radicalized violence,” McFarlane said. “To continue what they’d like to do, which is build ISIS into another caliphate, which they lost over the course of the past five years.”
In addition to the ISIS families, thousands of men, women and children living here came to al-Hol to escape violence from terror groups or the Syrian regime. Instead they found that life inside the walls can be even more dangerous.
“Life is not safe here in this camp,” Hannan said.
Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said improving conditions at the camp is “critical to securing a lasting defeat of ISIS.”
“We’re committed to preventing the resurgence of the group,” he said in a statement after visiting the camp. “The long-term goal, however, must be the successful repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of the camp residents back into their country of origin.”
A potential solution
With as many as 60% of the residents here either ISIS fighters or sympathizers, officials here realize the only way to battle the ISIS ideology is repatriate the residents to their home countries.
“They can improve security with fences, checkpoints and raids, but they cannot stop the spread of ISIS ideology with so many people compressed in a small area,” one official in the region said. “The only real tool to combat that is separate them.”
The Iraqi government has the largest population of citizens at al-Hol and it has been the most proactive about taking their people back, with about 650 Iraqi citizens scheduled to leave the camp by the end of November. That includes about 150 families and 50 to 150 detainees.
“The new administration is energized about this and doing what they can to help maintain the momentum of repatriation,” McFarlane said of the Iraqi government, adding that it has set up rehabilitation and reintegration programs to help people reintegrate back into their communities.
Other nations have taken some citizens back in recent weeks — including Australia, Denmark and France — and other countries are negotiating to do the same. But many countries have been resistant to accepting anyone from the camp, concerned they could spread ISIS ideology and violence.
The Biden administration recently began a diplomatic push to encourage countries to repatriate their people, especially women and children. But one official in the region said that so far the repatriations are a drop in the bucket and that at the current pace it could take five or six years to get the population to a more manageable level.
“This is a strategic problem that requires an international solution,” McFarlane said. “Over 50 countries around the world have citizens here. But also, if they can’t do that, take action quickly, they can at least help provide some resources to address the needs of this camp.”
ISIS breeding ground
Officials in al-Hol said there are three phases of ISIS fighters in Syria.
There are the current fighters — the ones the SDF targets in raids on a nearly daily basis, with help from the U.S. military and coalition partners. That group is largely contained, according to U.S. military officials in the region, but they still present a threat without military pressure.
The second group is the ISIS army in waiting: the roughly 12,000 detainees held in 28 different prisons around the country. The largest detention facility, Hasakah, houses about 5,000 detainees, including hard-core ISIS extremists. U.S. military officials warn that ISIS has divisions of troops waiting to fight inside Hasakah and the other prisons.
Finally, there is the next generation of ISIS, the children at al-Hol. Groups like the Cubs of the Caliphate openly recruit and train kids. Officials here cannot quantify how many young people are already indoctrinated, but estimate it is well over half.
“ISIS is certainly trying to prey on this population because they know they need it,” McFarlane said. “Certainly some of them are family members from ISIS detainees that are also spread across northeast Syria.”
Many of these kids have never known a life outside this camp or a life away from the terror group, and with at least 60 babies born here every month — likely more because many are never registered — the vulnerable population is growing.
Officials at the camp said these children need education to help combat the influence from extremists, but many have no access to school.
Now thousands of children live every day vulnerable to the extremism around them, with officials here increasingly concerned they’re watching a generation who could be lost to terror.