Foreign IS fighters in Northeast Syrian camps – a ‘ticking time bomb’ for Europe

Wives of Islamic state fighters (IS) walk with their children upon their deportation from the al-Hol camp for refugees in al-Hasakah governorate in northeastern Syria on 03 June 2019 (issued 04 June 2019). [EPA-EFE/AHMED MARDNLI]

Hundreds of women and children, many of them relatives of foreign fighters, are interned in the al-Hawl camp in Northeast Syria and have created “a miniature version of the Islamic State (IS)”, which risks becoming a breeding ground and risk for Europe’s security.

When Turkey launched its ‘Operation Peace Spring’ offensive against the Kurdish self-government zone in northeast Syria in autumn 2019, many feared that in the chaos of the fighting, IS foreign fighters imprisoned in the Kurdish areas could escape and make their way to Europe.

Turkey said the offensive was aimed at removing Kurdish fighters, considered terrorists by Ankara, from the border region and establishing a “safe zone” to resettle some of the refugees in the country.

Turkey moves to ‘clean’ northeastern Syria from Kurds, plans to re-settle 2 million refugees

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Donald Trump discussed Turkey’s plans to establish a “safe zone” east of the Euphrates River in Syria in a phone call on Sunday (6 October), but the White House said US forces would not be involved.

While the operation received harsh international criticism from Turkey’s NATO allies, a mass exodus from the camps could be prevented.

However, Kurdish representatives call the camps, close to the Syria-Iraq border, “ticking time bomb”.

Women here live strictly according to IS ideology and breakout attempts are not uncommon.

For the Kurds, the camps, which accommodate also relatives of foreign fighters from Europe, are on the one hand a financial burden and on the other hand, a shield from further Turkish attacks.

“The foreign section of the Al-Hawl camp is run like a small ISIS state,” German MEP Hannah Neumann (Greens), member of the European Parliament’s subcommittee for security and defence (SEDE), who travelled to Northeast Syria in November, told EURACTIV.

Especially the al-Hawl camp, a refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the town of al-Hawl in the autonomous administration of North and East Syria, in which many of the Islamic State militants and their families are being held, to her, is a ‘ticking time bomb’.

Al-Hawl hosts more than 60,000 people, including 24,300 Syrians either captured or displaced by fighting to expel IS from their last scrap of Syrian territory almost two years ago, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“What we see in the camps is another process of radicalization, because there are no resources to separate more radical from the less radical individuals, there are also no resources to school kids,” Neumann said.

As a result, Neumann said, there are more and more circles of radicalization and children growing up in this environment are radicalised themselves.

“We have seen in places like Abu Ghraib what happens if you put radical elements from different countries together and here we are talking about a total of 50 different nations in a joint camp – it’s the perfect breeding ground for something like ISIS repeating itself, only this time we know it in advance,” Neumann said.

“So far, member states have turned a blind eye,” she said, adding that she would like to see the Commission to push member states to do something about it or them to give legitimacy to the EU to deal with the situation.

“What I expect the EU to work on is the case of EU citizens which are in these camps, especially the foreign fighters who are in prisons,” the German MEP said, adding that many of those have been there for nearly two years and it is unclear what is meant to happen to them.

Western nations have been largely reluctant to repatriate their IS-linked nationals held in northeast Syria, though some have brought home women and children on a case-by-case basis.

Europe still reluctant to repatriate its foreign fighters and families

Since the fall of the caliphate, thousands of European foreign fighters and their families have been stranded in Syria and Iraq. European capitals have been reluctant to repatriate their nationals and children born there, despite experts warning that inaction may be more dangerous in the long run.

“It’s unpopular and I can understand why, but the only clear and clean solution would be to repatriate them because at some point, these people will be either released or escape and then we don’t have any control over them,” Neumann said.

According to Neumann, this would concern around 1000 to 2000 people with EU citizenship as many foreign fighters in the camp come from the EU and UK.

“But if we bring them back, hold a trial, put them in prison and they undergo de-radicalization programmes, we know who they are, we can track them – it would be better also from a security perspective,” she added.

Neumann said there is a “curious dichotomy” that the member states that called the loudest on the EU to solve the terrorism problem, like France and Austria, are the same ones that don’t want to give up sovereignty and insist on nationalistic approaches to tackle the problem, which is “doomed to fail.”

According to her, it is “highly problematic” that the EU is negotiating with Morocco, Turkey or other countries to take their criminals and potential offenders back, “but we refuse to even talk about ours, who committed the worst atrocities in Syria and Iraq”.

“That undermines the credibility of the EU and we need to make sure that we don’t create double standards,“ the MEP said.

At the same time, several key EU countries, including France and Germany, in November pledged to renew efforts to fight Islamist terrorism after last month’s attacks in Paris, Nice and Vienna, calling for a reform of the Schengen area and measures against foreign fighters.

France pushes for joint European response to terrorism threat

Several key EU leaders, including France and Germany, promised at a mini-summit on Tuesday (10 November) to renew efforts to fight Islamist terrorism, calling for a reform of the Schengen area and measures against foreign fighters.

The European Commission intends to present an action plan to combat terrorism on Wednesday (9 December), as the crackdown on Islamist extremism comes as the bloc walks a fine line between tackling the threat of terror attacks and stigmatizing its Muslim communities.

“The rhetoric we have internally is problematic,” Neumann told EURACTIV when asked about a too close link conflating counter-terrorism and integration.

“There are very few violent jihadists like those who committed the suicide attacks in Paris, or Vienna ─ when it comes to these people, we need to be very strict and outspoken in denouncing their acts,” she said.

However, the former conflict researcher said that the EU should be careful if it aims to lessen the number of Islamist sympathisers.

“We should not fall into the trap of confusing Islam with extremism. We need to be very clear and consistent in our categories, so as to not alienate those who can be our allies in this struggle,” Neumann said.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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