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Daesh detention centres are ticking time bombs in Iraq

January 31, 2022 at 9:12 pm

A general view shows a camp where detained Daesh families are held in Ain Issa in the Syrian northern Kurdish region [DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images]

The incident of the attack on the Sina’a Prison in the Syrian city of Al-Hasakah, the subsequent rebellion in the prison, and the escape attempt by hundreds of detained Daesh fighters set off alarm bells in the region, specifically in Iraq and Syria, the two countries that witnessed the explosive expansion of the terrorist organisation in the summer of 2014. The details of the attack and the tactics of the operations were reminiscent of similar previous incidents that took place in Iraq during the organisation’s attack on Iraqi prisons, followed by the release of thousands of jihadists accused of terrorism charges, who joined the organisation prior to the organisation’s expansion and control over the cities of northern and western Iraq.

What does this mean when reading the political events in the region? Why did the international coalition countries not provide assistance to the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) regarding the issue of the Daesh detainees in the areas under their control, known as the Autonomous Administration region in Syria? Is there a new threat posed by the return of the Daesh gang activities in Iraq after its fighters and families snuck into Iraq? What is the situation of the shelter camps in which Daesh families have been detained in the northern regions of Iraq? Through all these questions, we will try to shed light on a very dangerous and important issue in the Iraqi scene.

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On the eve of 20 January, 2022, Daesh launched an attack, considered the largest since victory over Daesh was declared. The attack targeted the Sina’a prison, located on the outskirts of Ghweran neighbourhood, south of the city of Hasakah in north-east Syria. This is the first time that prisons containing Daesh fighters have been subjected to an external attack, as previous crises were limited to cases of rebellion and disobedience inside prisons. There have been 11 cases of this between 2020 and 2021. The events of the last attack brought to mind the attack that took place on Iraqi prisons that held Daesh fighters in the summer of 2014. In response to what happened, the media office of Yazidi MP, Vian Dakhil, issued a statement about the incident in Al-Hasakah, saying, “We are following with great concern the escape of dozens of Daesh terrorists from Al-Sina’a prison in the Ghweran neighbourhood of the Syrian city of Hasakah, including about 20 leaders of the terrorist organisation of Iraqi and Syrian nationalities.” The statement described the prisoner escape as reminding her “of a previous ominous scenario in Iraq when a large group of terrorists fled from Abu Ghraib prison and others, which resulted in a catastrophe: the fall of more than a third of Iraq at the hands of the terrorist organisation and the tragedies in Sinjar and Speicher and the displacement of millions of Iraqis.” Official reports by UN organisations and agencies estimated the number of Daesh fighters currently active in Syria and Iraq at about 10,000, while SDF says that the prisons under their control in their areas of influence contain about 12,000 from about 50 nationalities. Meanwhile, families of Daesh fighters still live in overcrowded camps in the area, with the most prominent camp being Al-Hol camp in north-east Syria, close to the Iraqi border. From time to time, the border witnesses the escape of jihadist families and their crossing of the Iraqi border. Therefore, international experts have warned that camps may become a breeding ground  for extremism. Statements by the leaders of the terrorist organisation in 2019 launched what it called the “second caliphate” plan, with the launch of the stage of the invasion stage, which are operations that use hit-and-run tactics, and resorting to remote desert areas extending between Syria and Iraq, all the way to the Hamrin heights in north-east Iraq. In coincidence with the recent Al-Hasakah events, the organisation launched an attack on an Iraqi army headquarters at dawn on 21 January in the Hawi Al-Azeem area in the Diyala Governorate, north-east of the capital, Baghdad. The attack caused the death of 11 soldiers, one of whom was a lieutenant. The Iraqi authorities suggested that the organisation’s fighters would take advantage of “the ruggedness of the area and the low temperatures to carry out the attack, and then withdraw to Salah Al-Din Governorate.” Do these simultaneous attacks mean that there are cells in Syria and Iraq that are still cooperating with the fighters of the terrorist organisation? This question leads us to talk about sheltering camps for Daesh families.

The file of detention camps in which women and children of the terrorist organisation fighters live has turned, more than four years after declaring victory over the organisation, into hotbeds for spawning a second generation of terrorists, as the governments of Iraq and Syria and the Autonomous Administration in the Kurdish region in Syria have not worked to find real solutions to this disaster. We can even say that the official authorities, and even many international parties deliberately overlooked the file, and dealt with the crisis with great neglect, leaving the matter to the actions of some security, military and tribal agencies, allowing for various types of violations against groups of people that include many innocents, or those who did nothing wrong, but they were definitely brainwashed violently when they lived in the under the rule of Daesh for years. This is especially the case with children, who were raised under the so-called “cubs of the caliphate” programme, which prepared them to be a second generation of terrorists, and with all this danger, the international institutions did not offer any real cooperation to solve this predicament.

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Human Rights Watch reports shed light on part of the problem, as the organisation’s report issued at the end of 2021 stated “Dozens of Sunni Arab men who served prison time or were acquitted in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region for Islamic State (Daesh) connections risk re-arrest or retaliation if they try to reunite with their families in areas controlled by Baghdad, Human Rights Watch said today. Some of the men were boys as young as 14 when Kurdish security forces arrested them.” The report added, “The men are currently stuck in a camp in the Kurdistan region, after being released from prison between 2018 and 2020. Security forces are not allowing them to leave the camp to live elsewhere in the Kurdistan region, and they fear for their lives if they were to return home.” Tribal customs were applied in the areas of conflict that were liberated from the control of the terrorist organisation, with families of the fighters associated with the terrorist organisation subjected to tribal rulings that required them to leave their villages, their homes were demolished, and their agricultural lands were bulldozed, to prevent them from returning. It has become difficult to achieve societal reconciliation between what has become known as the Daesh families and the families of the victims of the terrorist organisation who demand retribution for the murder of their children, and do not want to give up their rights and co-exist with the killers’ families again. Despite the bleakness of the critical situation, which the conflict areas are still experiencing, some hopeful initiatives have appeared here and there; for example, what was done by the young tribal sheikh, Ahmed Al-Muhairi, who spoke to the media, saying, “It takes courage to talk about what happened, because it is very painful, but we must forgive and not let anger affect our lives.” Ahmed Al-Muhairi suffered a great catastrophe at the hands of Daesh terrorists who killed his father and four uncles, destroyed their house, and bulldozed their lands in the city of Hawija in the Kirkuk governorate north of the capital, Baghdad. Despite this, the young sheikh was brave in his tolerance and forgiveness and welcomed Daesh families into his village community. He even opened his guest house to them after its restoration, to house the widows and children of Daesh fighters, putting forward a very difficult and rational option by saying, “Women and children do not pose any danger, they are part of the tribe, and we cannot allow these ties to be severed. The perpetrators, of course, are the responsibility of the police.” He added, “If we don’t do this, the alternative will be horrific,” noting that if society does not accept these families, the risk of extremism even among relatives becomes inevitable. However, it seems that we are facing a need for governmental and international actions to develop systematic solutions to this disaster, as individual solutions will not heal the deep wound and societal rift that occurred. These makeshift solutions will not work in the face of a disaster that may erupt again, at which point it will be impossible to predict the tragedies that will befall us, once again.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 30 January 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.