© 2024 South Carolina Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
South Carolina Public Radio's offices will be closed Monday, May 27, in observance of the Memorial Day holiday. Our local news and programming will return Tuesday, May 28.

ISIS Families Hope For Return Of 'Caliphate'


There's no clear plan for what to do with many thousands of family members of ISIS fighters who are in Syria, but many of them have a plan or at least an aspiration to return to the caliphate. NPR's Jane Arraf recently visited a vast detention camp in northeastern Syria. She met the women and their children, who are scraping for what they need to live in vastly overcrowded conditions. Jane, thanks so much for being with us.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Please help us understand what you saw. Do we call it a refugee camp, internment or prison camp?

ARRAF: You know, it's hard to know what to call it because most people have never seen anything like it before. It's a combination refugee camp for people from outside Syria displaced by the fighting, Iraqis who were displaced. It's a combination camp for people who are hiding out from the Syrian regime, but most of all, it's a detention camp - it's supposed to be a detention camp - for the families of ISIS fighters. And there are 73,000 people in this camp now. It's hugely overcrowded, not enough food, not enough anything. And 65 percent of these people are children. So essentially when the territorial caliphate of ISIS was defeated, this is the spiritual caliphate that was left, these ISIS families who had lived under the Islamic State for five years.

SIMON: It sounds like from your reporting they didn't have to be prompted to talk about the fact that they still very much support ISIS.

ARRAF: It's a very, very strange environment. There was a very large group of women who were lined up, and it had just been raining, and they were waiting for food. They had gone for three days in a row to get packages of food, and this was the third day they were being turned away. So we started talking about the food, and then they started telling me I needed to cover my hair. And then they started shouting at me convert, convert, and it became this opportunity to ask them about what they believed - every question I've ever had, basically, about what people believe about ISIS. And they still believe despite everything that the ISIS they lived under, the ISIS that we know was incredibly brutal, was essentially almost like a paradise on Earth. They felt that everything that happened there was God's will, that no one innocent was killed despite the thousands and thousands of people that ISIS killed. And they believed the plan was as well that they were sent to the camp - sent there by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

And one woman tells me that they were sent there because, as she says it, the state is finished, but it will come back. And she says, you see these and these and these - and she points at the children - these are the next generation of the caliphate. And indeed, it was some of the children, 11 and 12 year olds, who are some of the most fervent about the blasphemy they saw around them - the music, the tight clothing - and how they prayed for the caliphate to return.

SIMON: Can you tell how typical the views of these people might be in this camp and some others?

ARRAF: That's a great question. So there are a lot of people in the camp and a lot of people who did live under ISIS who don't believe in ISIS. There are quite a few people who feel betrayed by ISIS who realized it wasn't what they thought it was. But then there are thousands and thousands of people, many of them in this camp, the al-Hol camp, that still believe deeply in ISIS. And the issue is that they're not being rehabilitated. They're not being deradicalized in this camp. They're being denied food, medicine just because there isn't enough of it. And there are a lot of problems in the camp. But they all feel that that's deliberate. And in many cases, it seemed as if their views were hardening rather than softening.

SIMON: What are some of the proposals about what to do with this large group of people? How can they be safely resettled?

ARRAF: Well, that is a huge problem. The Kurdish Syrians who are holding them, the U.S.-backed forces who helped defeat ISIS in its last stronghold in Syria, they're calling for international help. And they want countries to take back their foreign nationals. They want Iraq to take back the 30,000-something Iraqis that are in the camp. But then there are all the others. There are something like 50 nationalities. The Americans have taken some back. Some, they claim, are not really citizens. There are many Germans. There are a lot of Russians. The issue really is the children. The children are there through no fault of their own. They're a problem in the camp, and they're a problem if they go home. So a lot of them are now in limbo.

SIMON: NPR's Jane Arraf, thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.