In Syria's Al-Hol camp, the fight against terrorism is far from over
AL-HOL, SYRIA -- Clashes with guards, violent factional quarrels and a new strain of ultra-extremism at a camp in eastern Syria demonstrate that while the so-called caliphate of "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) may be defeated, the fight against terrorism is far from over.
Thousands of wives and children of ISIS fighters have flooded in from a string of Syrian villages south of the Al-Hol camp in recent months after a Kurdish-led ground force and coalition air strikes dislodged the terrorists from their last remaining territory.
Baghouz, their last scrap of territory, fell on March 23.
Among the hordes of Syrians and Iraqis, some 9,000 foreigners are held in a fenced section of the encampment, under the watch of Kurdish forces.
When they want to go to the camp's market or receive aid rations, these high-risk prisoners are escorted by armed guards.
But tensions are rife among the foreigners themselves.
"We don't have the same mentality -- they [the extremists] want to impose their vision of Islam," said Vanessa, who came to Syria from her native Guyana as a convert in 2013 with her husband and children.
"They say that we are infidels," the gangly 36-year-old said, singling out the camp's Tunisians as especially "extreme."
'These people scare me'
Under ISIS's so-called "caliphate" -- declared in 2014 over large swaths of Syria and neighbouring Iraq -- minors were systematically indoctrinated and even exposed to public executions.
In a gesture of continued loyalty to ISIS, some children at the camp -- a few grinning, others staring coldly -- pointed their index finger to the sky in front of AFP reporters.
One woman threatened to hit a cameraman, but others -- anxious to return home and declaring they regret joining ISIS -- were keen to talk.
Some of the Tunisians and Russians interned at the Al-Hol camp have adopted "very extreme beliefs," confided a Belgian woman who came to Syria in 2013.
"These people scare me," she said.
Even just "talking to the guards, or requesting to go to the market, can make us infidels" in their eyes, she added.
Once someone is labelled a non-believer, these women decree it lawful to strip the person of their belongings, the Belgian said.
"They can burn our tents and do whatever they want to us."
But tensions are not limited to the foreigners' section.
A week ago, a confrontation escalated in the main area, populated by Iraqis and Syrians. Kurdish police were forced to intervene.
Some of the residents "threw stones" at their fellow residents, a policeman told AFP, without giving his name.
The "security situation is under control," insisted Nabil al-Hassan, who heads the camp's communications.
Still, major logistical challenges give rise to "problems" including tensions over access to tents and aid, he added.
Loyal to the ISIS cause
Heavily pregnant Lamia, 21, told AFP she is steadfast in her loyalty to the ISIS cause.
"We remain with [ISIS]," said the former resident of Manbij, a Syrian town that was occupied by the militants until the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces prevailed.
Lamia wants to go back to her hometown and has been at the camp for a month. Her first husband was killed in combat, and the second is in prison.
Back at the entrance to the foreigners' area, several women including Algerians and Ukrainians gathered at the gate, insisting it was their turn to go to market.
Blonde children and those from Central Asia mingled in the dust.
The women returned from the market hauling trolleys full of eggs, potatoes, diapers and gas cylinders.
Everything is meticulously searched by the guards, who have orders to confiscate, log and store unusually valuable items and mobile phones.
These security measures are needed to stop residents stealing from each other and from smuggling goods or cultivating contacts in the outside world, Hassan said.
'Terrorist of the future'
The semi-autonomous Kurdish administration that rules much of northeastern Syria is urging countries of origin to take back their citizens.
The women and children need to be "re-educated and reintegrated by their home countries," said Kurdish official Abdel Karm Omar.
Otherwise, he warned, they will become "the terrorists of the future".
The United States also has urged countries to repatriate those women and children being held in the camps.
The "priority is to pressure countries to take back their own citizens who may or may not have committed crimes," James Jeffrey, the US special representative on Syria, told reporters in Washington on March 25.
"If they put the effort into it, they can deal with it," he said.
However, the fate of foreign fighters and of their families has become a significant problem for governments as the conflict against ISIS draws to a close, with some fearing they might not have enough evidence to convict ISIS members who claim they did not fight.
France has ruled out the repatriation of French fighters and their families detained in Syria after the fall of ISIS, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Friday (April 5).
"No communal repatriation was under consideration to be carried out," he said, reiterating that France would nonetheless study bringing back children of ISIS fighters on a "case-by-case basis".
Last month, French authorities for the first time brought home five orphaned children of French militants' from camps in northeast Syria.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison Friday said he was open to allowing the return of orphaned children of an Australian militant in a Syrian refugee camp following a desperate plea for help.
Morrison said his government was working with the Red Cross so the children could leave the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria and Australian officials could assess them.
Regardless of the differences, the goal of the allies is the same: to see ISIS fighters pay for their crimes.