Cover: In the Wreckage of ISIS

In the Wreckage of ISIS

An Examination of Challenges Confronting Detained and Displaced Populations in Northeastern Syria

Published Mar 9, 2023

by Karen M. Sudkamp, Nathan Vest, Erik E. Mueller, Todd C. Helmus


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Research Questions

  1. What is the ideological disposition of inhabitants in the refugee and internally displaced person camps at al-Hol and Roj?
  2. What human and security risks do these inhabitants face, and how could they contribute to radicalization in the camps?
  3. What lessons can be learned from historical cases, and could these lessons highlight potential policy solutions?

The territorial defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) left millions of Iraqi and Syrian civilians displaced, along with the families of Syrian, Iraqi, and foreign ISIS fighters. A significant share of the families of ISIS fighters resides in two internally displaced person camps located in northeastern Syria, al-Hol and Roj, intermingled with Syrian and Iraqi civilians. There are open questions about the futures of the residents of these camps and the implications of housing innocent, displaced residents alongside or adjacent to the families of ISIS fighters. One of the most significant challenges of this arrangement is the need to limit the spread of extremist ideology and ISIS recruitment among the children of ISIS fighters' families and other civilians.

In this report, the authors examine the humanitarian and security conditions in these camps, address the potential impact on ISIS recruitment, and highlight critical challenges in the need to return these displaced residents to their home communities and countries. They also offer recommendations to improve living conditions in al-Hol and Roj, address the legal and judicial conundrums facing foreigners living in the camps, and mitigate the threat of radicalization from the residents within the camps.

Key Findings

There is a great level of variability in ideological disposition across camp populations, especially among the foreign women and children

  • Al-Hol and Roj undeniably include ardent ISIS supporters who continue to espouse ISIS ideology and attempt to enforce the group's draconian rule on other camp residents.
  • However, many other displaced persons—including the large majority of Syrian and Iraqi camp residents—do not openly support ISIS.

Numerous human and security risks might contribute to radicalization in the camps

  • Sanitation and health care resources remain scarce and insufficient.
  • Inadequate educational services increase risks of radicalization.
  • Mental health services are lacking, compounding preexisting trauma.
  • Access to employment is inadequate and limited by poor freedom of movement.
  • The limited security service presence contributes to increased violence.
  • A radicalized population conducts violence against innocent civilians.
  • External ISIS members support ISIS propaganda and violence in the camps.
  • Smuggling supports continued connections with ISIS.
  • Restricted freedom of movement for all camp residents creates feelings of separation that might increase the success rate of extremist recruiters.

Historical cases present lessons that highlight potential policy solutions

  • Many of the poor humanitarian and security conditions currently exist and previously existed in long-term displacement camps.
  • Host countries often isolate camps and restrict access to education and employment to encourage camp residents to return home as soon as possible.
  • Often, political will of international donors and host nations is the primary impediment to improving humanitarian and security environments within displacement camps.


  • Develop a process to determine the legal status of foreigners in the camps.
  • Develop and resource judicial systems in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to investigate, collect evidence, and try suspected ISIS affiliates. This could be supported by a quantification of the scope of the problem and an independent assessment of patterns of radicalization within the camps and connections to external ISIS networks.
  • Establish assessment structures and processes to determine safe paths for repatriating adolescent boys, who are most vulnerable to radicalization.
  • Increase funding and resources to improve housing conditions, sanitation, hygiene, access to clean water, and access to physical and mental health services.
  • Increase funding to improve services at the camps and provide appropriate security support for the nongovernmental organizations that deliver these services.
  • Establish an international fund with mandatory contributions from nations with citizens who are currently housed in the camps.
  • Increase the size of the security force and its funding, training, equipment, and other resources.
  • Increase integration among camp residents and allow greater freedom of movement between the camps and local communities to provide economic opportunities to residents. Consider isolating only the most radicalized foreigners, using an independent security assessment.

This research was made possible by NDRI exploratory research funding that was provided through the FFRDC contract and approved by NDRI's primary sponsor. The research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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