Small Wars Journal

The Restoration of the Next Islamic Caliphate Alhawal Camp

Sat, 09/10/2022 - 12:31pm


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The Restoration of the Next Islamic Caliphate Alhawal Camp

By Albert Hadi and Paul Lieber



While women have long played an important role in jihad, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now heavily relies on them utilize them to obtain its goals. Even though the physical Caliphate is no more, ISIS's military defeats – to include the recent killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri[1] - have seemingly little impact on deterring the followers of jihad. There remains a distinct possibility of a global ISIS group resurgence, with women serving in more pivotal positions.


ISIS women formerly worked mostly in the home as wives and mothers. “Over the past year and a half or so, the Islamic State has quietly shifted from insistence on a strict gender hierarchy to allowing, even celebrating, female participation in military roles” [2]. Thus, and while ISIS continues to shift its focus from governance projects to international terror, its women will be vital members in this change.


In northeastern Syria remains a notable ISIS stronghold: the al-Hawl refugee camp. Presently, it holds around 56,000 ISIS-affiliated women and their children, 10,000 of which are foreigners, who surrendered to coalition forces after Baghouz fell in March 2019. ISIS leaders consider this group, notably also its female supporters, integral to their future.


While most on the international stage see refugee camps like al-Hawl in the context of developing humanitarian crises, Major General Alexus Grynkewich –Operation Inherent Resolve’s Deputy Commander for Operations - remains specifically worried about female ISIS fighters within the camp, individuals radicalizing other, to include children, within.[3]



Financially, ISIS remains amongst the world's wealthiest terrorist organizations, with billions in U.S. assets.[4] Like many illicit organization, some of these assets are derived and used for legitimate commercial enterprises. “What we know is that they accumulated large amounts of cash and other assets,” said Howard Shatz, a senior economist at the Rand Corporation. “We don’t know where it all went.”[5]  One benefit of such financial flexibility is that it allows ISIS members access to resources to forge documents needed to create new identities and citizenship. Using forged identity documents, extremists are then able to present themselves as citizens of different countries, spreading ISIS's reach and wealth wherever they go. [6]


Behind the religious front of zakat (alms-giving in Islam) and social solidarity, when this money moves internationally it is mainly to finance weapons smuggling and jihad. “Some ISIS women are receiving large amounts of money, exceeding $3,000 monthly, from their relatives and friends in Turkish-backed opposition areas in Idlib and also from abroad, mostly from Turkey and several European countries.” [7]



ISIS women inside al-Hawl regularly attempt escape to Turkish-backed Syrian opposition areas territory and subsequently to Turkey from there. Most attempts, however, are thwarted by camp guards and security intelligence [8]. According to reports by The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 140 families paid a network of smugglers huge amounts of money to reach the Turkish territory. This network includes tens of members of the Syria Democratic Forces and “Euphrates Shield” forces.”[9]­­ “The price of smuggling a Syrian or Iraqi woman from the camp to al-Hasakah governate in northeastern Syria is $3,000, and $5,000 to take an ISIS follower from al-Hawl to another Syrian city. In contrast, to smuggle a non- Syrian or Iraqi person from al-Hawl into Turkey costs $60,000”. [10]


Within such smuggler networks, civilians work as smugglers, and individuals within a network could receive up to $90,000 to transfer an individual woman to a non-Syrian family. This non-Syrian family designation may include foreigners, immigrants, or Mohajreen, ranging from an ISIS family from different nationalities other than Syrian (and former residents of the “ISIS-Islamic State”) …to areas controlled by SDF…to the Turkish territory. In the final instance, these families must then decide whether stay in Turkey to avoid attack or risk capture by the coalition and/or SDF forces.


Millions of dollars in cash accompany women and children fleeing al-Hawl.10 SOHR – from intelligence acquired from several reliable sources - uncovered that the cell responsible for the movement of tens of millions of dollars in antiquities and relics to Turkey was arrested in 2019. This nearly 30 person cell – arrested in the Manbij area controlled by Manbij Military Council in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo - possessed antiquities and relics worth more than $50 million USD.[11]



Although the al-Hawl camp was initially built to hold approximately 20,000 refugees from Iraq, it grew by thousands to accommodate ISIS families who fled Boughaz, the last town occupied by the ISIS-Islamic-State to fall to SDF and coalition forces. At last estimate, 68,600 people from 58 nations live in al-Hawl, most of whom are Iraqi and Syrian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); see figure 2).[12]

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Figure 2

As a side effect, this inflow essentially turned al-Hawl into an over capacitated displacement camp for the wives, widows and children of ISIS fighters. Importantly: women who join ISIS are not typical refugees; many of them are staunch terrorist supporters and allies. Many of these widows and separated wives continue to be more than willing to carry out their past responsibilities as camp religious police and/or other ISIS functionaries. This reality is thusly far from sympathetic media portrayals of these actors as helplessly brainwashed with jihadist belief and/or forced to unite with ISIS against their will. 


Moreover, additional reports found that ISIS purposefully sought out women to its organization and used them to recruit more fighters.[13] Online, female ISIS supporters in Syria used social media platforms to entice more women via shared speeches and articles. Also and due to relaxed security measures for women, ISIS continues to rely on females[14]  to deliver mail and money from ISIS leaders to members. ISIS women are also charged with the education of children within the camp, and with its placement within jihadist schools inside al-Hawl.



Logistically, the al-Hawl camp is divided into two areas. The biggest area houses Iraqis and Syrians, who compose over half of the camp's total population, while the smaller area holds foreigners.[1] Within the foreigner annex is an even smaller subsection called Jabal al-Boughuz, where the most extreme elements self-separate. The name ‘Jabal al-Boughuz’ refers to the last ISIS stronghold in Syria before it fell in March 2019. There is also an ISIS family area within the foreigners' annex, one which holds 3,100 foreign ISIS wives, or "al-Muhajirat" and their 7,000 children.[15]


The more than 10,000 families in the al-Hawl foreigner annex come from over 40 countries. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, more than half of this annex’s 7,000 children don’t have birth certificates, and 65% are under the age of 18.  Interestingly, there are also 470 Children that are unaccompanied or separated from their parents .[16]­ ISIS families and former ISIS-Islamic-State residents likewise utilize refugee camps to mask themselves from coalition forces, the SDF, and other opposing militias.[17]Overfilled camps are an ideal place for them to hide from ISIS’s foes.


As stated, ISIS is skilled at creating alternate identities for anyone holding up inside the camps.[18] Thus, confirming the actual names and nationalities of al-Hawl militants is a major challenge, with most at al-Hawl camp using an alias. Not many have passports or identity documents; some purposefully destroy their official documents, and many more will not reveal their real names or nationalities to guards.


Importantly, most ISIS members and their families are wealthier than camp’s guards. “There are some people inside the camp already accusing the guards of taking bribes to allow some of the inmates to leave the camp under false documents and/or to have easy access to the camp.” [19]



Low security at the southern outskirts of al-Hawl camp in northern Syria contributes to the growth of ISIS ideology, with a byproduct being escalated violence.[20] Contributing to this increase is the disproportionate ratio of Syrian and Iraqi residents and ISIS Families from other nationalities to available security guards, which makes it easy for inmates to avoid surveillance, start riots, and escape.[21]  These circumstances are causing the camp to rapidly become a harbinger for the next generation of extremist fighters.


Women and children are no strangers to this violence. The first murder at al-Hawl happened in the foreigner section in June 2019, when a 14-year-old Azerbaijani girl named Gulsun was beaten and strangled to death by members of al-Hisbah (Islamist religious police; more on this group below), her own grandmother among them, because “she wanted to remove her niqab and leave ISIS.” [22] The strangulation was so violent that four of the vertebrae in her neck were broken.  A mere month later —two weeks after an ISIS flag was raised in the center of the foreigners annex—a heavily pregnant 35-year-old Indonesian woman named Saudrini was beaten to death by al-Hisbah members for showing similar frustrations with ISIS. On September 4th, the body of a male Iraqi refugee was found bludgeoned to death with a hammer.[2]



Hisbah is a doctrine of Islamic religious imposition going back to medieval times; it is supposed to support religious observance and public morality according to a national or regional authority’s interpretation of shari’a law. ISIS Hisbah inside ISIS-Islamic State was responsible for enforcing Shari’a law regulations, “making sure women were covering their bodies as per ISIS regulations, and that they collected zakat, i.e. what ISIS called their taxation imposed on locals.”[23]

The al-Hawl al-Hisbah Squad offers an alternative for women seeking an outlet for activism beyond the domestic sphere. Its members earn a wage, are trained to use weapons, and regularly patrol the camp. Despite the relative freedoms that women in the brigade enjoy, al-Hisbah functions under a predominantly male leadership structure.  In the name of morality, these  “Al-Hisbah police have unleashed a reign of terror within the camp by enforcing the terrorist group's radical laws upon the population”[24]  and sometime have ordered attacks against al-Hawl guards, burned down tents, dismembered bodies, doused women in petrol, and smuggled guns into the camp.[25]


Reports from the camp find that most of the women who arrived at al-Hawl after the fall of ISIS in March 2019 think, act, and behave like ISIS fighters. “[Al-Hisbah members] punish [victims] first by delivering a written warning and then kerosene in their tents, and then it varies what they do burn their tents.” [26]


“When verbal intimidation does not work, it is often followed by an actual physical attack, which may include burning the person’s tent; the inhabitants, including children, may perish in the fire.” [27] This may be supplemented by the theft of personal items, beatings, biting, whipping, and even outright murder.[28] Squads can find it difficult to track down would-be offenders, however. The niqab makes the identification of female perpetrators nearly impossible, and suspects often move from tent to tent to avoid capture.[29]



The violent grip of al-Hisbah extends to children within al-Hawl’s annex. Some of these children are showing signs of becoming even more radicalized than their parents. Al-Hisbah trained a group of children for roles as ‘cubs of the caliphate.’[30]


 A father said he was forced to send his sons Ali and Mohammad to an ISIS school. “Ali had learned to count to 10 using empty bullets. All they talked about were car bombs, guns and how to become a fighter.".[31]

 On October 03, 2019, the Australian published an article by Anthony Loyd stating,

“The behavior of the children in the camp was the first indicator of the change. At first, traumatized by their exposure to battle, they had appeared friendly with camp staff and guards. Yet today they bombard patrols by members of the 400-strong security unit guarding the camp, the “essayish,” with rocks and stones. At first the kids were OK, friendly even, one of the guards said. Since then they have been told to keep away from us or face punishment by [the] hisbah squad. Now when I walk into the wire, I feel I am being monitored and we are met with barrages of rocks. Even the vaccination teams get rocks thrown at them...[32]


The children of al-Hawl face an uphill—if not impossible—battle to gain an education. Education services are relatively poor and remain a main concern of camp supervisors…let alone aforementioned emphases on radicalization. There is no schedule for school and/or a supporting curriculum. With more than 43 nationalities and their different languages, accents, races, and backgrounds in the camp, a common classroom is simply not possible, one with a common set of books, in a common language.


Furthermore, several media outlets conducted interviews with IDPs and refugees inside al-Hawl, and they uncovered an array of issues, including shortages of basic medical supplies, a dearth of school equipment and objective curriculum, lack of a legitimate security service, an insufficient supply of tents, and minimal children’s supplies such as towels, milk, and medicine. [33]

The international coalition, which supports its forces, must protect the people of the camp…there were 73 deaths in a very short period inside the camp, mostly women and children, due to lack of medicines and violations.[34]


As stated, education within al-Hawl is about recruitment. Radicalizing children is by no means a new trend for ISIS. From the group’s beginning, ISIS instructors taught schoolchildren from an early age how to fight, make bombs, and carry out suicide attacks.[35] ISIS has even broadcast videos of young children both beheading and shooting prisoners. [36] In late 2016,  as coalition forces began the campaign to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS,  extremists recruited approximately 300 Syrian child soldiers…all have since been killed.[37]



Perhaps Gen. Grynkewich put it best: “We need countries to own [the al-Hawl] problem rather than outsource it to the folks on the ground in northeastern Syrian [refugee camps]…they are certainly not equipped to deal with it over the long term.”[38]


SDF personnel running al-Hawl must do a better job of tracking and checking the legitimacy of camp residents’ identification. This should include creating a database of residents’ information for use by allies and partners. This is especially important for children, who desperately require country-of-origin and citizenship documentation to enable them to have a safe, dignified, and voluntary return and reintegration into their or their parents’ countries of origin. Such a database would also help prevent ISIS women and children from falling between the cracks and being left stateless.


In mid-late 2022, the next generation is most important. Al-Hawl children must be taught to reject the modern concept of an “ISIS-Islamic-State,” and differentiate it from the historical Islamic Caliphate that preceded it. As many of the children in refugee camps were born in areas under ISIS’s control, it will take years to erase the effects of this concept from their minds.


“Centers for deradicalizing children should be staffed with educators and counselors who know the ideology of ISIS and similar extremist groups, recognize the powerful impact of these ideologies, and can counter them by explaining that they are not teachings of Islam.” [39] Awareness campaigns, media outlets, and social media can be used to help break the connection between ISIS and the children it radicalized. Specifically, deradicalization programs must make every effort to not identify children with the terrorist group or with crimes in which they were not willing culprits. It is important to ensure that the detention of children is a measure of last resort and lasts for the shortest time possible.


For children who have reached the age of criminal responsibility and stand accused of criminal acts, all countries must ensure that they apply internationally recognized standards for a fair trial and appropriate juvenile justice.

The cohort of former caliphate members who are being held in camps like al-Hawl, especially the women and children, pose a key challenge for counterterrorism efforts around the world. Optimistic and incorrect assumptions about women and violence continue to prevent an accurate assessment of the threat and agency that female ISIS supporters pose. They are the present and future of ISIS and should be considered accordingly.


Those receiving them must formulate workshops, practices, schools, and acceptance mechanisms

into communities where former al-Hawl ISIS women and their families will be living. Otherwise, they’ll feel rejected and isolated…which will resort to them seeking ISIS- Islamic-State communities with shared radical background and beliefs. Similarly, a new and reformed doctrine is essential to counter what ISIS implanted in the minds of al-Hawl women and children.




[1] U.S. Department of State, “The Death of Ayman Al-Zawahiri,” August 1, 2022,

[2] Vera Mironova, “Is the Future of ISIS Female?” The New York Times, February 20,2019, 1


[3] Lara Seligman, “In Overflowing Syrian Refugee Camps, Extremism Takes Root”, Foreign Policy, JULY 29, 2019,

[4] The Economic Times “ISIS made $2.4 billion in 2015; richest terror group in world: Report”, The Economic Times, June 02, 2016,


[5] David Kenner, “All ISIS Has Left Is Money. Lots Of It”, Hot Air, March 24, 2019,


[6] Bureau of Counterterrorism, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019” U.S. Department of State, 2019


[7] Hisham Arafat, “Remittances for ISIS women in northeast Syria’s al-Hawl camp trigger imminent resurgence of the jihadist group”, North-Press Agency, May 31,2019,


[8] Ibid.


[9] SOHR Report, “For up to 90$ thousand, 142 non-Syrian families of ISIS members flee towards Turkey through smuggling network of smugglers and members, and the intelligence of SDF arrests 120 members” The Syrian Observatory for Human Right, February 27, 2019,


[10] Ahmed Abu Alan, “Al-Hawl camp, the "ticking bomb" ... flight operations ... 60 thousand dollars to Idlib or Turkey”, Buyer News Agency, (Arabic website), January 21, 2020,

[12] Anthony Loyd, “Barbaric ISIS brides turn refugee camp into caliphate”, The Australian, October 3,2019,


[13] Jessica Trisko Darden, “Tackling Terrorists’ Exploitation of Youth” American Enterprise Institute (AEI), May 2019,


[14] UNODC, “The use of the Internet for terrorist purposes”, United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, January 2012,


[15] Anthony Loyd, “Barbaric ISIS brides turn refugee camp into caliphate”, The Australian, October 3,2019,


[16] UN Report, “The United Nations warns of the danger of hunger in the Rukban camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border” (Arabic Language) United Nations News, May 16, 2019,

[17] Saleh Hasan, “After the Turkish invasion. Fears of the emergence of a new ISIS generation inside Al-Hawl camp” ALAin News, (Arabic Language) December 10, 2019,

[18]   Bureau of Counterterrorism, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019”U.S. Department of State, 2019

[19] SMART Agency, “Smuggling of "ISIS militants" from Al-Hawl camp ... Huge sums and corruption in "Asayish,” SMART Agency (Arabic Language), October,2019,

[20] Shoresh Khani, “Al-Hawl Camp and the Potential Resurgence of ISIS”, The Washington Institute, June 29,2020,

[21] Ahmad Abu Alan, “Al-Hawl camp, the "ticking bomb" ... flight operations ... 60 thousand dollars to Idlib or Turkey” Buyer Press, (Arabic Language) January 21, 2020,

[22] Anthony Loyd, “ISIS turn refugee camp into caliphate, The Australian, October 3,2019,

[23] Anne Speckhard, “The Islamic State Hisbah, The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, May 25, 2018,­­

[24] Alahna Kindred, “CAMP CALIPHATE ISIS takes ‘full control’ of al-Hawl camp slaughtering babies and dousing guards in petrol as they vow to restart jihad”, The Sun, October 24, 2019,

[25] Aaron Y. Zelin, “Wilayat al-Hawl” THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY, October 2019,

[26] Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci, “Waiting for Return of the Caliphate Among ISIS Enforcers in Syria’s al Hol, Ain Issa and Roj Camps”, Homeland Security Today, September 3, 2019,

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Bethan McKernan, “Inside al-Hawl camp, the incubator for Islamic State's resurgence”, The Guardian August 31, 2019,

[30] Kara Anderson, “Cubs of the caliphate. The Systematic Recruitment, Training, and Use of Children”,, 2016,

[31] Ammar Cheikh Omar and Saphora Smith, “Generation ISIS: When Children Are Taught to Be Terrorists” NBC News, October 21,2017,

[32] Anthony Loyd, “ISIS turn refugee camp into caliphate”, The Australian, October 3,2019,

[33] Liz Sly, “New suffering for the children of the ISIS caliphate as hunger and sickness spread”, The Washington Post, June 19, 2019,

[34] Ana Press, “SIS in the al-Hol Camp”, The Syrian Observer, April 15, 2019,


[35] Dr. Israa Ali-Taqi Al-Najjar, “Teaching “Cubs of the Caliphate” A critical reading of the “ISIS” educational curriculum”, Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (ECSS), (Arabic language July23,2020,

[36] Priyanka Boghani, “The Number of Children Dying for ISIS is Rising”, Frontline, MARCH 1, 2016,

[37] Wael Nehme, “ISIS cubs turn into beggars after the liberation operations are over” AlMada paper, March 03,2019,

[38] Lara Seligman, “In Overflowing Syrian Refugee Camps, Extremism Takes Root”, Foreign Policy, JULY 29, 2019,

[39] CGP Staff,” Deradicalizing Syria’s Children of ISIS: A Humanitarian Imperative”, CENTER FOR GLOBAL POLIC, August 8,2019,



About the Author(s)

Dr. Paul Lieber is an Associate Research Scientist at the Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security - University of Maryland

Mr. Albert Hadi is Director of Middle East Operations for Equitus Corporation.



Sat, 11/19/2022 - 10:46pm

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