BEIRUT: The deaths stacked up: a policeman shot dead with a pistol equipped with a silencer, a local official gunned down, his son wounded, an Iraqi man beheaded.
In total, 20 men and women were killed last month in the sprawling camp in northeastern Syria housing families of the Daesh group.
The slayings in Al-Hol camp — nearly triple the deaths in previous months — are largely believed to have been carried out by Daesh militants punishing perceived enemies and intimidating anyone who wavers from their extremist line, say Syrian Kurdish officials who run the camp but say they struggle to keep it under control.
The jump in violence has heightened calls for countries to repatriate their citizens languishing in the camp, home to some 62,000 people. Those repatriations have slowed dramatically because of the coronavirus epidemic, officials say. If left there, the thousands of children in the camp risk being radicalized, local and UN officials warn.
“Al-Hol will be the womb that will give birth to new generations of extremists,” said Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who focuses on militant groups.
It has been nearly two years since the US-led coalition captured the last sliver of territory held by the Daesh group, ending their self-declared caliphate that covered large parts of Iraq and Syria.
The brutal war took several years and left US-allied Kurdish authorities in control of eastern and northeast Syria, with a small presence of several hundred American forces still deployed there.
Since then, remaining Daesh militants have gone underground in the Syrian-Iraqi border region, continuing an insurgency. Though attacks in Syria are lower than they were in late 2019, Daesh sleeper cells continue to strike Syrian government troops, forces of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and civilian administrators.
Al-Hol houses the wives, widows, children and other family members of Daesh militants — more than 80 percent of its 62,000 residents are women and children. The majority are Iraqis and Syrians, but it includes some 10,000 people from 57 other countries, housed in a highly secured separate area known as the Annex. Many of them remain die-hard Daesh supporters.
The camp has long been chaotic, with the hardcore militants among its population enforcing their will on others and seeking to prevent them from cooperating with Kurdish authorities guarding it.
Daesh cells in Syria are in contact with residents of the camp and support them, said a senior Kurdish official Badran Cia Kurd. “Anyone who tries to reveal these contacts or stops dealing with Daesh is subjected to death,” he said.
The US-backed SDF tweeted last week that, backed by air surveillance from the coalition, they detained an Daesh family smuggler in the area of Hadadia near the camp.
“There are several reasons behind the increase of crime including attempts by Daesh members to impose their ideology in the camp against civilians who reject it,” said Ali, the researcher.
Of the 20 killings at Al-Hol in January, at least five of the dead were female residents of the camp, according to the Rojava Information Center, an activist collective that tracks news in areas controlled by the SDF. All the victims were Syrian or Iraqi citizens, including a member of the local police force, and most were killed in their tents or shelters at night, RIC said.
Most of the victims were shot in the back of their heads at close range, according to RIC and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition war monitor.
On Jan. 9, a gunman killed a policeman in the camp using a silencer-equipped pistol, then as other police chased him, he threw a hand grenade that seriously wounded the patrol commander, the Observatory said. The same day, an official with a local council dealing with Syrian civilians in the camp was shot to death and his son critically wounded.
In another case, an Iraqi camp resident was decapitated, his head found some distance from his body, RIC reported. It is believed he was killed on suspicion he was cooperating with authorities.
Kurdish security officials did not respond for questions from The Associated Press about the situation.
The immediate cause for the jump in killings was not known. In November, Kurdish authorities began an amnesty program for the 25,000 Syrian citizens in the camp, allowing them to leave.
Some speculate that, since those taking amnesty must register and work with authorities, the program may have prompted slayings to keep residents in line. Many Syrians fear leaving the camp because they may face revenge attacks in their hometowns from those who suffered under Daesh rule.
Whatever the cause, the bloodshed points to the Daesh strength within the camp. The local civilian Kurdish authority known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria warned in late January that some sides are trying to revive Daesh and the authority cannot face this crisis on its own.
Daesh supporters in the camp carry out trials against residents suspected of opposing them and kill defendants, and authorities have uncovered several Daesh cells inside, it said. “Contacts are ongoing between the camp and Daesh commanders outside who direct their members inside,” it said.