Even before the United States precipitously withdrew its troops from northern Syria in October 2019, observers fretted over the situation at al-Hawl refugee camp. The camp is populated predominantly by women and children and has drawn attention for its unsanitary conditions, inadequate medical care, lack of education for children, and overcrowding. Added to this is a strong, although hard-to-quantify, strain of jihadism. Many inhabitants still profess loyalty to the Islamic State and have sought to impose a fundamentalist lifestyle on their fellow residents. In one especially grim incident, a woman is said to have killed her own granddaughter for removing her veil.
In this urgently important study, jihadism expert Aaron Zelin details the unsettling situation at al-Hawl, focusing on the period from the Islamic State’s relinquishment of territory in March 2019 until the recent U.S. pullout and ensuing Turkish incursion. As much as anything, the contents demonstrate a continued failure by international actors to manage the transition from fighting a jihadist group to rolling back its broader successes. Washington and its partners must take note.
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow at The Washington Institute and author of the forthcoming book Your Sons Are at Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad (Columbia University Press).