August 22, 2019

What Remains of ISIS?

“A few days before the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate, I visited one of the new “pop-up prisons” that had been hastily converted to hold thousands of surrendering isis fighters in Syria. The numbers wildly exceeded all expectations, including estimates by U.S. intelligence. The most striking sight at the prison entrance was a mound of human hair lying on the raw concrete floor. Clumps of it—some brown, some graying, most of it greasy or matted—had been shaved off the heads and faces of fighters before they were taken to group cells. “Lice,” one of the guards told me.

The prison at Dashisha, in eastern Deir Ezzor province, had been an oil-storage facility. In just four days, the compound of modest brick and stucco buildings had been filled with fifteen hundred fighters from countries on four continents, including France, Libya, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, and the United States, the warden told me. Average-sized rooms had been fitted with metal doors; each cell had a small barred window that I had to stand on my tiptoes to peer through. Each one was crammed, wall to wall, with dozens of men squatting on the floor. The isis fighters wore new T-shirts, in army green, and whatever trousers they had on when they were captured.

After five years of war with the Islamic State, the biggest problem for the winners is coping with the losers. The aftermath has produced one of the world’s most perplexing postwar challenges: there are tens of thousands of captured isis members whom no nation wants to repatriate, and the local militia holding them has neither the resources nor the personnel to keep them indefinitely. More than five thousand isis fighters surrendered in the final month of fighting alone. Thousands more were captured earlier in the conflict. They’re dispersed among the new pop-up prisons in northeast Syria. A few hundred of the most severely wounded are in a small hospital, with the foreign fighters crowded in its basement for security. The hospital stench was overwhelming, even through a mask. “Sepsis,” a medic told me. Between December and March, another sixty-three thousand family members of isis fighters—wives enveloped in black niqabs that cover their faces, and bedraggled young children—also poured out of Baghouz, the last isis redoubt in Syria. They’re held separately, most in tents, at a dusty, malodorous camp in al-Hawl that already held ten thousand. The prisons, the hospital, and the camp are all bursting.”

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