Al-Hol camp: ISIS’ feminine enclave that keeps growing.
By Lazghine Ya'qoube.
The common perception is that the battle fought in the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria in 2019 was a turning point in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and that it brought about the end of the self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Although territorially defeated, the group still survives in the sense it has adapted itself to the post-Baghouz reality. The main change that the battle brought about was in the leadership, which currently lies within the women of the group – a change whose foundation stone had been set elsewhere.
Fighters of the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on March 23, 2019, territorially defeated ISIS after it overran its last bastion in Baghouz. They arrested thousands of the terror group’s fighters and resided their wives and children in the al-Hol camp, which serves as a contracted caliphate that once was straddling Syria and Iraq.
The terror group attached a huge deal of importance to women when it declared its so-called caliphate in 2014. It recruited women on an unprecedented scale and they continue to play a significant role in sustaining ISIS’ ideology.
With men militants either killed or detained elsewhere and contact almost entirely severed, the leadership in ISIS was shifted to females held in the camps run by the SDF.
In the post-Baghouz era, women with solid ISIS ideology were entrusted with the mission of raising and educating their children, otherwise known as the cubs of the caliphate, as future warriors.
Originally established in 1991 to accommodate Iraqi refugees fleeing Saddam Hussain's repression, the al-Hol camp, some 45 km in east Hasaka city in northeast Syria (Rojava) became the biggest gathering and the most notorious spot ever inhabited by ISIS since 2019.
Representing 51 countries, there are now more than 55,000 people in al-Hol, nearly 93 percent of them are women and children, and half of the population is under 12 years old.
Since the fall of Baghouz, the camp defiantly remains unbridled which is not a coincidence, there is an end-of-times mission carried out, however, how?
Traditionally, women's duties in extremist groups were primarily domestic and focused on support for their men, but that has now been altered.
With the expansion of ISIS, women assumed leading, mostly domestic and feminine, roles until they ended up taking the helm gradually.
The first rapid change was introduced in February 2014, of the all-female first armed multi-faceted battalion known as “al-Khansa Brigade.”
The formation of the “al-Khansa Brigade” highlights and emphasizes in part the important role attached to females in the caliphate. While men were fighting on the frontlines their women were protecting the honor of the community at home - enjoining good and forbidding wrong. The group is headquartered in al-Hol camp and it is known as ISIS’ right hand.
The second step came, however, as a contextual one in 2017 when ISIS was territorially on the decline. Prior to that year, women illicitly could take part in battles but not as protagonists.
However, stark to the conventional extremist groups' tenets, a most fundamental and first-ever radical change was introduced in October 2017 when women were granted the right to fight still with no obligation.
In 2019 women fought on a wider scale alongside men to defend the last bastion of the caliphate in the Baghouz sliver on the Syrian- Iraqi border.
The visualization of ISIS female fighters shocked at best and disillusioned at worst supporters of ISIS. Part of the pervasive insecurity and violence committed in the al-Hol camp is against those who say ISIS should not have broken with its conventional lines.
Research on the ground reveals the roles given to women and the eventual feminization of battles is not an absolute tactical device employed by ISIS, rather it is a strategy that could have been introduced had the terror group remained a viable one to have its legitimacy established and its first-ever outdated dream preserved.
Back in al-Hol, the Baghuziat (mostly migrant women who stayed loyal until the very end) is the most militant and fearsome enforcer of ISIS’ sharia law. These women hold the most expansionist and extremist vision. The collapse of the physical caliphate has failed to deter hard-line supporters.
This surviving cohort of women and children, who make up the vast majority at al-Hol camp, is a key factor to the future survival of the caliphate, according to ISIS.
Surrounded by a hostile periphery, ISIS' women and children are the best and most effective available weapon in commissioning and perpetuating the ideology of the terror group’s caliphate.
As ISIS women are leading the charge and their children hold the banner to the future, the al-Hol camp is the shield that protects that banner and ensures the smooth continuation of the caliphate.
Lazghine Ya'qoube is a translator and researcher focusing on the modern history of Mesopotamia, with a special focus on Yazidi and Assyrian affairs in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.