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Inside Ain al-Issa: Hunting for ISIS in the North Raqqa IDP Camp

In the second of a two-part series, we report on Kurdish-led forces’ rigorous security screening procedures at the Ain al-Issa IDP camp that aim to weed out potential ISIS fighters from the thousands of civilians fleeing militant-held territory every day.

Written by Wladimir van Wilgenburg Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Aisha al-Ali and her husband fled Raqqa over five months ago. But her husband was arrested upon arrival at Ain al-Issa IDP camp, where she now remains, waiting for news of his fate.Wladimir van Wilgenburg

AIN ALISSA, Syria – Aisha al-Ali has not spoken to or seen her husband since the couple fled Raqqa just before violence gripped the so-called Islamic State’s (ISIS) stronghold. The 30-year-old said the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) detained her husband in a camp for internally displaced people north of Raqqa city five months ago. She hasn’t had any news of him since.

Al-Ali said that her husband and a number of other newcomers were rounded up for a standard security screening when they first arrived at Ain al-Issa camp. This was not unusual. Of the roughly 324,000 people who fled Raqqa and the surrounding areas since the SDF and the U.S.-led coalition began their assault on ISIS, many have been screened at the facility.

The camp is a major transit point for civilians fleeing ISIS-held territory and heading to SDF-controlled areas of northern Syria. At the height of the influx in May, some 1,500 new arrivals were screened and processed at the camp each day. At that time, “the majority of those entering the site [left] within a matter of days,” according to a June report from the Syria Protection Cluster, a body chaired by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But al-Ali’s husband was arrested. As of late August, he had yet to be released, and she remained in limbo in Ain al-Issa camp, she told Syria Deeply last month.

She said her husband was detained because of his purported links to ISIS, but al-Ali dismissed the charges, saying that he is a former fighter for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and was even wounded in the eye by shrapnel while fighting alongside rebels in Raqqa. He also comes from a family of government employees.

“We do not have relatives who joined ISIS; all my husband’s brothers were employees of the Syrian government, and he was also an employee of the municipality,” she said.

What’s more, ISIS had detained him for three months in Raqqa because of his links to the FSA. The couple fled the embattled northern city shortly after he was released.

Although screening for ISIS fighters is not an exact science, security officials say only those with links to the jihadist group are arrested after investigation.

“When refugees come to us from Raqqa, Deir Ezzor or any other areas, they first register their name on paper through the office of entry into the camp. The paper is then sent to the internal security forces to investigate,” Idris Mohammed, a spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Raqqa Internal Security Forces, said.

After an initial investigation, those who have been cleared are granted permits allowing them to pass through checkpoints into SDF-held areas, he added.

However, some humanitarian organizations claim that the screening procedures result in limited freedom of movement – or even take it away altogether.

“While humanitarian actors recognize that these procedures are aimed at reducing security risks associated with ISIS, it is recognized that their implementation also raises protection risks for IDPs. The most prominent risks are lack of freedom of movement and lack of access to basic services and healthcare,” the Syria Protection Cluster report said.

According to Mohammed, the measures are necessary, and the SDF does not prevent displaced people from moving on to other areas.

The SDF and Raqqa Civil Council are responsible for security screenings at the IDP camps, with the SDF largely undertaking security checks in Ain al-Issa, according to the Syrian Protection Cluster.

IDPs must go through an identity check and, in some cases, also show that they have a sponsor in order to be granted freedom of movement. For those over the age of 18, failing to produce an identity document risks “arbitrary detention,” the report said.

According to Mohammed, women are not investigated. Only young men are screened for possible links to the extremist group – taking into consideration factors such as battle wounds and suspicious clothing. Investigations typically take between 24 and 36 hours if a person is cleared, he said.

Officials in the camp claim they recognize that some young men were forced to join ISIS, especially since the group provided a livelihood in times of war.

“We can say that those who worked with ISIS for money will be released, but those who took up arms and stained their hands with the blood of the Syrian people will not be released,” Mohammed said.

In June, Raqqa Civil Council released more than 80 people with suspected links to ISIS on the basis that they were not involved in heavy fighting. In August, another 75 Syrian ISIS suspects were released at the request of Raqqa council.

Omar Alloush, the joint head of public relations at Raqqa council, told Syria Deeply that many of the suspected ISIS members released by the group were handed over to local tribes, whose leaders gave “tribal guarantees” that these men would not return to the extremist group.

Last month a local tribe lobbied the civil court to release Ahmed Ibrahim, a 21-year-old Raqqa resident, and 22 other ISIS suspects who had spent a month and a half in SDF prisons.

“We are now moving to a camp in Abu Ahid, and my family is in Karama [camp]. I will return to Raqqa after it’s liberated,” Ibrahim said.

Although some suspects have been released from detention and thousands of IDPs have passed the security screening, the number of displaced people keeps growing due to the recent offensive in Deir Ezzor and ISIS’s forced conscription of men. To keep up with IDP arrivals, local authorities recently opened a second camp in Ain al-Issa that has roughly 100 tents.

At Ain al-Issa, “there are new arrivals every day,” Arnaud Fablet, emergency coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said in a recent report from the humanitarian organization.

Abu Ali, an IDP from Abu Kamal, had been waiting in Ain al-Issa for his security screening to be complete for two days when Syria Deeply spoke to him earlier this month. He was also hoping to obtain permission to travel to either Azaz or Idlib, where he had already sent other family members.

“When we leave our homes, Daesh come and take them. We ran away from ISIS recruitment, left our families and wanted to go to Azaz to work and send money to our families, but they did not let us leave the camp,” he said.

Many IDPs leave Ain al-Issa in search of work elsewhere in northern Syria. Another displaced civilian from the city of Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor, who requested anonymity for security reasons, is hoping to leave Ain al-Issa and find work in Azaz, in northern Aleppo. His financial situation is now dire, he said, after he paid “smugglers” 900,000 Syrian pounds ($1,750 USD) to flee ISIS-held territory.

But for some, Ain al-Issa is the final destination. “There were people who left the camp, but found no work, and returned to the camp to wait until Raqqa is liberated,” security official Mohammed said.

Others have not had the option of leaving. Such is the case for al-Ali and many other women who “are waiting for the end of the investigation of their detained husbands in Kobani,” Taher Halaq, a 50-year-old IDP from Raqqa who has been living in Ain al-Issa for three months, said.

Aisha Kadad’s husband has been detained for three and a half months, suspected of being a foreign ISIS fighter. The 30-year-old claims that her husband, a Moroccan national, left the militant group. However, he has been detained for longer than the Syrian members of ISIS’s security force.

“The [ISIS security] of Raqqa were released after three months in jail – why is my husband still in jail?” Kadad asked.

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