Special report

In Syria’s prisons, Daesh’s army is hibernating

More than 10,000 Islamic State (IS / Daesh) fighters are currently being detained by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. Many of them are foreigners, whose countries have refused to take them back, making their fate more uncertain than ever. Without trial, their only way out is escape or death.

Assumed members of Daseh, in a jail in Hassakeh, north-east of Syria, on the 26th of October 2019. Fadel Senna/AFP

Hassakeh prison is a ‘caliphate in a cage’. It resembles a barn and smells like a cemetery. Hundreds of broken bodies hide beneath orange coveralls and blank stares peak out from under gray blankets. Once a school in north-eastern Syria, the site has been converted into a detention center that currently holds around 5,000 Daesh prisoners, most of whom were captured last March in the Battle of Baghouz at the end of which the jihadists surrendered. Over 300 of them were shuffling around barefoot inside the prison "hospital". "Oh God, Oh God ..." begged a captive but his lamentations went unanswered.

Despite some intermittent coughing and the echo of crutches hitting the ground, the room, although crowded, was surprisingly quiet, as if these men were attending their own funeral service. In French, in English, in Arabic and in Russian, they were all whispering: "We will die like flies."

The holding cells were an equally sinister sight: hundreds of suspected terrorists were detained in what used to be a classroom. If they were all to lie down at the same time, it seemed that there would not be enough room. A Moroccan detainee stuck his shaved head out through a small hatch and asked "Please tell me, is the Islamic State still there?" Before we entered the prison, the warden had warned us, "They have no idea about what is happening outside these walls. Do not tell them about the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the leader of the Islamic State, killed in an October 27 raid by US special forces) - we want to avoid an uprising." The question of what to do with the Daesh fighters detained in Syria has become an international dilemma. More than 10,000 men of 50 different nationalities (though mainly Syrians and Iraqis) are said to be detained in 25 prisons run by Kurdish forces, in addition to tens of thousands of women and children held in camps in dismal conditions. No one seems to know what to do with them. Many are unrepentant, describing terrorist attacks around the world as mere "acts of revenge" in response to the US air campaign in Iraq and Syria. "It's a war," says a Briton called Shahan Choudhury. “Did you think we'd send you a box of chocolates?"

A second jihadist agreed to speak to us but only if we went to another room, where his cell mates would not be able to hear what he had to say. His suffered a combat injury to his left leg, but the broken bones were never put back in place, and his limb is frozen in an impossible angle. Unable to walk, two other inmates had to carry him. “We have been here for ten months and we know nothing about the situation of our families. I don't know if my wife and children are still alive” said Adel Mezroui, a 23-year-old Belgian. “My wife was pregnant the last time I saw her.” His children are indeed alive. He does not know, but in mid-December, a Belgian court ruled that the state should facilitate the repatriation of 10 children, including his own. However, the judge found that he himself was not eligible for assistance, having gone there voluntarily. His lawyer has since appealed.

100 prisoners have already escaped

The fate of these foreign fighters, most of whom their respective countries refuse to repatriate, is more uncertain than ever. On October 9, Turkey launched a military operation dubbed "Peace Spring" to expel Kurdish forces, designated by Ankara as terrorists, from within its borders. The offensive resulted in weeks of fighting, displaced tens of thousands of civilians and jeopardized the safe detention of IS fighters. According to a confidential note from US intelligence services obtained by L'Orient-Le Jour, 100 detainees have managed to escape since the start of the Turkish incursion into Syria, often because their prisons were damaged in the clashes.

At the start of the offensive, almost 80% of the “Top 50” foreign fighters had been detained in centers vulnerable to Turkish cross-border operations. The majority of these 50 jihadists, whom Western officials deem particularly dangerous, are individuals who had planned terrorist attacks or who had technical explosives and munitions expertise, and many of them are mid-level or senior leaders, or experienced propagandists. The US-led coalition had requested that they be transferred to facilities far from the front line, but Kurdish officials rejected the requests, citing a lack of resources. Dozens of prisoners were reportedly exfiltrated by the US military as Turkey began to invade the region.

The number of escapes has so far been limited relative to the total number of jihadists detained in northeast Syria, but the recent crisis triggered by the partial withdrawal of the United States followed by the Turkish incursion has demonstrated how unstable the region is and that entrusting a local armed group with such a titanic task was, perhaps unsurprisingly, extremely risky. "We had to move the soldiers guarding the prison to the front line, but the situation here is still under control," says Robar (an alias), the director of Hassakeh prison. His desk was decorated with bird cages on one side and CCTV screens on the other. They are supposed to broadcast live surveillance footage from inside the cells, but the system was down at the time of our visit. “Sometimes Daesh sleeper cells roam around the building and open fire. They want to send a message to the prisoners that Daesh still exists. He pauses thoughtfully, then adds, "We just can't handle the situation on our own."

Preventing their return to the battlefield

"As in any prison or detention center, there is a risk of escape ... Most of the facilities are improvised and are not suitable for indefinite detention. The international community should make it a top priority to find a long-term solution for this hibernating Daesh army," a spokesman for the US-led coalition told L’Orient-Le Jour.

"The repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin for prosecution is the best way to prevent them from returning to the battlefield or re-engaging in terrorism," he added.

Hassakeh is the largest jihadist detention center in the region - and therefore in the world. Some "high-level" jihadists are being held there, raising concerns among intelligence agencies about this facility being a "key target" for IS sleeper cells. The terrorist organization has shown itself capable of organizing prison breaks in the past, and it is feared that it still is. Last September, the late "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio recording addressed to his supporters, urging them to "do everything possible to free (detained members) and tear down the walls that imprison them." Will the walls fall? "It is obvious that Daesh is seeking to take advantage of the current instability. However, there is no indication that the group is actively working on staging a prison breakout," said a western security source active in the region.

Stuck in limbo, these detainees say they expect repatriation or death. Other than escape, their only other way out seems, for the moment, to be in a box. But even then, the destination is unknown. The location of the Daesh prisoner cemetery in northeastern Syria is a closely guarded secret - and the graves are not marked. It is impossible to independently verify how many jihadists have already died in detention. Some sources suggest several hundred deaths have occurred since the fall of their "caliphate" last March. Initially, individuals already weakened by years of fighting died from ill-treatment and torture, but today the lack of access to health care and malnutrition seem to be the main causes of the high death rate. As merciless men continue to beg for mercy, their countrymen continue to say: no.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 29th of January)

Hassakeh prison is a ‘caliphate in a cage’. It resembles a barn and smells like a cemetery. Hundreds of broken bodies hide beneath orange coveralls and blank stares peak out from under gray blankets. Once a school in north-eastern Syria, the site has been converted into a detention center that currently holds around 5,000 Daesh prisoners, most of whom were captured last March in the Battle of...