The fate of vulnerable refugees as ISIS evolves

Syrian refugee camp

Over the past month, significant developments have occurred in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The U.S. decision to withdraw its direct military presence with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in early October, subsequent maneuvers by Turkey, Russia and Syria to reshape the landscape on the Turkish-Syrian border, and the death last week of former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will reverberate over the long-term.

On November 1, the United Nations secretary general met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Syrian refugees and the implementation of demographic change in northern Syria.

These developments will affect the future trajectory of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and beyond. The group was born and grown on the battlefield beginning in the aftermath of the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq in 2003. Despite the death of al-Baghdadi, many counterterrorism experts predict the group will recover from the loss — and last week, ISIS confirmed his death and announced his successor.

Beyond the new leader, many ISIS senior managers are well educated, trained, professional and motivated by an ideology that exists in a realm where killing innocent people is acceptable and there is no limit to the brutality of their tactics.

ISIS will focus on ensuring that its toxic worldview persists and survives, despite all the setbacks it has suffered the past few years — including the collapse of its physical caliphate, the death or capture of thousands of its fighters and loss of significant financial revenues.

With this certainty, ISIS’ propaganda and recruiting techniques will likewise find currency with vulnerable refugee populations caught up in Syria’s war-torn landscape. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently held a workshop in Beirut that highlighted newly emerging security risks posed by refugee camps and millions of Syrians displaced by that conflict.

Discussions highlighted terrorism concerns emanating from the ISIS prison camps and ISIS family camps at al-Hol (which were informed by a previous article we had written about the situation there). Tens of thousands of people face a fight-or-flight response to a life-threatening situation. A reported 200,000 additional Syrians have been displaced since Turkey invaded Syria less than a month ago.

Lebanon is also struggling with refugees and the potential prospect of an ISIS influence within these vulnerable populations. Refugees make up a quarter (1.5 million) of Lebanon’s population (approximately six million). The ungoverned spaces, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, that once facilitated the recruitment and training of terror organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS are largely less available. Refugee camps like those in Lebanon present an appealing haven for terrorist organizations to exploit.

This challenge should be addressed through diplomatic channels. First, the international community should collaborate with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to establish better security at refugee camps in the region. This would be a significant step toward helping mitigate some immediate concerns around the security, mental and physical health, education and food welfare needs of this large pool of refugees. Second, best practices from successful rehabilitation programs – such as those in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia – should be leveraged to vet, adjudicate and rehabilitate detained ISIS fighters and family members.

Many western reporters in Syria are providing an inside look at the brutal conditions inside ISIS detainee camps and how the seeds of the group’s resurgence lay inside these confines. Now is the time for the international community to act and move beyond the partisan and political debates on policy in the region. While there is little appetite to sustain “endless wars,” turning a blind eye to a looming threat will not make it go away. 

Serious problems deserve serious attention, and this is one area where the United States and the international community can and should do more. 

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Formerly, he was senior director for counterterrorism on the Trump Administration’s National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.

Marcella Huber, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, recently served as a subject matter expert of counterterrorism in refugee populations at the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime / Terrorism Prevention Branch workshop in Beirut. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Tags Iraq ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Refugees of the Syrian Civil War Syria Terrorism

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