No Way Home: Former IS Suspects Languish in Camps to Avoid Re-Arrest

2019-10-07

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HASSAN SHAM CAMP, IRAQ - Abdullah was a 23-year-old business administration student when Islamic State fighters swept through northern Iraq in 2014. Two years later, he fled the battle between IS and coalition-backed Iraqi forces. He was arrested and accused of being a terrorist.

"We ran from our home because there was no food or water and we were being bombed," he says, crowded into a tent scattered with dirty, thin mattresses, mobile phone chargers and about 10 other men. "I couldn't survive."

After three years in prison, Abdullah was released and given a document that says his conviction was overturned on appeal. Still, he cannot go home. Like about 100 other men in this desert camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the verdict in his case is not recognized outside the semi-autonomous region.

If they do try to go back to their areas, the young men explain, they will be arrested because their names are still on lists of suspected terrorists in most of Iraq.

The men also cannot move to Irbil, the Kurdish capital, to look for jobs, because the region does not grant residency permits to anyone who has been accused of terrorism.

"If this camp closes," Abdullah says, pulling out the laminated government document that is supposed to protect him from re-arrest, "Where will we go?"

Another young man with floppy hair and white earbuds peers into the tent to see why everyone is packed inside. "Ah yes," he says, smirking. "That document will be used as the proof that he should be arrested."

For a moment, everyone laughs.

"We are still young," says Abdullah, staring down at his document. "But we already have no future."

Isolation

In this secluded section of the camp for single men, they sleep four to a tent. Most of the rest of the camp is filled with women and children. Many are the families of members of the Islamic State terrorist group, and they are likewise unable to go home.

In a trailer by the main gates, Rashid Darwesh, the senior camp manager, is quick to point out that the isolation of so many people associated with IS is a humanitarian issue at present, but could quickly turn into a security disaster.

This impossible limbo is creating an ideal situation for extremists to grow their ranks, he says.

"We have to support people when they get out of prison and help them build a normal life at home," Darwesh says. "Otherwise they will feel they have no choice but to go back to criminal ways."

Rehabilitation?

At a courthouse in Irbil, Judge Fasil Abbass takes a break after opening the trial of five men accused of planting roadside bombs for IS. More and more prisoners are set to be released in the coming months and years, he says, and if Kurdish legal decisions remain unrecognized by Baghdad, the problem could become worse.

Rehabilitation or reintegration programs are almost non-existent, he adds.

"I feel like now we are in the same situation as 2012," he says. "The militants don't have any land, but they are gaining strength and supporters and getting prepared."

In the camp, the young men sit in a semi-circle around a single extension cord, the only source of power for the mobile phone chargers in the tent. Each tells a story similar to Abdullah's. Some convictions were overturned, some of the men were found not guilty and others completed short prison sentences.

"Most of us here were never even with IS," says Ahmed, 23, who delivered groceries before he spent two years in prison. His conviction was later overturned on appeal. The men in the camp who were with IS, he adds, were not convicted of violent acts, or else they would still be in prison.

"We don't even need to go to our homes at this point," Ahmed says. "We would move to Irbil if they will let us. We just need to get out of here and work."

Regional growing extremism

As he drives up a mountainside overlooking a network of caves and tunnels where militants are believed to be hiding out, Staff Colonel Srud Salih of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces says the release of prisoners who have nowhere to go is just one way authorities are failing to prevent a resurgence of extremist militants.

Fighters hiding out from the government are gathering weapons and demanding taxes in the villages, he says. Displaced families of IS face abject poverty, deep isolation and dwindling humanitarian aid.

Camps across Iraq and Syria are increasingly populated by openly pro-IS families. Many women say they are bringing up their children to be the next generation of jihadists and to avenge their fathers' deaths.

At the Debaga Camp in the Kurdistan region, women call Kurdish soldiers "infidels," Salih says. And camp residents often adhere to IS-style rules, enforcing them with IS-style justice.

For example, less than a month ago, a man was caught with the wife of an IS leader. Supporters of the leader snuck into the camp and cut off the man's head.

"I'm safe in there because I always bring my girlfriend," says Salih, holding up his pistol and shaking the grip.

Tensions

In the crowded tent at the camp, the young men make jokes about how Iraq is rich with oil, yet average people suffer extreme violence and poverty. "They say there is oil here, but I've never seen it," says Mohammad, a 26-year-old who served four months in prison before being found not guilty in court.

Others speak bitterly about sectarian tensions, saying as Sunni Muslims, they will not feel safe in areas controlled by Shi'ites, even if the verdicts in their cases are recognized.

And while none of the men in the tent directly suggests there will be violence if they cannot find a solution, they do see the danger for the outside world.

"They should not make us angry," says one young man, leaning in quietly. "Because you know what can happen."