WASHINGTON, The United States and other countries hoping to deal the Islamic State terror group an enduring defeat risk failure by ignoring the tens of thousands of fighters, women and children stuck in prisons or camps across northeastern Syria, key U.S. officials warn.
For months, the U.S. has been urging countries, especially its Western allies, to take back and prosecute citizens who left to fight with IS, also known as ISIS or Daesh. They have also called up upon them to repatriate family members who traveled to or were born into the terror group's self-declared caliphate.
But those calls have largely gone unheeded. And now U.S. officials are growing more vocal, publicly echoing warnings that the prisons and camps are serving as an incubator for the terror group.
"That is a big concern for us at the Defense Department," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Michael Mulroy told an audience in Washington on Wednesday.
"These are people, many of them children, who are only going to have one view and one philosophy the entire time," he said, referring to the al-Hol displaced persons camp. "If the international community doesn't come up with a way to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into society, that's the next generation of ISIS."
This latest warning comes as an estimated 11,000 IS fighters, including about 2,000 foreign fighters, are being held in more than 30 makeshift prisons, mainly converted school and hospitals, by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Another 73,000 family members, mostly women and children, are being held at displaced persons camps like al-Hol, many of which are over-capacity. And there is little immediate hope that conditions are likely to change.
"There is no specific Plan B right now," said Mulroy.
Instead, a growing number of officials admit the problems are likely to get worse, a fear shared by U.S. allies on the ground.
"Many of the wives of ISIS foreign fighters, they still believe in ISIS, even a big number of kids," Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, speaking through an interpreter, told reporters last week during a visit to Washington.
"There's no serious project that works on rehabilitating ISIS family members," she said.
SDC officials have also raised concerns that security measures aimed at keeping IS members from escaping, while holding for now, cannot last long.
Ahmed described how IS family members at camps like al-Hol have taken to setting fires, not in protest, but as a way to give smugglers time to help families escape.
Despite U.S. assurances that prison security measures are holding, Ahmed and other SDC officials warn the prisons "are not equipped' to hold captured fighters indefinitely.
Already, U.S. and SDF officials admit there have been repeated escape attempts at the prisons themselves. While none have been successful, officials at both the Pentagon and the State Department warn the risk of an IS jailbreak is not trivial.
In the meantime, IS supporters in the prisons and camps are becoming more emboldened, while those in charge of security are becoming more desperate.
"People who run these camps are pleading for assistance from the international community," the Council on Foreign Relations' Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who has visited the al-Hol camp, said, describing it as, "more or less the United Nations of the Islamic State."
"There's great fear in the region," she added. "This is an entirely foreseeable overnight crisis six months in the making."
Only, the pleas of the U.S. and the SDF have run into equally persistent fears from European countries, in particular, those that have been unwilling to repatriate citizens who left to join the IS caliphate.
One such country is the Netherlands, which estimates it has about 100 foreign fighters still in Syria, slightly more than half in SDF custody. Officials there worry European courts are not equipped to deal with what they say would be an enduring threat.
"In the whole judicial system in Europe, it is expected the penal code [prison terms] will be three years, three-and-a-half years," Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the Dutch National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, said during a recent visit to the U.S.
"It's not the 100 foreign fighters from Holland, but it's also the top few thousands from Germany and the many thousands from France who in two or three or four years will all come in an open area," he said. "It will be impossible for the security services, so many thousands, to follow them 24-7."
But there has also been a reluctance on the part of Western countries to take back IS family members, even children, and U.S. officials warn that is where the long-term danger lies.
"We have to come up with a plan to rehabilitate them so they can get back into society," the Pentagon's Mulroy said, telling reporters that talks with organizations about deradicalization programs for people, and children, in the camps have been ongoing.
"We need to pick one. We need to fund it. And we need to do something," he said. "If we don't do it as an international community, not just the United States, it's a problem that our kids will be dealing with."
Source: Voice of America