QAMISHLI, Syria — Sitting on a classroom chair, his fingers drumming nervously on a tablet, a young boy slowly raises his head to reveal a pair of pale green eyes, high cheekbones and a chiseled jaw.
“I want to become a doctor,” he said. He probably never will. Salih, 15, is among hundreds of boys at the Orkesh rehabilitation center near the town of Qamishli in Kurdish-led northeast Syria. They are the sons of tens of thousands of foreign fighters and their wives who joined the Islamic State (IS) from across the globe. Unwanted by their home countries, roughly 23,000 foreign children of both sexes are condemned to a life of perpetual limbo, internment and misery. When they reach puberty, the boys are prised apart from their mothers, who are held in the notorious al-Hol and Roj camps, on the grounds that they are vulnerable to indoctrination, prone to violence and used as “sexual tools.”
Salih, who is from the Balkans, was forced into sex with older IS women, according to a pair of camp administrators who identified themselves as Bawer and Alan. Salih was brought to the center three months ago from al-Hol. “He told his teacher that he was being used by the IS women for sex, to impregnate them, and his teacher told us,” Bawer said in a recent interview at Orkesh. “I can assure you he is not the only one.”
Go forth and multiply
Over half a dozen officials in northeast Syria repeated the claim that IS women interned in the camps are forcing pubescent males, including their own sons, into sexual relations.
“Their aim is to expand the population of the Islamic State to ensure that their slogan, ‘Dawla Baqiya' (the 'State Will Remain'), is fulfilled,” explained Nujin Derik, the seasoned Syrian Kurdish female commander who fought the jihadis in multiple battles and has overall responsibility for the IS camps. “We have information from our informants that new babies are born in the camps and hidden by their mothers,” she told Al-Monitor at a military base in Hasakah. “These are the orders of DAESH,” she said, using the Arabic-language acronym for IS.
Meanwhile, boys, with the help of their mothers, have been reactivating “the Cubs of the Caliphate,” the army of boy fighters who were used by IS in public beheadings and other grotesque acts of carnage. “They do target practice using swords and sharp objects, train in judo, and conceal themselves with chadors and niqabs,” Derik noted. “Their mothers are brainwashing them. We therefore have rules to separate the boys when they turn 12 or so or if they are acting violently. There were several beheadings at the camp,” the commander added. “We have no other choice.”
The United Nations and rights groups have harshly criticized the Syrian Kurdish authorities’ policy of separating children from their mothers, calling it unlawful and immoral. Some air concern that the sexual exploitation and indoctrination claims are being used to whitewash the mass separations.
Syrian Kurdish officials were unable to provide photographic evidence of new babies born as a result of the alleged IS campaign to "go forth and multiply." They would have to have been conceived after March 2019, which is when the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared final victory over the terrorist group after capturing its last stronghold of Baghouz. An SDF official who declined to be identified by name told Al-Monitor that the babies were hard to photograph because "they use their own midwives to deliver them and hide them in tents." The official added, "Our informants are too scared to take pictures for fear of being found out."
Tens of thousands of IS women and children were separated from adult fighters and placed in al-Hol and Roj. Many were already pregnant.
“Wrapping these centers with a ‘rehabilitation center’ ribbon doesn’t change the fact that forcibly separating boys from their mothers and indefinitely detaining them there, with no due process whatsoever, is unlawful,” said Letta Tayler, the associate director of the Crisis and Conflict Division at Human Rights Watch and co-author of a detailed report on internment conditions for jihadis’ children based on interviews conducted with camp detainees.
The report called the environment “life-threatening and degrading” and observed that “conditions are even worse in the prisons and makeshift detention centers where the SDF is holding up to 1,000 detainees, from about 20 countries, who are boys, or were apprehended before they turned 18.”
Under international humanitarian law, the separation of families is considered illegal and, in exceptional cases, a measure of last resort.
“If a competent, independent authority determined that a mother did subject her son to sexual exploitation, it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which separation of that child would not be warranted. But what if the mother was not responsible for this exploitation and was powerless to stop it because of insecurity in the camps and few people to turn to for help?" Tayler asked.
“Separation in such cases is likely to further traumatize a child who has already been victimized multiple times. Mothers are in many cases the only stability they have known,” Tayler told Al-Monitor.
Separation is “a strategic error,” Tayler argued, because “it just creates more grievances and strengthens the [IS] narrative.”
Nujin Derik, the YPJ commander in charge of IS detention centers, in northeast Syria at a military base in Hasakah, April 24, 2023. (Amberin Zaman)
At Orkesh, an unsightly concrete two-story block sitting in the middle of verdant fields, boys ranging from 12 to 18 huddle in small groups in a muddy courtyard, wearing expressions of curiosity, mocking arrogance and gloom. Others peer through iron-grilled windows from the floor above. Russians, Turks, Jordanians, Indonesians, French and others, all use Arabic, taught at the center, to communicate with each other. A football pitch at the entrance of the tightly guarded complex has turned into a cesspool because of heavy rains — a blessing for drought-stricken farmers but spelling further misery for the boys. “We are trying to fix this drainage problem; the boys loved playing football,” Alan, the administrator, said. The facility has a large kitchen, communal dining room and indoor recreational space, where the boys play ping pong and foosball. “The boys do their own washing,” Alan said, pointing to a pair of washing machines. Filming is strictly prohibited.
Like many Syrian Kurdish officials, Alan complained bitterly about the lack of support from foreign governments who nonetheless preach “Swedish human rights standards” in “a war zone in the Middle East.” “We need many more centers like this. But how can we build them if we don’t have the means?” Alan asked.
De facto Foreign Minister in northeast Syria Badran Chiya Kurd said many foreign governments were loath to deal with the Kurdish-led administration for fear of upsetting the central government in Damascus and neighboring Ankara, which insists it poses a threat to Turkey’s national security and has launched large scale military invasions of northeast Syria on those grounds.
But that may also be a convenient excuse to ignore the problem “because they simply don’t want [the detainees],” Kurd said.
However, there has been a slight uptick in repatriations, Kurd told Al-Monitor in a recent interview, with a total of 530 women and children handed over to assorted government officials in the past year. It’s a drop in the ocean. The population at al-Hol, where the bulk of IS families lives in scorching desert heat and icy winters in ragged tents, stands at around 57,000. Some 90% of them are women and children, and some 10,000 of them are foreign-born.
“This place is a literal breeding ground for the next generation of [IS],” Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the commander of US Central Command, said in a statement after having visited al-Hol last year.
“Al-Hol is a real disaster in terms of security,” Kurd said. “We have great difficulty controlling it and accessing the tents.”
The UN said it had verified the violent deaths of at least 42 people at al-Hol as of November 2022. A pair of Egyptian sisters were found dead with stab wounds in a sewage ditch. They had been raped a few days earlier. “A group of radicalized women in the camp then reportedly harassed the girls and their mother because of the stigma associated with having been subjected to sexual violence,” the UN said.
The Rustem Cudi cemetery near Coughing Donkey Village in Al-Darbasiyah, where SDF fighters and other war martyrs are buried, April 27, 2023. (Amberin Zaman)
The risk posed by IS cells became bloodily apparent in February last year when scores of militants attempted to free their comrades from Ghweyran prison in Hasakah. More than 3,000 suspected jihadis and 700 adolescent males were believed to be held there. By the time the 10-day battle was quelled, more than 500 people were dead, including 374 detainees and IS attackers, the SDF said. The dead and wounded reportedly included several children. Hundreds of children have since been transferred to a new annex called Panorama.
A subsequent three-week-long security operation at al-Hol revealed dozens of tunnels where IS operatives had concealed weapons and other supplies, including more than 50 pounds of explosives, the SDF said.
Kurd said Syrian Kurdish officials have been warning foreign governments of the dangers for years. “We tell foreign officials that the children are training, that their mothers are brainwashing them, that they are used like sex tools, that we have difficulty controlling this situation. They say ‘yes, yes’ and do nothing.”
The United States has been pressing foreign governments to repatriate their nationals, and in some cases has been assisting in that effort. However, rights groups say the United States should be providing more humanitarian assistance for the detainees, but is prioritizing counter-terrorism instead.
"For years, the regional authorities have begged for more help, saying they can’t manage this detention crisis on their own. Countries should bring home their child nationals for rehabilitation and reintegration, which is impossible in the camps and prisons of northeast Syria," Tayler said. "They should bring home their mothers and all the rest of the adults too. Adults can be monitored or prosecuted as appropriate. In the meantime, they should take immediate steps to improve conditions in these camps, which are filled with death, disease and despair." Tayler added.
A Sudanese “sex machine”
Salih, the boy at Orkesh who was allegedly used to impregnate IS women, said he missed his mother “very, very much.” His father, a construction worker, had brought his mother, sister and two brothers to Syria in 2015. “I did not like the life. It was hard. There was constant war. I was angry with my father for bringing us to these lands. We did not come here by our own choice.” Salih’s father was killed in 2015. His mother, Vehibe, remarried a Kosovar fighter. He too was killed after fathering a daughter by Vehibe. The infant died soon after being born.
Asked whether he had been forced to have sex with IS women, Salih stiffened, paused, then denied the claims in robotic tones. “I never did such a thing. I never heard about such things,” he insisted.
Two other boys, also interviewed in the presence of camp minders, told a different story. Mehmet, a 15-year-old Turk who came here seven months ago, said he had witnessed boys at al-Hol being spirited away to a “special” tent by older women “to do unsuitable things.” Conversing in Turkish with a Turkish reporter, Mehmet said, “Their mothers were forcing them to do it.” Had he been approached? “No,” he responded.
Mehmet said he missed his mother “so much.” He had no idea of the whereabouts of his father, a tailor in Ankara who brought the family over in 2014, or whether he was even alive. “I wish we had never come here; my father made a big mistake,” he said, fighting back tears. “I want to go back to Turkey.” The teenager says he wants to work in an auto gallery “where I can sell Mercedes and Chevrolets.” It could happen, a reporter tells him. Mehmet smiles for the first time.
Mounir, an 18-year-old from Saudi Arabia who came to Orkesh from al-Hol with his 12-year-old brother, said the allegations of sexual exploitation were true. “The tall Sudanese boy” had told him “everything.”
“The Sudanese boy and I shared a room here. He said he used to have sex with the women at al-Hol to make babies for the Islamic State,” Mounir said. “He never mentioned that he was forced to do that thing. I think he kind of enjoyed it, at least at the beginning.”
Ahmet the Turk said the story about the “Sudanese sex machine,” had swirled throughout Orkesh, but that he had not heard it firsthand from the boy. He then commented, unprompted, that the food at Orkesh is “not very good.”
The camp administrators insisted that the claims about the Sudanese minor were accurate and that he had been repatriated by a Sudanese delegation over a month ago, just before the conflict in Sudan erupted. “He was very tall and strong. You know, perfect for this plan,” Bawer said.
IS women detainees seen shopping at the Roj Camp market, April 29, 2023. (Amberin Zaman)
Anne Speckhard is the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University. Speckhard serves as a consultant for a de-radicalization program for IS detainees interviewing 273 of them so far. In a Feb. 23 article for The Daily Beast and another on March 1 for the Jerusalem Post, Speckhard was the first to flag the exploitation of adolescent boys who were “instructed to serve the Islamic State’s expansion by becoming temporary husbands to the [IS] women, four at a time.”
In a telephone interview with Al-Monitor, Speckhard said, “I pooh-poohed the claims at first. A lot of things like that get said about [IS] women. But when I got there in February , I heard it from multiple places and people that I don’t distrust. There were just too many stories and they weren’t the same story.”
Speckhard continued, “A guard working at al-Hol that I’ve known for years said he knows about two kids who asked to be taken out of al-Hol because the [IS] women were sleeping with them. I know they went to Orkesh.”
Speckhard said she had interviewed the sexually abused Sudanese boy who was “very upset when I asked him about it.”
“He said he knew nothing about it. All his body language said to me, ‘You are getting really close to something that I don’t want to talk about,' so I just backed off.”
Speckhard acknowledges that the conditions for the boys here are far from perfect. For example, they are permitted to contact their mothers only twice a month via WhatsApp video, camp administrators say.
"Two weeks is an eternity in the life of a child," Tayler of Human Rights Watch said.
Speckhard is working on a pilot scheme to accelerate repatriations. This involves preparing assessments of boys that she has interviewed together with short videos of them and sending them to the governments of the countries they belong to. She has applied the scheme to four boys so far: a Tunisian, a French Moroccan, a German and the notorious Sudanese. “I asked them, ‘Would you agree to go home without your mother?’" she recalled. “One of them said, ‘My mother even said I should do that.’ Most ideally want to go with their mother.”
“I think it’s appropriate. You are acting in the best interest of the child,” she contended, though many human rights defenders might disagree.
Speckhard is surprised to learn that the Sudanese boy had gone home. She said she had been liaising about his case with Sudanese authorities through the American Embassy in Khartoum.
In 2019, a nongovernmental organization called Purity was set up to start the de-radicalization program Speckhard is working for. Employing 30 psychologists and social workers, nearly all of them local, Purity offers four days a week of trauma therapy and education to the children at Orkesh and at another rehabilitation center named Houri. Purity is also working in Panorama and another prison annex, Alaya, where more than 600 boys are being held until they can be accommodated in more humane conditions.
“Rehabilitation is a real thing,” said Adnan Khalil, who leads the team at Purity. “It is happening. You are dealing with radical thoughts fed through their moms and dads. It’s not like drugs or tobacco. To enlighten them takes time,” he told Al-Monitor in an interview at the outfit’s headquarters in Qamishli.
“It needs to be slow because if you push you will get rejected. We are just showing them normal life as it is. At the beginning they rejected us. Especially women,” Khalil explained.
In addition to reading and writing in Arabic and other basic skills, the boys are taught to play local musical instruments such as the oud and the darbuka drum, all proscribed by the jihadis as “haram” or in violation of Islam.
Some of the boys are really clever, Khalil said, delighting in the works of Arab poets like Khalil Gibran. The hardest to reach are the foreigners whose parents came out of ideological conviction. Most Syrians and Iraqis joined IS “because they were poor.”
IS women detainees and their children at the Roj camp in northeast Syria, April 29, 2023. (Amberin Zaman)
Khalil defended the policy of separation, citing radicalization by mothers and sexual exploitation. “The women pick the strongest boys and use them sexually. It is a production machine. At some level it seemed like the boys were enjoying it but then felt exhausted going from one tent to another, night after night,” Khalid said.
“At the beginning, the boys were talking about what was happening. They were not aware of the stigma that was attached and were telling their friends. But once they faced further questioning, they began to recant.”
Depression and anxiety are chronic ills. Some of the boys have suicidal thoughts, though none has acted on them at any of the facilities so far.
The biggest dilemma facing the boys, however, is where they go when they turn 18. “They ask me, ‘What will happen to us then? When will we get out of here?’ and I have no answer,” Khalid said. Their own countries were to blame for the unfolding tragedy. “What is really painful is that they go on about human rights and do nothing for these kids.” If not repatriated, most likely they will wind up in jail.
“Dawla will return”
Camp Roj sits next to an oil field and currently holds about 3,000 women and children, mostly foreigners. It is touted as something of a resort compared to “hell Hol,” as the larger camp is sometimes called by foreign aid workers. The atmosphere appears more relaxed. Detainees chat with camp officials over coffee. Reporters can roam throughout the camp, albeit accompanied by armed guards, without fearing assault.
The camp’s supervisor, who identifies himself by his first name only, Rasheed, told Al-Monitor that because of its relatively small size, the camp is far easier to control. “We know of the plan to make more IS babies, but it is hard to execute here,” he said. Any sexual relations that might occur would more likely be the product of either "lust" or "romance," Rasheed added.
The aura of tranquility, it soon emerges, is deceptive.
An Egyptian woman who eschews all forms of Islamic covering invites a reporter into a tent that she shares with her six-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. It is oppressively warm. Plush toys, plastic flowers and colorful balloons are meant to make the place cozy. They make it even sadder.
She was studying architecture in Istanbul when she made “the mistake” of marrying “the wrong man” who brought her to Syria. She regretted it almost instantly and is desperate to go back to Egypt. But Egypt is one of the countries that has turned its back on its citizens.
Her hands tremble and her voice quivers as she describes how she is constantly harassed by the camp's extremist residents, who she says constitute the majority there. “They beat my daughter and son to punish me because I don’t cover my head,” she said.
Had she heard anything about the sexual abuse of minors? “Even if there is such a plan, they would not tell me. I am not one of them.”
The inside of a tent at Roj Camp shared by an Egyptian detainee and her two children, April 29, 2023. (Amberin Zaman)
Outside the camp marketplace, several women gather around a reporter and begin to complain that camp authorities are forcing them to remove their niqabs and trade in their black burqas for colored ones. To skirt the ban, some of the women wear surgical masks. “Tell these people I can’t breathe with this,” implored a young Uyghur Chinese woman, motioning toward the guards.
“In my country, Germany, I can dress however I want. I can cover every inch of my face. And in the Middle East, I can’t. It’s ridiculous. It's religious oppression,” thundered a blue-eyed woman in German-accented English. Was she a convert to Islam? “None of your business,” she snapped.
Upon learning of the presence of a Turkish reporter, a group of women start following her as she prepares to leave. All are from Turkey. “Hey, you! We want our children back,” cried one, shaking her fist angrily. “We want our children,” the rest chimed in. “My son is sick. He has heart trouble. His name is Ubaydullah Ozbek. Write his name down. Do something,” another demanded. “I gave him his medication, warm milk and honey. Where is he? Who will care for him now? My child will die,” she said, her fury turning to anguish.
Another woman called Tugce said there were around 50 Turkish families at the camp. All were desperate to return home. “Erdogan directed us to Syria; he allowed us to come here and now he doesn’t want us back. He played a bad game on us,” she said of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The overwhelming majority of foreign fighters and their families slipped into Syria through the Turkish border. Western officials say Turkey did little if nothing to stop the flow. Syrian Kurdish officials say it was deliberate.
Asked whether they regretted coming to Syria, several of the women said they did not. “What regret? Life was really good. We were living our lives as Allah commanded. We were free. We are prisoners now. This is not life. This is enslavement. That is why we want to leave,” said one, glaring at the guards. Were they aware of alleged orders to expand the population? They dart glances at each other and shake their heads. A brief silence ensues. A woman called Umm Seydullah breaks it. “With the permission of Allah, our Dawla (State) will come back again. Stronger than ever. Write this as well. This story won’t end here.”
Additional research by Mustafa Al-Ali
Editor's note: The names of all the children cited in this report, and in some cases their nationalities, were changed to protect their privacy.