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Inside An ISIS Detention Camp In Northern Syria


NPR's Jane Arraf is going to give us a rare and grim view this morning. She has managed to get inside access to an ISIS detention camp in Syria. The camp is being overseen by Syrian Kurds. They were, of course, one of the strongest U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS and are now struggling after a U.S. withdrawal paved the way for a Turkish invasion against them in October. Jane joins us now. Good morning, Jane. Can you just explain where you are and what you have seen?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Rachel, we're on the edge of this camp. As you say, it's a detention camp. And it looks like a normal refugee camp - white tents. And then you notice the security guards and the big fences. That's because all of the occupants here are the wives and the children of ISIS fighters. And they've been a problem for years. Right now, they're a particular problem because the Kurds who are holding them believe that they're a security risk, and they don't have enough help here.

I spoke to one of them. She's actually a Canadian American dual national, she says - Kimberly Pullman (ph). And she says it's terrifying here. She hasn't been in touch with American officials or Canadian officials, and that's the situation with a lot of them here. It's dangerous because there are women who are extremely radicalized, so there are breakouts sometimes. And then on the other hand, you have some who, over the past couple of years, have come to believe what they did - marrying ISIS fighters - was wrong.

MARTIN: Wow. So what is their fate? I mean, are they detained just indefinitely? Are there plans to send them somewhere else?

ARRAF: It's a really strange situation because they don't really know what to do with them. They don't know if evidence would hold up if they're brought back to stand trial. So I was talking to one of the camp managers, and she says, in the last two weeks, they've had orphans taken out of the camp. They've had a couple go to the states - a boy and a girl, 10 years old each. Their parents were killed. Their parents - part of an ISIS family who were killed. But it's mostly the orphans who are leaving.

The women who are here, who married ISIS fighters, are in a much more precarious situation because they are adults. But a lot of them won't allow their children to go if they're not repatriated, either, so they're basically stuck here.

MARTIN: So as we noted up top, the Kurds have been forced to turn their attention to the threat now posed by Turkey, and that provoked a lot of people to ask whether or not they were going to end up abandoning their posts at these prisons. What are Kurdish fighters telling you? I mean, have any of them been forced to flee?

ARRAF: No, pretty much the opposite. I think one of the things we have to understand about this region is it is very ideologically driven, and they've always faced threats from all sides. So when the threats emerged, what happened - a little bit - was that some fighters were called to the front to actually fight Turkish forces, which launched an invasion of Syria near the Turkish border, but they also reinforced security around the prisons and the detention centers.

I spoke recently in Syria with a U.S. commander who said that was one of the big things they're worried about, that ISIS prisoners, particularly the fighters, would be able to escape. And indeed, there have been some escapes, but the Syrian Kurds that I've spoken with, the officials, say that's one of their priorities - trying to keep security in place at these places, no matter how hard it is.

MARTIN: We should just be clear - after President Trump ordered that U.S. troops be removed from this border region between Syria and Turkey, there are still U.S. troops on the ground, right?

ARRAF: There are. There are between 400 and 500 of them. I saw some of them here in Syria on a trip with the U.S. military recently, and they were meant to guard oil installations and other infrastructure. But it does seem that they are continuing their operations against ISIS with their Syrian Kurdish allies. Those operations, though, have been reduced somewhat because they've pulled out quite a lot of the Special Forces operators that they had here, the American ones. And the U.S. is not in that border region that Turkey and Russia have moved into. So that whole part of this region has been left undefended.

MARTIN: What are civilians there telling you?

ARRAF: I spoke to a schoolteacher who said, you know, we had security, and we had stability, and now it's gone. And they blame the Americans for pulling out troops to allow that Turkish incursion, but they're still hoping somehow American forces will step up and save them.

MARTIN: NPR's Jane Arraf in Syria, where she has gotten access to an ISIS detention camp. Jane, thank you so much.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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