The Coming Emergency in Iraq

Neglected Prison Camps Are Incubating a New Extremist Threat

Displaced Iraqis at a camp south of Mosul, April 2017 Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi marked the end of one destructive phase of the Islamic State, the extremist group also known as ISIS. Baghdadi was the self-proclaimed caliph of a Great Britain-sized swath of Iraq and Syria, the last remains of which a U.S.-led coalition removed from his control in March. The ISIS leader ordered the murder of thousands and terrorized millions during his short reign. But his targeted assassination has done little to halt a gathering crisis that is at least as serious a threat to Iraq’s stability.

Following the collapse of the ISIS caliphate, half a million or more men, women, and children were left stranded in displacement camps in Iraq. Iraqi officials refer to them now as “ISIS families,” even though these same officials freely admit that most of the displaced probably have little or no connection to ISIS. Until those in the camps are either freed or processed into the country’s criminal justice system, however, they constitute a growing threat to security, governance, and justice throughout Iraq, and especially in the areas where ISIS still commands support and inspires fear. The longer these people languish in legal and physical limbo, the greater the chance of an eventual ISIS revival.

Unfortunately, there is always a more pressing emergency for the Iraqi government to address. Right now, a national protest movement is demanding a new government in Baghdad and an end to endemic corruption. Last year, popular outrage over poisoned drinking water sparked unrest in Basra. And before that there was the urgent need to defeat ISIS. With so much else going wrong, Baghdad has little incentive to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Sunnis displaced from ISIS areas—that is, unless these displaced people become an emergency as well.


Much has been written about the hardcore ISIS partisans detained in Al Hol and other camps across the border in eastern Syria—the die-hard fighters, propagandists, and foreign volunteers who traveled thousands of

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