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.

DESERT PURGATORY

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 miles to join the terrorist group. Far less attention has been paid to the murky category of civilians stranded in Iraqi camps, even though their numbers far exceed those of the Syrian detainees. These “ISIS families” are local, mostly from rural areas in western and northwestern Iraq. Many of them fled or were forced into camps during the first years of ISIS’s territorial ascendancy, which climaxed with the capture of Mosul in 2014. The remainder ended up in camps after the government recaptured territory from ISIS in 2017.

During the fighting and its immediate aftermath, the Iraqi government and allied militias channeled known ISIS fighters and criminals into the justice system or into detention facilities, some of them operated in secret. Thousands of ISIS members and suspected members were executed during this period. The “ISIS families” are what remained after this first sort. They occupy a gray area between civilians and suspects, and properly vetting them will take effort and resources. In the absence of both, they have spent anywhere from two to five years in desert purgatory.

Most Iraqi officials are uninterested in dealing with the “ISIS families.

Some Iraqi officials wish they could begin processing the displaced, so that they could send home those who are innocent and try the remaining ISIS suspects. However, these officials lack the capacity to make even the most superficial determination of which displaced people pose a security threat. Mohammed al-Halboosi, the Speaker of Iraq’s parliament, successfully pushed to allow more than 10,000 displaced families to return home beginning in August, but the vetting has been at best superficial. Halboosi is one of the few senior officials who has advocated for this population in limbo, describing his effort to reintegrate the displaced into society as a “race with time” and an Achilles’ heel for Iraq in its long-term struggle against extremism.

But most Iraqi officials are uninterested in dealing with the “ISIS families.” These officials are focused on staying in power; if they talk about governance at all, they say they want to prioritize help for those who fought against ISIS or lived under its brutal rule but still lack basic services and rights. They simply don’t want to waste any resources on a population they consider suspect and would prefer to leave them stranded—an example to others who might think about joining a future incarnation of ISIS. “You showed us the way in Guantánamo Bay,” one presidential adviser told me. “Why should we be different?”

THE MAKING OF A THREAT

The “ISIS families,” who constitute roughly one-third of the 1.5 million people currently displaced in Iraq, mostly live in rudimentary desert camps that stretch in an arc from Fallujah to Mosul. The camps don’t have schools or clinics. Their residents lack identity papers. Technically, the displaced aren’t detainees, but they are forbidden to work and cannot come and go as they please. The Iraqi government hasn’t accused them of any crimes, but neither has it said they are innocent. Ali Akram al-Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, estimates that 90 percent of the displaced people under suspicion for possible ISIS ties pose no threat to anyone. “It is impractical to isolate such a number or send them to prison,” he said. “We are just postponing the solution.”

When I visited a displacement camp outside of Fallujah in September, the head of a large family living there told me, “We’re imprisoned here while we’re alive, because we’re Sunni.” The man, who asked me not to publish his name for fear of retribution, said that he used to be a local official in the ISIS stronghold of Jurf al-Sakhar. Militias kidnapped his son four years ago and the boy has not been heard from since. The man had also been detained, but Iraqi authorities couldn’t get any charges against him to stick, so he was released in August and allowed to rejoin the rest of his family in the desert camp, where they had been living for nearly five years. “What hope do we have? Are we supposed to stay here forever?” he asked.  

Most of the displaced “ISIS families” pose a minimal threat today, but continuing to hold them in isolation could easily transform them into an enormous future threat.

For now, that appears to be the Iraqi government’s de facto plan. Neglecting “ISIS families” serves the political interests of at least some Iraqi officials. When I visited another camp beside Lake Habbaniyah in Anbar Province roughly a year ago, a group of young men I spoke with demanded to be allowed to return to Jurf al-Sakhar, a Sunni town that had been taken over by one faction of a government-allied Shiite militia and declared a closed military zone. When I returned to the camp in late September, the same men were asking for much less: freedom to work as day laborers outside the camp, improved amenities such as electricity, and access to school for their kids.

Most of the displaced “ISIS families” pose a minimal threat today, but continuing to hold them in isolation could easily transform them into an enormous future threat. Densely packed and cut off from society, the camps are fertile ground for ISIS indoctrination. Those who are unsympathetic to ISIS risk being victimized by the group, a dynamic that over time could swell into yet another challenge to the government’s legitimacy.

VETTING THE DISPLACED

To prevent this slow-burning crisis from exploding into a full-blown emergency, the United States and its European allies should signal that they consider the “ISIS families” a major humanitarian and counterterrorism priority, which would give a political boost to Iraqi officials such as Halboosi who are committed to reducing the number of detainees. The United States and its allies should also unlock additional resources to cover the cost of vetting and processing the “ISIS families” as quickly as possible. Part of that effort should include oversight to ensure that funds allocated for resettlement actually reach those who are returning home and are not being siphoned off by corrupt officials.

The Iraqi government needs lawyers, investigators, and other experts who can help assess and document the status of “gray area” detainees. With financial and technical support from the international community, the Iraqis should be able to release a majority of the “ISIS families” within a year. Assessing borderline cases, in which there is evidence of a connection to ISIS, might take longer. Complications could also arise when a displaced person faces the risk of violence back home, either from ISIS or because of a perceived connection to ISIS.

Some of the displaced people I interviewed blamed sectarianism for their predicament—framing themselves as Sunni victims of a Shiite-dominated government. Encouragingly, however, many understand their problem as a question of security and politics rather than sectarian identity. Majority-Sunni areas, after all, suffered the brunt of ISIS violence. Local reconciliation processes in some areas have enabled people who had ties to ISIS but didn’t commit crimes to return home. A more systematic reconciliation process is needed for Iraq to achieve long-term stability. Before that process of healing can begin, however, Iraq must close the camps and send home as many of their inhabitants as possible.

  • THANASSIS CAMBANIS is a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation and the author, most recently, of Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.
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