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Crackdown at Syria's al-Hol Camp Nets Senior Islamic State Operative

An image obtained from the media office of the Kurdish People's Protection Units in Syria (YPG) March 29, 2021 shows YPG forces conducting a security operation the previous day at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp. (AFP PHOTO/HO/YPG)

The crackdown on Islamic State operations at the al-Hol displaced persons camp in northeastern Syria appears to be loosening the terror group’s grip on the sprawling facility.

Six days into the two-week-long operation, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say they have arrested 125 people suspected of having direct ties to IS, including six they have described as senior leaders.

The most prominent is Abu Karar, identified as the second most senior IS operative at al-Hol, arrested with seven others in a sweep of the camp late Thursday or early Friday.

In addition to the arrests, the SDF says it has recovered weapons and ammunition, as well as laptops and other material that could provide critical intelligence.

The operation, being carried out with the support of the U.S and anti-IS coalition members, has taken on increased importance amid growing evidence that the terror group has been using al-Hol, which is home to thousands of wives, children and other family members of IS fighters, as a new hub for its operations.

“Security services at al-Hol have struggled to address ISIS recruitment and fundraising,” one U.S. official told VOA this past February, using an acronym for the terror group.

U.S. Treasury Department officials also warned that the camp was becoming a key node for IS finances, using hawalas [money transfer systems] within the camp to move some of its estimated $100 million in cash reserves.

A series of execution-style killings at al-Hol, the vast majority blamed on IS, have also raised alarms. U.N. officials have counted at least 42 since the start of 2021, though the SDF’s own number put the number slightly higher, at 47.

As a result, U.S. officials have been keeping a close watch on the SDF-led crackdown.

The killings “reflect a persistent challenge from ISIS and its criminal affiliates to the security situation,” a State Department official told VOA on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

“Maintaining security in and around al-Hol remains essential to safeguarding innocent civilians that live there, including thousands of young children, and facilitating humanitarian access,” the official added. “Security threats in al-Hol, left unaddressed, will target and exploit vulnerable populations, many of whom are in the camp through no choice or fault of their own."

Recent U.S. intelligence estimates have put the number of IS fighters still roaming Syria and Iraq at between 8,000 and 16,000. Intelligence submitted by United Nations member states estimates the IS fighting force is about 10,000, including thousands of so-called foreign fighters.

Those numbers are far lower than just two to three years ago, when IS was thought to have between 34,000 and 100,000 fighters at its disposal. But U.S., Western and Syrian Kurdish intelligence and security officials have been growing increasingly concerned about the terror group’s efforts to establish new operational hubs.

There are currently more than 62,000 people living at al-Hol, including about 40,000 children, according to the latest U.N. and U.S. estimates.

The population at al-Hol includes both Syrians and Iraqis who were displaced as a result of IS’ efforts to establish a self-declared caliphate, as well as thousands of wives and other family members of IS fighters.