WASHINGTON/QAMISHLI, SYRIA - U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have announced a major security operation against Islamic State (IS) cells inside al-Hol camp in northeast Syria.
The campaign, launched Sunday, is in response to growing violence inside the camp, which is home to nearly 62,000 people, including thousands of families of IS foreign fighters.
Nearly 6,000 SDF fighters, local security forces and members of anti-terror units are participating in the operation, local military officials said.
“All these forces are involved in this operation in order to achieve the goal of clearing al-Hol camp from the remnants of Daesh,” said Ali Hassan, a spokesman for the SDF-linked internal security forces in northeast Syria, using an Arabic acronym for the terror group.
At least a dozen individuals with suspected links to IS have so far been arrested during the operation, local news sources said.
In recent months, the camp has seen an increase in killings among its population. According to the United Nations, at least 40 people, including two children, have been killed inside the camp since the beginning of the year.
IS was declared defeated militarily in March 2019 after a U.S.-led campaign that destroyed its so-called caliphate in eastern Syria. The extremist group, however, has since continued to carry out deadly attacks throughout Iraq and Syria.
SDF officials say IS sleeper cells have been active in al-Hol, attributing the recent rise in violence at the camp to the terror group’s efforts to destabilize its security.
The global coalition against IS also is supporting its SDF partners in this operation indirectly, U.S. military officials said.
“The Coalition forces will provide enabling support – to include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) – during the operation for early warning and situational awareness throughout al-Hol IDP camp,” Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, told VOA.
“Coalition forces will be in a rear support position but are and will be close enough to provide operation advisement, assistance and enablement,” he added.
The first phase of the campaign includes fingerprinting and photographing camp residents as part of a biometric identification process.
“We are ensuring the identity of people within the camp in order to know who we are dealing with,” SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said. “It is also to know that there aren’t any people who have infiltrated into the camp.”
Despite such efforts, experts believe IS militants will likely continue their activity in the camp.
“For them, al-Hol presents the perfect spot from which they not only recruit supporters but also challenge the SDF and its authority in areas it has captured from them,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows militant groups in the war-torn country.
“Whether or not Daesh is capable of infiltrating the camp from outside, it still has hardcore supporters inside the camp who are willing to operate on behalf of the group from within,” he said.