A surge in violence at one of the biggest displaced persons camps in northeastern Syria is sparking renewed fears that the Islamic State terror group maintains a worrisome grip on the region.
Humanitarian officials and researchers say the al-Hol camp, home to about 62,000 mostly women and children, has been plagued by at least 18 murders since the start of the year, including 12 in the first two weeks of January.
According a report Monday by the pro-Kurdish Rojava Information Center (RIC), at least half of the killings were executions in which the victims appear to have been beheaded, and that many of the attacks appear to be linked to IS.
"Undoubtedly, ISIS has a lot of influence with the camp," Charles Flynn, a RIC researcher, told VOA, using another acronym for the terror group.
In one case, Flynn said an Iraqi elder was publicly beheaded for working with the Asayish, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who provide security for al-Hol, and that other killings have been "claimed by active ISIS members who reside there."
"There seems to be internal courts and councils of ISIS members who decide the fate of these victims and others," he said.
The sudden spike in violence has alarmed United Nations' officials, who have warned the killings "indicate an increasingly untenable security environment."
U.N. officials said the 18 killings so far this year contrast with a total of about 35 at al-Hol for all of 2020, while RIC researchers recorded only two such murders this past December.
The influence IS appears to be exerting over developments at al-Hol has likewise gotten the attention of U.S. military commanders.
"This is an alarming development with potentially generational implications," U.S. Central Command's Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie warned Monday during a virtual address to the Middle East Institute.
"Unless the international community finds a way to repatriate, reintegrate into home communities, and support locally grown reconciliation programs we will bear witness to the indoctrination of the next generation of ISIS as these children become radicalized," McKenzie said. "Failing to address this now means ISIS will never be truly defeated."
Of the approximately 62,000 displaced persons still living in the al-Hol camp, more than half are children under the age of 12.
"The recent increase in violent events at the camp underscores that the camp is no place for any child to grow up," U.N. OCHA spokesperson Danielle Moylan told VOA Monday. "Durable solutions for all residents – whether Syrian, Iraqi, or from another country – are needed."
Intelligence from U.N. member states has also raised growing concerns about al-Hol.
"Some detainees see Hawl [sic] as the final remnant of the 'caliphate,'" according to a report issued last week.
"Minors are reportedly being indoctrinated and prepared to become future ISIL operatives," the report added, referring to IS by one of its other acronyms.
The Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria (AANES), which works with the SDF to maintain al-Hol, has been working to help the camp's 24,000 displaced Syrians return home. But the effort has been slow, with just over 800 leaving the camp as of late last year.
On Monday, a group of U.N. human rights experts sent letters to 57 countries, including to members of the U.S.-led coalition, calling on them to immediately repatriate nationals who are being held at al-Hol.
"Thousands of people held in the camps are exposed to violence, exploitation, abuse and deprivation in conditions and treatment that may well amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," they wrote.
Counterterrorism officials and experts who study IS have warned operatives have consistently sought to use poor conditions at camps like al-Hol in an effort to strengthen the terror group's brand.
There are likewise concerns about the dozen or so makeshift prisons in northeast Syria, which hold about 10,000 IS fighters, including about 2,000 fighters from outside Syria and Iraq.
While the SDF continues to guard the prisoners with guidance and resources from the U.S.-led coalition, the prisoners "largely govern themselves," warned U.S. Central Command's Gen. McKenzie, who added any breakout could fuel IS's efforts to regenerate.
More broadly, U.S. officials have told VOA that despite ongoing pressure, IS has managed to expand its influence in parts of Syria and Iraq.
U.S. officials have estimated IS has anywhere from 14,000 to 16,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria, though intelligence from U.N. member states puts the figure at about 10,000.
Margaret Besheer in New York contributed to this report.