WASHINGTON - U.S.-backed forces in northeastern Syria have arrested more than 70 people in their sweep of the al-Hol displaced-persons camp, which has emerged in recent months as a new hub for the Islamic State terror group.
The crackdown, launched Sunday by the Syrian Democratic Forces, has involved about 5,000 troops and internal security force personnel scouring the camp sector by sector, looking for anyone thought to be working with IS.
Photos, posted by SDF social media accounts, showed heavily armed SDF personnel, accompanied by armored vehicles, moving into the camps and entering tents as they looked for IS operatives and collaborators in the operation's fifth day.
“More than 70 individuals were arrested,” one SDF social media account tweeted Thursday. “Ammunition and other materials [were] confiscated.”
Before Thursday’s activity, SDF officials said those caught in the crackdown included five IS cell leaders, and that the vast majority of those taken into custody had “direct links” to the terror group.
They also said their forces had recovered laptops and other material that would be scoured for intelligence on the group’s plans.
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 U.N. member states estimates the IS fighting force is about 10,000, including thousands of so-called foreign fighters.
Those numbers are far lower than they were 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.
“Security services at al-Hol have struggled to address ISIS recruitment and fundraising,” one U.S. official told VOA in 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, with hawalas, or money transfer systems, being used within the camp to move some of the group's 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 closely watching 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.”
There are 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’s efforts to establish a self-declared caliphate, as well as thousands of wives and other family members of IS fighters.