Syrian Prisons as Hotbeds of Radicalization – a Local or International Problem?

The issue of overcrowded prisons, which has been unresolved for several years and has witnessed ongoing radicalization processes, remains one of the main problems facing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Tragic sanitary conditions or barriers related to prisoner repatriation are just one of many key elements that exacerbate inmates‘ resentment toward the Syrian authorities (particularly representatives of the national-socialist Ba’ath Party) or Western countries – resulting in a rise in radicalism and, ultimately, Islamic terrorism.

When the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), along with local allies, liberated the last Islamic State-controlled territories in eastern Syria in Baghuz on March 23, 2019, it seemed that the issue of terrorism had been resolved. At the time, the fighting killed more than half of the jihadists, with the remainder joining ISIS cells in Africa or Afghanistan or ending up in prisons. It is the latter group that now poses a considerable threat both locally and globally, being a ticking bomb of sorts. The northeastern regions of Syria, controlled by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), where most of the prisons or so-called IDP camps are located, represent one of the largest concentrations of terrorist fighters in the world, who are just waiting for the right opportunity to leave so they can rejoin the ranks of the Islamic State.

Overcrowded Prisons and Conditions of Detention

One of the main problems with the fact that prisons are being set up for ISIS-linked individuals is that they are overcrowded. At the moment, there are about 56,000 people directly or indirectly affiliated with the Islamic State in Syrian prisons. About 60% of them are children, 30% are women, and only the remaining 10% are ISIS fighters. Interestingly, according to data from early 2023, of the detainees held in Syria at that point, as many as 70% (42,000) were foreigners, and only 30% (23,000) of the detainees were of Syrian origin. This shows, above all, the scale of the Islamic State’s influence both throughout the Middle East region and in Europe – from where the terrorists obtain allies coming to Syria for the so-called “holy war.” Some of the largest prisons are the al-Hol and Roj camps in northeastern Syria. The facilities controlled by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and supported by US troops, of which there are currently around 1000 in Syria, are notorious mainly for their abysmal sanitary conditions and approach to detainees. Lack of infrastructure suitable for high temperatures, lack of clean water, or inadequate medical care lead to the spread of infectious diseases or frequent fires, as a result of which prisoners notoriously die. In addition, children in such camps do not go to school and are often separated from their mothers. This is because mothers radicalize their sons and order them to have sex with Islamic State women so that they can give birth to new potential fighters. As a result, children separated from their families and with few prospects for the future end up in jihadist circles sooner or later anyway, tempted by illusory support and the promise of revenge against the people who took them from their families and put them in prison. This creates a vicious circle in which wanting to combat radicalism creates the ideal platform for its spread, except in “closed conditions.”

Barriers Related to Repatriation and Trial of Detainees

Due to the highly volatile situation associated with the recent end of the civil war in Syria and the fact that Syrian prisons hold some 56,000 people affiliated with terrorism, it is very difficult for state authorities to control such a large number of prisoners, who can leave and re-enter prison up to a dozen times over the course of several years. Such individuals not only openly declare their beliefs and obedience to the organization by carrying out bombings, but also radicalize other inmates. In September 2022, during one of the military operations carried out in the al-Hol camp, 300 Islamic State operatives were captured among the women and children in the camp. Along with the jihadists, hundreds of materials, such as photos and videos, were discovered showing children from the camp learning ISIS ideology associated with violence and terrorist attacks. The system of rehabilitation is virtually non-existent, and those who end up in the camps are often only suspected of having contacts with jihadists, leading to a situation in which prisons hold both people who belong to the Islamic State and those who, for example, have only lived in areas controlled by terrorists. The situation is also not made easier by the fact that the international community does not fully feel responsible for its citizens in Syrian prisons and camps. This is particularly influenced by security concerns and the fear that potentially returning citizens could be radicalized early and pose some danger to society. In addition, there is some concern that the reintegration processes that would have to be implemented for such individuals would be inadequate or too costly. On the other hand, if an inmate is indeed suspected of having ties to terrorism, the problem remains collecting the appropriate evidence and testimony to try such a person in a given country.

Prisons as „Schools of Radicalism” and Potential Targets for Terrorist Attacks

The aforementioned barriers to repatriation lead to a situation where detainees remain in legal limbo. On the one hand, Syrian authorities are put in a situation where they are forced to detain suspected terrorists – in overcrowded prisons and with the knowledge that these provide an ideal platform for training future generations of terrorists. On the other hand, other countries only in isolated and proven cases decide to repatriate and receive their citizens suspected of having contacts with ISIS. A certain helplessness on the part of the Syrian government results in a situation where camps are operating in front of the eyes of the whole world, where future terrorists regularly bounced from prisons in recent years by their allies are being trained. One such operation carried out by the jihadists took place on January 20, 2022, in northeastern Syria against Ghweran Prison in Hasaka, where 3,000 militants were being held at the time. The fighting for the prison lasted ten days, and the SDF eventually managed to save it, but the fighting resulted in the deaths of some 500 people. The Syrian government considered this the largest terrorist attack carried out inside Syria since 2019. In recent years, there have been relatively regular situations in which prisons have been targeted, and the guards themselves have been intimidated and received threatening phone calls. In most cases, fortunately, all kinds of plots and assassinations aimed at taking back radicalized prisoners – men, women, and children alike – are neutralized.


Ultimately, we should remember that the issue of radicalization in prisons is not an entirely new phenomenon, as exemplified by the Camp Bucca prison in Iraq, through which 100,000 prisoners passed between 2003 and 2009. During that time, through a series of negligence on the part of the U.S. military, which, without knowing the language or cultural conditions and clan connections, placed both ISIS fighters and other prisoners suspected of different acts in prison, who were very quickly radicalized. The result of disregarding the danger of such behavior turned out to be the creation of a kind of Islamic State army by the U.S. military under its rule, which a few years later occupied Mosul and officially established a caliphate within Iraq.

Undoubtedly, the problem of radicalism in Syrian prisons is a critical issue not only from the point of view of local authorities but also from the perspective of international security. The helplessness of the Syrian authorities in the face of overcrowded prisons and the inability to fully control prisoners leads to a situation where the number of people who become jihadists grows under the influence of incarcerated radicals almost every day. The lack of intervention by the international community and a very conservative approach to the problem of repatriation is leading to a situation where a new generation of Islamic State militants is forming in Syrian prisons, who are only waiting for the right moment to escape from prison – something that must not be allowed to happen at any cost.