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ISIS has access to thousands of recruits in Syria, according to the US

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The Department of Defense warned that ISIS intends to attack Americans in 2023. ISIS is regaining strength, and despite the American-led coalition’s best attempts to target concentrations of ISIS fighters, including their top leaders, the fight can’t be won simply by killing one’s way to victory.

In a report, General Michael Kurilla, the commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said that 25,000 children living at the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria could soon be radicalized. The camp holds refugees displaced by ISIS, primarily from Syria and Iraq. It is nominally run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“These children in the camp are prime targets for ISIS (Daesh) radicalization,” the report stated. “The international community must work together to remove these children from this environment by repatriating them to their countries or communities of origin while improving conditions in the camp.

“There is a literal ‘ISIS army’ in detention in Iraq and Syria,” the report added.

ISIS cells have infiltrated the al-Hol camp, and as of August, they have killed 44 people, including 14 women. There has been constant smuggling of weapons and torture devices into the camp to threaten people to become ISIS members. Despite the preponderance of women and children in the camp — 95% of the people in the camp are women and children — the U.S. says that each month about 80 babies are born.

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American and SDF operations against ISIS continue

A Coalition advisor watches a Syrian Democratic Forces soldier as he engages a target during a live-fire training exercise at an outpost near Shaddadi, Syria, May 27, 2018. The Coalition is training SDF soldiers for Operation Roundup, the SDF-led offensive to clear the last remaining ISIS strongholds in the country. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster)

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s partners in the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria and Iraq, made a sweep of 55 villages and farms in eastern Syria and arrested 102 ISIS terrorists, 27 support cell members who are accused of providing logistical supplies or propaganda. 

ISIS currently has between 6,000-10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, which is a far cry from the 18,000 at the group’s peak. However, ISIS carried out 74 attacks in Syria and 73 in Iraq between July and September.

Turkish threats of invasion could open the door for even bolder moves by ISIS. Turkey equates the SDF with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist group that operates in Turkey. It has threatened another ground incursion into Syria against the SDF which it blames for a November bombing in Turkey. The SDF denied any involvement in the bombing.

Related: America’s Kurdish partners are under attack by Iran and Turkey 

A Turkish incursion into Syria would have disastrous effects on the U.S.-SDF counter-terrorist operation, as the SDF has stated that it will have to stop anti-ISIS operations to protect its own areas against Turkish forces. 

“ISIS will be watching all of this with glee,” said Charles Lister, the director of Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, to NatSec Daily.

Highlighting the resurgence of ISIS in the region, U.S. special operation forces conducted helicopter raids with the SDF to kill or capture senior ISIS leaders in December. The U.S. typically uses drone strikes to target ISIS leaders to avoid risk to U.S. personnel. 

A December 11 raid killed an ISIS leader with the nom de guerre Anas and an associate in a three-hour battle in eastern Syria. About 10 days later, U.S.-SDF partner forces conducted another raid, capturing a senior ISIS leader that had been plotting and enabling terrorist attacks. The ISIS leader, known as al-Zubaydi, was captured along with five other ISIS officials. No Americans nor civilians were killed in the attacks.

Feature Image: Refugees at the al-Hol camp in Syria. (Photo by Y. Boechat/Voice of America)

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Steve Balestrieri