It’s the kind of picture that most Facebook users would scroll by without pause: the sun hanging low in a blue sky, half-hidden by the silhouette of a tent. “Donate [for the sake of Allah] to free your imprisoned sisters,” a line of embedded text reads, with the hashtag #CampHol. “Contact to help us,” the caption adds, including the name of a Telegram account.
Even a user who did take the time to look closer might assume the post was related to an Islamic charity or perhaps a fundraiser for human trafficking victims, then move on. Its intended audience, however, would immediately recognize the link to ISIS.
Al-Hol refugee camp in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria is home to the women and children who lived in ISIS’s last remaining pockets of territory before they were retaken by the Syrian Democratic Forces in March 2019. The majority of residents are Iraqi and Syrian, but there is also a separate annex for women who traveled to live in the so-called caliphate. These women, some of whom emigrated from Europe, Asia, and Africa, are seen by locals as more fanatical than those in other parts of the camp. A United Nations report from November 2019 found that foreigners made up 15% of the camp’s total population of 70,000, although some have since been repatriated or moved to more secure facilities.
A sprawling mass of dusty tents surrounded by fences and armed guards, al-Hol’s foreigners’ annex has become a place of radicalization and extremism. There, hard-line Islamists have reimposed ISIS’s draconian rules — any woman or girl over eight must be fully veiled in black; communication with authorities or journalists is forbidden; daily prayer is mandatory — and been known to beat and murder transgressors. With resources already overextended, the camp staff have little ability to intervene.
Last year, online fundraisers began to appear on behalf of al-Hol residents. Many were seeking to finance escapes, others to pay for food and supplies. (While some donations have likely gone toward terrorism, the campaigns are careful to avoid mentioning violence.) The petitions spread via social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and often involved PayPal and other payment systems as well as messaging apps, like WhatsApp and Telegram. Before long, intelligence and law enforcement agencies began to monitor them.
Media reports followed, and any platform that was not already aware of the campaigns’ existence was soon clued in. Even so, several months later, this kind of content remains relatively easy to find. Rest of World was able to identify dozens of Facebook accounts claiming to be linked to al-Hol, many of which post comments glorifying ISIS or soliciting funds. “Do not fear the imprisonment of the [unbelievers] for helping your sisters,” reads one, inviting supporters to message privately for more information. On Instagram, an account consisting mostly of images and videos from al-Hol included a picture of a figure clad all in black holding up a cardboard sign. It reads, “WE ARE TWO SISTERS FROM CAMP AL HOL AND WE ARE TRYING TO ESCAPE … WE COLLECTED 13,000$ AND WE NEED 3000$ PLEASE WE BEG THE UMMAH TO HELP US AND DONATE AS MUCH AS THEY CAN.” Below, a caption elaborating on the message is translated into Turkish, English, Russian, and French.
Accounts like these often remain active for months. This is possible, in part, because campaigns extend across multiple networks and payment platforms, creating a complex and opaque ecosystem that sometimes mixes illegal payment solicitations with requests for legitimate charitable giving. As major social media companies scramble to figure out policies around hate speech and disinformation, ISIS-related fundraisers have continued to slip through.
In the more than five years that ISIS held territory in Iraq and Syria, it generated vast sums of money — from oil fields, plundering banks, drug and artifact smuggling, taxing people living under its regime, and taking hostages. The French government alone was reported to have paid an $18 million ransom to secure the release of four journalists. (A government spokesman denied this account.)
Although the revenues generated by online campaigns are minuscule in comparison, they are not insignificant — Audrey L. Alexander, a researcher and instructor at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, told Rest of World that she regularly encounters crowdfunding efforts by terrorists, some of which bring in as much as $2,000 — and this income likely helps keep ISIS activities going. It’s impossible to say with any certainty how much ISIS receives in online donations, but the money has been linked to escapes, weapons purchases, and propaganda produced by al-Hol-linked accounts, which have replaced the high-production-value videos once released by ISIS’s media arm.
In a March report to Congress, the American-led coalition against ISIS, Operation Inherent Resolve, detailed how women within the camps, and particularly al-Hol, have built up a network for smuggling people and supplies, while simultaneously recruiting and indoctrinating new members. “Using funds received via wire transfers,” the authors noted, “female ISIS members continued to conduct operations — such as attacks against camp security personnel.” While this amplified existing pressure on social media companies to better monitor their platforms, it didn’t appear to have any major policy impacts.
The architects of these networks tailor their messages and methods to geography, specific donors and goals, and national laws and platform regulations. Of the Facebook accounts identified by Rest of World that claim links to al-Hol, only some explicitly asked for donations. Others disseminated pictures or news from the camp in different languages, alongside Islamic scripture and memes. A few users fondly reminisced about their time in the caliphate. Facebook disables and deletes accounts that share terrorist propaganda, so ISIS was never explicitly mentioned. Instead, references to the organization were camouflaged by alternative spellings. “I miss the Dawl@,” one said, with a crying emoji, referencing the Arabic word for “state” in ISIS’s full name.
Facebook says it has been making major investments to combat the proliferation of terrorist content on its platform. Much of that relies on AI and on media-matching software that finds images, text, or videos that are either identical or near identical to content that has already been taken down. Once identified, they are removed nearly instantly.
“Facebook has no tolerance for terrorist propaganda or content fundraising for terrorist groups. We take this extremely seriously and we are investing heavily to keep people safe,” a spokesperson told Rest of World in an emailed statement. “Over the last few years we’ve tripled the size of our safety and security team to 35,000 and built artificial intelligence technology to find and remove this content before people see it and report it to us. From June to September 2020, we removed over 9.7 million pieces of terrorist content on Facebook, 99% of which we detected proactively.”
While undoubtedly effective, aggressive AI-based content removal isn’t perfect. Journalists across the Middle East and North Africa regularly have their Facebook and Twitter accounts suspended after posting material related to conflicts or human rights abuses. Charities working with Syrian refugees have for years complained about PayPal’s keyword filters blocking donations. And as social media companies get faster at taking down content, often without anyone having seen it, human rights groups and activists worry that they may be erasing vital evidence of war crimes that could be of use in future trials.
AI has other weaknesses too. Accounts that are more subtle about illegal affiliations may go unnoticed, allowing disguised ISIS content to slip through. Of the more than 40 apparently al-Hol-linked Facebook accounts found by Rest of World in October, only around half had been removed by December. Additionally, account administrators often maintain a network of duplicate or backup accounts, so that if one is blocked or removed, others are ready to take its place.
In contrast to Facebook, Telegram has relatively few safeguards against terrorist content. Launched in 2013 by Russians Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the Dubai-based company is known for prioritizing privacy and free speech over nearly all other concerns. This stance has made it popular among people living in authoritarian regimes, and it has also made it the app of choice for violent extremists. The company has conducted coordinated sweeps to remove ISIS content, but channels openly devoted to ISIS news and propaganda still regularly appear — including ones that raise money for escape attempts from al-Hol. (Telegram did not respond to requests for comment.)
While many jurisdictions hold the person who posts illegal content — rather than the platform itself — accountable, that may be changing in the U.K. and the E.U., where new draft legislation being considered would place responsibility on platforms to police themselves.
Vera Mironova, a visiting fellow at Harvard University who has extensively monitored online terrorist fundraising campaigns, notes that posts follow the mores of their host platform. “So secretive campaigns would not be posted on Facebook, or if they were, they would sound more humanitarian and not use words like ‘ISIS.’ But the ones on Telegram go full hurrah,” she explained. This same dynamic plays out on a country-by-country level, Mironova added, and is especially apparent on payment platforms. “Some countries — let’s say Russia or parts of Eastern Europe, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan — they just do not care,” she said. “ISIS-linked campaigns coming from those places absolutely won’t hide anything. … They could use any platform; they even transfer money between bank cards.”
If the donor is based in Europe or North America, however, more care is taken to disguise the transaction. Transfers can be made via Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies and sometimes even person-to-person in cash. Some campaigns on Telegram have included tips on how to avoid triggering PayPal’s alert functions, such as using innocuous phrases when sending payments. (PayPal did not reply to requests for comment.)
Many of these payment streams eventually lead to Turkey, multiple sources say. From there, it is easy to move money across the border to Syria, either by courier or, more commonly, through the hawala system of brokers. Not only are there estimated to be hundreds of unregistered hawala offices in Istanbul that allow money to be sent to Syria essentially anonymously, there are also brokers in al-Hol itself. And once these transactions go offline, they are far more difficult to track.
The legality of these payments differ from country to country, and cases against those who make them are often difficult to prosecute. In June, Dutch police arrested a man on terror-financing charges after he collected money that, authorities said, would be used to finance the escape of ISIS-linked women from camps in Syria. However, such instances are comparatively rare. Donating money for provisions, clothes, or other essentials to women in these camps is not necessarily illegal. Conditions in al-Hol are desperate, and a number of legitimate aid organizations operate there, including U.N. agencies. Additionally, because international tribunals cannot be held in the camp — northern Syria is controlled by a nonstate actor — none of its residents have been convicted of terror offenses.
There often aren’t clear lines of division between ISIS and humanitarian fundraising campaigns. Social media accounts that solicit money for an escape one day might post photos the next day of food deliveries or of women and children holding up handwritten signs expressing gratitude for a donation. The many steps between donor, middleman, and recipient make it difficult to prove whether a payment funded an escape, an attack, or a weapons purchase — or simply someone’s most recent meal. For law enforcement and social media platforms alike, the challenge lies in striking a balance between removing terrorist-linked content and not blocking legitimate charitable giving.
“It is a hard ecosystem to disrupt, at least in part because some organizing entities look like charities and NGOs, smaller transfers may be harder to detect at scale, and cash transfers can be hard to follow,” said Alexander, the Combating Terrorism Center researcher and instructor. A senior law enforcement officer who specializes in terror financing in the Middle East told Rest of World that, although there was a surge of interest when ISIS crowdfunding first began, security services have begun to focus elsewhere because of the complications involved in pursuing these cases. “Talking to my European counterparts, they are kind of overlooking these operations,” said the officer, who asked that he not be identified for his own safety. “Because they said, ‘Well, it leads us nowhere, since we cannot prove legally that the money goes into the hands of terrorists.’”
The countermeasures taken by the platforms involved, meanwhile, are not always clear. Of the three social media companies and two payment platforms contacted for this piece, only Facebook replied to requests for comment, and even then, it did not make a spokesperson available to be interviewed.
As state authorities and tech platforms struggle to tackle a complex, cross-border issue, the risks of failing to act may be mounting. Al-Hol is widely seen as having the potential to produce future ISIS members, in part because of the large number of vulnerable and traumatized children being brought up in a climate of extreme radicalization. Meanwhile, money continues to pour in, underwriting smuggling, violence, and propaganda — as well as providing legitimate humanitarian aid. “I don’t know if we are just being reckless,” the officer said, “and not digging more through things that are happening under our nose.”