A Surge Of Isis Fighters Set To Hit Europe.
Hundreds of Islamic State fighters have exploited a deal struck with American-backed Kurdish soldiers to escape from Syria, using smuggling routes to enter mainland Europe. Some were able to openly leave Raqqa, the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate, under an arrangement devised to help civilians escape before the fall of the city. However, when Raqqa was re-taken by Western-backed coalition forces in October, hundreds more, many of them European jihadists, managed to flee the city. Dozens have since been caught trying to cross the border into Turkey.
In an exclusive interview with The Times, one of those arrested said that hundreds of Isis fighters had exploited the well-established smuggling routes into Turkey. Saddam al-Hamadi, 26, said: “I took advantage of that movement during the evacuation deal to get to Turkey. Lots of people were doing it, around half of them fighters and half of them civilians. It was an easy route to cross. Even if the YPG [the Western-backed Syrian Kurdish militia] catch you, you will be held for ten or 15 days and then released.” His testimony adds to fears that Isis fighters who were allowed to leave Raqqa are now heading back to Europe to launch attacks. He was caught by Turkish-backed rebel forces in al-Rai, a small town one mile from the Turkish border, last month. Isis once used the area around al-Rai as its gateway into Syria for foreign recruits; now, as the caliphate crumbles, its remaining members are trying to cross back into Turkey via the same route, paying smugglers about $300 for the crossing. A Turkish official said: “There’s been a significant increase in the number of people caught.”
Hundreds of Isis members and their families were allowed to leave Raqqa under a deal struck with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as the battle for the city reached its climax. The SDF, dominated by the Kurdish YPG, has risen to become the US-led coalition’s main ground ally in Syria and led the assault on Raqqa. The coalition initially claimed that only family members of militants and some fighters of local origin had been allowed to board buses out of the city destined for Isis-controlled territory in Deir Ezzor. However, accounts emerged later that hundreds of Isis fighters, including scores of foreigners, had also escaped on the convoy, taking their weapons with them. Others, including Saddam al-Hamadi, were able to take advantage of the opened routes to leave the area independently. “The evacuation was such big news that everyone heard of it,” he said. “I got on the road at the same time as the agreement. I crossed some farms and villages and got to Manbij and then al-Rai. The YPG didn’t ask anything.” He claims to have worked in the immigration department in Raqqa and to have defected from Isis four months before the fall of the city. He said the evacuation deal had caused a rift in the Isis leadership in Raqqa, with the high-ranking Europeans and some Syrians agreeing to it but others, mostly locals and Arabs, wanting to fight to the death.
A source close to UK intelligence agencies has said that tensions between European states over Brexit could make it easier for foreign jihadists to return home: “The UK is genuinely worried about the return of Isis fighters. There are also concerns that intelligence information may not be shared as quickly as it was because of the bad blood over Brexit, and the EU saying the UK will have to leave Europol and the intelligence-exchange mechanism.” A report released by the think tank The Global Strategy Network in October estimated that 400 Isis militants from the UK remain unaccounted for, including at least 100 women and 50 children who were either taken to the region from the UK or were born there to British parents. There are about 500 active counterterrorism investigations in the UK, focusing on 3,000 suspects and an additional 20,000 people classed as being “of concern” to the authorities. “Returnees who were still fighting as Raqqa fell are likely to be far more committed, more violent and more radicalised than the current crop of returnees,” Richard Barrett, the author of the report, told The Times. “I am quite sure that the UK authorities would be extremely keen to know who they are or were, where they are, where they intend to go, and what they intend to do. They would also want to know about their associates, as this group is unlikely to distinguish much between nationalities, having forged close bonds under intense pressure.”
Credit: Hannah Lucinda Smith in Kilis for The Times, 5 December 2017.