British female Islamic State (IS) suspects have been smuggled out of detention camps in northeast Syria, with some raising funds online to pay for further escapes, according to jihadist social media activity.
At least one British woman is among numerous European IS supporters who have broken out of Al Hol camp to reach rebel-held Idlib, where they can freely proselytise for the group.
In a recent video published to Telegram channels and Facebook pages devoted to crowdfunding for Islamic State supporters detained by Syrian Kurdish forces, a woman identified as Maryam Al Britaniya “from UK” exhorts followers to donate money.
The video was filmed in Harim city near the Turkish border in Idlib, according to Bellingcat senior investigator Nick Waters.
The woman describes being smuggled out of a camp where she was detained for over a year after surrendering to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in fighting that killed her children. The western-backed group recaptured the last Islamic State (IS) territory in March last year.
“Being sent out from the Islamic State to the camps was by far one of the worst moments of my life,” she says, her face obscured by a black niqab.
Since then the Kurdish-led SDF has been left guarding prisons holding roughly 10,000 IS-affiliated men and nearly 70,000 mostly women and children in the sprawling Al Hol camp, with about 2,000 in the smaller Roj camp. Among the detainees are several dozen British women and about 60 British children, according to estimates by aid groups.
“It’s obligatory on you to free them,” the woman in the video says, wagging a gloved finger. “Help them and donate every month to help smuggle them out.”
Many western governments have ignored calls by the SDF and the United States to repatriate their citizens, leaving women and children lingering in deteriorating conditions in which hundreds have died from malnutrition and disease.
With increasing numbers paying to be smuggled to Idlib, where some eventually plan to cross into Turkey, counter-terrorism experts warn that leaving them in limbo is a dangerous long-term strategy.
After Kurdish authorities recently started moving high profile European women and their children to a higher security extension to Roj camp, those remaining in Al Hol have increased escape attempts and fundraising efforts.
“This is another sister from Al-Hol Camp,” reads a recent Facebook post in English by a female IS supporter. “If she doesn’t leave soon, they will catch them and send them to the humiliation camp – Roj where it’s impossible to escape.”
“A lot of people are trying now” to escape, said Vera Mironova, a Harvard University researcher who speaks to IS-affiliated women in the camps.
While the Turkish border is much closer, Idlib, over 300 miles westward, is the only option for most Europeans she said, as Turkish authorities only allow crossings from Kurdish-controlled areas after prior negotiation.
With traffickers charging roughly £12,000 to smuggle a family out, a decentralised network of social media accounts is soliciting donations via PayPal or the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Numerous accounts copy and paste messages across various platforms, including Telegram, Facebook and Twitter, making it difficult for authorities to stamp out.
“The online jihadist environment has been a whack-a-mole environment for a long time and more so now than ever,” said Laith Alkhouri, a private sector counter-terrorism adviser. “Telegram has achieved a great deal with the suspension of these accounts but instead of decreasing their activities, they expand onto new apps and then return to Telegram with backup accounts.”
Thousands of posts in English, French, German and other European languages form a separate network from a much larger Russian-speaking web of IS supporters.
“This sister has to have the money by Friday, €1000 is still missing,” reads a post in German.
Another post in French reads: “Only €3000 more is needed to free two of your sisters. Add this good deed to your balance, it may gain you entry into paradise.”
No one knows how many have escaped, though SDF officials have shared numerous videos of foiled attempts. Among those caught trying to escape were twins from Manchester Zahra and Salma Halane, who the Telegraph located recently in the new high-security extension to Roj camp.
The escapees include other high-profile jihadists. French media reported earlier this year that Hayat Boumeddiene – the widow of Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out the January 2015 Paris attacks – had escaped Al Hol and was believed to be in Idlib.
The escapes and associated fundraising undermine counter-terrorism strategy, according to Mr Alkhouri. “Anything that could advance the terrorist agenda, whether in ideology or practice, should be everybody’s concern,” he said.
“When you don’t know the source of funding or the recipient of the funding and you do know that the people who are potentially receiving it and the people sending it are ideological supporters of ISIS, then that should absolutely be a concern, even if it’s going to ‘helping women and children escape those detention camps’,” he said.
The decision to leave IS-affiliated women and their children in Syria may be politically expedient but it also suits resource-strained counter-terror units, according to Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
“For security forces I think it is in some way making their lives easier,” he said, as repatriation would require costly prosecutions and surveillance operations.
But this short-term tactic is a bad long-term strategy, Mr Pantucci argued.
“The worrisome thing is, the longer we leave them stuck in this limbo, and with kids in tow, frankly the more radical they’re going to get and the greater the threat they might pose,” he said.
“Either find a way of getting them in a court there [in Syria] or bring them home and get them in court and process them here,” he said. “Rather than have them be smuggled out and in a few years god knows where else they might show up.”