Escape from Isil : The British fighter who went to remarkable lengths to quit Islamic State (Part 1)

ISIS

2017-12-02 /




The British Isil fighter was so confident he would make it out from Syria to Turkey that he packed little more than a change of clothes, a phone and a torch.

Shabazz Suleman had paid the right people: $1,000 (£750) to a smuggler for the ride to the border and a couple of hundred more to another for a fake Syrian ID. 

 

But after bribing guards at the first two checkpoints along the road out of Raqqa, his heavily accented Arabic saw him rumbled at the third. 

“I had attempted to leave many times during the years I was with Isil,” Suleman, 21, from High Wycombe, told the Telegraph from a prison in the border town of Jarablus.

“But I knew this would be my best chance as the battle was going very badly.

“It was an exodus. I knew I had to get out and try to get back to the UK, but I hadn’t really thought through the plan.”

As Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (Isil) once-vast caliphate crumbles, thousands of fighters are looking for a way out and foreign governments are bracing themselves for an influx of returnees.

The Telegraph, over a three-part series, will explore just what happens when an Isil fighter decides to leave the group’s former territory in Syria and what happens when they fail.

 

 Social media picture showing, on the left, British fighter Shabazz Suleman, 21 from High Wycombe, in Isil territory. Credit: Social media

 

Speaking to five people smugglers operating along the Turkish border, military commanders in northern Syria and a security official who runs safe houses for Isil defectors, this paper has pieced together their journey. 

Suleman’s guards find it hard to believe the slight, soft-spoken British man in their custody was a member of the world’s most feared terrorist group. 

Suleman had an privileged upbringing, graduating from the Royal Grammar School in Buckinghamshire with good grades. 

But instead of taking up a place at university as his parents, who had left Pakistan for a better life, had hoped, Suleman left the UK for Syria in the summer of 2014. 

He said he had wanted to help the groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad and was brainwashed by the jihadists’ “persuasive propaganda campaign”.

After receiving weapons training, he said he was sent to fight Kurdish groups near the Iraqi border. He claimed to have been a reservist, never firing his weapon.

 

 Picture of Shabazz Suleman, 22, from High Wycombe, taken by FSA fighters on the day he was apprehended in October Credit: Liwa al-Shimal brigade     Shabazz Suleman Credit: Social media

Picture of Shabazz Suleman, 22, from High Wycombe, taken by FSA fighters on the day he was apprehended in October Credit: Liwa al-Shimal brigade

 It was during this time, after five months with Isil, that he said he became disillusioned with the group.  When he returned from the frontline he asked to quit, which landed him in a prison set up under a stadium in the centre of Isil’s capital Raqqa. 

After a few weeks' watching people get tortured, he agreed to stay with the group, but took a job with the military police - a branch set up to keep public order. 

Weeks before Raqqa came under attack from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in June, Suleman and other Western fighters were ordered to retreat to their territory in the province of Deir Ezzor to the east.

In a story many are likely to question, Suleman says he would spend the next few months doing little more than playing Playstation at home with his Syrian housemates. 

“I think Isil had given up getting me to fight,” he laughed. “It was the beginning of the end, everyone knew Isil was done.

“Most of the other British fighters were dead," he told the Telegraph by phone. "The last time I saw a British guy must have been the end of 2016.”

He met a civilian Syrian family at a restaurant in Deir Ezzor city one day and after convincing them he no longer wanted to fight for the jihadist group they began hatching a plan to escape together. 

The family had been given the number of a smuggler by a friend outside Isil territory and arranged to be picked up by car after dark on October 11.

 Suleman shaved his long beard, threw out his fatigues and packed whatever money he had in a small rucksack.

They passed two checkpoints along the route in the formerly Isil-held towns of Tabqa and Manbij. He said they paid SDF fighters small bribes to allow them through. 

“The PKK (SDF) don’t really care who they let out, they just don’t want it to be their problem,” he said. “Everyone knows they’d rather send Isil fighters to an FSA (Free Syrian Army) area than fight us.”

They were stopped once again at Aoun al-Daddat checkpoint just south of Jarablus, the last one before the Turkish border.

Guards from the Liwa al-Shimal, or Northern Brigade, a rebel group which operates under the umbrella of the FSA, realised he was a foreign fighter and arrested him on the spot. 

“He spoke a bit of Arabic but it was broken and he clearly was not from here,” said Omar al-Abd of the Northern Brigade, which is currently holding several other foreign fighters including a French and a Danish man.

“He didn’t lie when we asked him who he was, he told us he was with Daesh but that he did not fight,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Isil.

Suleman may have been caught, but the Telegraph understands hundreds of Isil members have successfully made it across the border to Turkey in the last year.

Speaking to five smugglers operating along the frontier, they say business has been booming since SDF moved in on Raqqa in June. Between them they have helped dozens find their way to Turkey, using operatives both inside and outside of Isil territory. 

But the journey comes at a cost. 

The price depends on their nationality. When Isil was at the height of its reign, smugglers were charging Syrian fighters $2,000-3,000, while foreigners paid between $5,000-10,000 because of the added risk. Children are half-price. 

 

                   Turkish soldiers on an armoured military vehicle survey the border line between Turkey and Syria, near the southeastern city of Kilis, Turkey, March 2, 2017. Credit: Reuters 

 

They also take their location into account. If they were in the far east of the country in Deir Ezzor or Mayadin, the cost would go up $15,000-$20,000.

“When Daesh controlled these territories we had a strict protocol we would follow,” one smuggler, who asked to be identified only as Abu Kashkah, told the Telegraph from a cafe in the border town of Kilis. “First of all we made them send us their name, picture and location.

“We had civilian friends we trusted living in these area and we would get them to watch them for a few days to check them out. We would follow them to see what they would do to try to gauge if they were really serious about leaving or were trying to trick us. 

 “We would then ask them to move to an empty house in a different neighbourhood, one closer to the edge of Daesh territory. We would watch them there for one or two days to make sure they were alone and were not followed,” he said. 

There can be as many as four or five smugglers involved in a single operation.

He explained that it is a dangerous job and he does not want to take any unnecessary risks -  14 members of his network were imprisoned and three killed by Isil between 2015-16 after they were caught helping defectors. 

“Then they would wait until night, like 3am, and meet them and walk several miles avoiding Daesh checkpoints to a waiting car,” he continued. 

They would provide them with fake Syrian IDs, bribing guards all the way to the border near the al-Rai crossing west of Jarablus. 

He said in total his network has helped 14 foreign Isil members travel to Turkey in the last 18 months: two Germans, two Belgians, one Dutch fighter, one Polish, and several Algerians, as well as two women from Canada and one mother from France with her child.  

 Another smuggler, who gave his name as Abu Khalid, said he has overseen five successful operations involving one French, one German, one Turkish and two Syrians. 

Abu Khalid tells of how he helped a young French-Moroccan woman from Lyon and her young daughter leave Raqqa in April. 

Sarah Lamharrach‘s family travelled to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep to plead with Abu Khalid to help, offering $10,000 for the journey. The 21-year-old’s French jihadi husband had been killed a month earlier and she saw a chance to escape.

“I could see that she regretted joining Daesh, her husband had pressured her to leave,” said Abu Khalid. “You should not punish women like her for making mistakes, she had already been punished enough.

“Most of those who come to us tell us ‘Daesh is not what we thought it would be, we’ve made a big mistake’.”

He said some smugglers are in it just for the money, while he claimed others like himself are driven by “ideological motives”.

He said the reason he helps fleeing Isil members is to ensure they see justice in their home countries.

“If they are caught in Syria they might bribe their way out of prison, whereas they are more likely to go to court and be sentenced for their crimes in Europe and the West,” he said. “Also the less Daesh there are in Syria, the better for us.”

 Abu Khalid was himself captured and imprisoned by Isil in 2014, accused by the jihadists of running an FSA sleeper cell which was plotting against them. He spent four months in a jail in Manbij, which he said was run by a white German fighter, before he was traded for a captured Isil fighter and released. 

The German militant, identified later as Nils D, was then smuggled out of Syria to Turkey, where he was caught and extradited to Germany.

The 26-year-old was sentenced in 2015 to four and half years by a Dusseldorf court for his part in the torture of detainees at the prison. But prosecutors have since reopened his case after hearing testimony from Abu Khalid, who is due to travel to Dusseldorf early next year to give evidence which could see Nils’s sentence lengthened.

Thousands of foreign fighters crossed through the once-porous 500-mile-long Turkish border with Syria during the height of Isil’s brutal reign from 2013-2016. 

By effectively turning a blind eye, Turkey helped the extremist group expand as it built its self-declared "caliphate."

But under US and EU pressure, Ankara last year began tightening up its frontier with concrete walls, wire fencing and extra guards, leaving smugglers to come up with increasingly inventive ways to get across. 

They are now left with two main routes out of northwestern Syria: near the al-Rai crossing between the town of Azaz and Jarablus and the Idlib-Antakya route, which is mountainous and much more dangerous to attempt. 

Both must be taken at night, the smugglers say. Abu Ahmed, a smuggler operating around Idlib, said he sees an increase around winter because the fog offers greater cover. 

Where smugglers can charge up to $2-3,000 for non-Western fighters to cross near al-Rai, the Idlib route can cost as little as $500-800. 

“We walk with them through the night, changing the route every few days,” said Abu Ahmed, who co-ordinates smugglers in Idlib. “I would say 80 per cent eventually make it through, but some have to try again and again until they are successful.”

 

                As he entered the court in Dusseldorf, Nils D. hid his face with a folder  Credit: Getty

 

Dozens have been shot and killed by Turkish border guards while attempting to make the crossing, most of whom are Syrian civilians, many of them children.

“Guards in Antakya are the most brutal,” he said. “They are mostly Alawite (an offshoot of Shia Islam) around that area and the people trying to cross are Sunnis. They just shoot at everyone.” 

When asked to estimate how many Isil fighters were in northern Syria still looking to cross, each smuggler gave a number of around 2-3,000, among them “a few dozen” Europeans. 

Many of them fled to Idlib province, which is largely controlled by al-Qaeda-linked rebels, after Isil-held territory came under assault earlier this year.

“Sometimes I get 10 messages a day for people who need our services," said Abu Ahmed. "But I can’t help them all.”

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