Hundreds of former Isis fighters on Syrian border hoping to flee

As the terror group loses territory, power and funds, hundreds of former fighters are crossing into southern Turkey

Hundreds of former fighters have made it across the patrolled frontier into towns in the south of Turkey. Photo: The Sun
Hundreds of former fighters have made it across the patrolled frontier into towns in the south of Turkey. Photo: The Sun

Countless defectors from the Islamic State have gathered in Syria’s Idlib province, with many aiming to cross the nearby Turkish border and find ways back to North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Hundreds of former fighters have made it across the patrolled frontier into towns in the south of Turkey recently, according to the Guardian.

Four Saudi-Arabian extremists arrived in a Turkish community in earlier this month after paying smugglers $2,000 to accompany them past border guards.

Fighters from areas controlled by Isis moving to other parts of Iraq and Syria has continued throughout the last year, as the group have lost much of its former heartland to a concerted assault by Iraqi troops, forced allies to the Syrian regime and a US-led air coalition in both states.

Various militants and their families are now attempting to leave the battered-war state. A Saudi national who fled Syria in late August commented that as many as 300 former Isis members, many of which are Saudi, established a community in the north of Idlib city, now dominated by al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra.

“Most want to leave, like me,” said the 26-year-old.

“A lot of them realise that the group they were with tricked them. Others don’t trust Nusra. There are not many who believe that the people that they were with were on the right path.”

Abu Saad said the Saudi nationals, as well some Europeans, Moroccans and Egyptians, had gathered together as a buffer against al-Nusra, which has exerted its influence across Idlib and the surrounding countryside by toppling its rivals. Isis has not had an organised presence in the area since early 2014 when it was ousted by a rebel assault that saw its members flee east to the town of al-Bab in the Aleppo hinterland and further into Minbij, Tabqa, Raqqah and Deir Azzour.

The full scale of the exodus from Isis-held parts of Syria and Iraq remains unclear, with most of the land it once conquered, being re-captured, leaving a divided area with nowhere to hide.

One of Isis’ two main centres – Mosul in Iraq – fell in February, and the other – Raqqa in Syria – is slowly falling into the hands of US-backed Kurdish forces.

Thousands of Isis fighters are thought to have been killed in battle to retain territory it conquered from mid-2014 onwards, and thousands more home-grown extremists are believed to have returned to their communities.

At one point, Isis defectors had been of great interest to intelligence agencies, who had made little progress penetrating the group as it consolidated a hold on those in Syria and Iraq and plotted attacks in Europe.

MI6, the CIA and France’s DGSE have had increasing access to informants who they have met within Kurdish controlled areas of Syria’s north-east and in northern Iraq. This access has left those who fled earlier with less leverage over governments who may have otherwise agreed to speak with them.

“It’s a lot better than it used to be,” said one intelligence official. “We have a more complete picture than we did.”

Abu Saad said he would not return to Saudi Arabia if doing so meant a prison sentence. “A rehabilitation programme? Maybe,” he said. “I went to Syria some time in 2012. I went to support the Syrian people and in the first few months I was with the Muhajirin” (an auxiliary group of foreign fighters).

“It wasn’t until early the next year that my unit swore allegiance to Isis. It was a poisoned flower. It wasn’t what I expected,” he said.

As the fate of Isis worsened, tensions increased, claimed Abi Saaf. Summary executions were carried out for much less reason, such as making contact with Syrian opposition groups or insubordination. Over time, arguments about the ideology also intensified, he said.

“They don’t understand the Tawheed (the oneness of God). They are always arguing about it. I saw no justice with them. I saw cruelty. But how could I disagree? It had such a hierarchy. Everyone has a boss who they are afraid of. And above them all was [Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]”.

“In Idlib, there are around 300 people trying to escape. Many of them are Saudis. Some want to see their families one last time and they say they will accept what’s coming to them. I don’t know any of them who believe in the [Islamic] State. They all ran away for a reason.”

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