Isis fighters smuggled out of Raqqa by US, UK and Kurds, BBC claims
‘Raqqa’s Dirty Secret’ says 250 fighters with families and arms were given safe passage
Heavily damaged buildings in Raqa on October 21st, 2017, after a Kurd-led force expelled the jihadists from the northern Syrian city. There are claims many were transported out. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty
Hundreds of Islamic State fighters, both Syrian and foreign, were covertly evacuated by US, UK and Kurdish forces from the besieged city of Raqqa last month and freed to “spread out far and wide across Syria and beyond”.
Their investigation describes how the convoy carrying 250 fighters, 3,500 family members, and lorry loads of arms and possessions, was arranged for October 12th by local officials in meetings attended by a western officer. The aim was to spare the lives of attacking forces and end the four-month battle over the city, Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital. Hostages were not released as part of the deal, as claimed in early news stories.
During a visit to Syria in mid-October, The Irish Times was told not only about the evacuation but also that senior Islamic State commanders and their families, 45 people in all, had been airlifted out of Raqqa by a US helicopter and flown to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Fighters escaping Raqqa were said to have been given passage across the desert to join comrades battling the Syrian army and its allies in Deir al-Zor.
Among the people the BBC team interviewed for the exposé were drivers paid by the Islamic State to drive the buses and trucks carrying the evacuees. According to driver Abu Fawzi, men, women and children wore suicide vests and the trucks had been booby-trapped in case “something went wrong”.
The convoy contained 50 trucks, 13 buses, and more than 100 of the fighters’ own vehicles. Although it had been agreed they would take only personal weapons, they filled 10 trucks with arms and ammunition.
It had also been stipulated that no foreigners would leave, but drivers told the BBC that French, Turkish, Azerbaijani, Pakistani, Yemeni, Saudi, Chinese, Tunisian and Egyptians had joined the exodus. The only restriction observed was a ban against flags and banners.
The convoy, which travelled for three days, left main roads north of Raqqa and drove southeast through sparsely inhabited countryside. Whenever it passed through a village or hamlet, fighters warned frightened bystanders they would return, a villager called Muhanad told the BBC, “running a finger across their throats”.
Two Humvees led the convoy into the desert where the going was rough. Coalition aircraft and drones hovered above, dropping flares after dark to light the way. When the motorcade reached Islamic State-held territory, fighters and civilians departed with their arms and possessions and drivers returned home.
The BBC reported that smugglers guiding fighters and families across the border into Turkey said business was brisk.
The Raqqa evacuation was highly sensitive for the US and its allies as it was modelled on similar operations carried out by the Syrian army over the past three years.
When 308 Islamic State fighters and 331 civilians were transferred from northern Lebanon and across Syria in August, the first evacuation involving this group, the US protested and used air strikes to strand the convoy in the desert for two weeks. US envoy to the coalition Brett McGurk stated that foreign fighters in Raqqa would die in battle.
‘Fighting and dying’
The BBC investigation compelled Col Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, to admit to the deal. He told the team: “We didn’t want anyone to leave. But this goes to the heart of our strategy ‘by, with and through’ local leaders on the ground. It comes down to Syrians – they are the ones fighting and dying, they get to make the decisions regarding operations.”
He claimed only four foreign fighters had left and are in the custody of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. His statement on foreign fighters contradicted information given to the BBC by drivers and people along the route as well as a statement about strategy made by US defence secretary James Mattis in May.
“Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home . . . We are not going to allow them to do so,” said Mattis.
Reacting to the BBC investigation, coalition director of operations Brig Gen Jonathan Braga asserted: “We do not condone any arrangement that allows [Islamic State] terrorists to escape Raqqa without facing justice only to resurface somewhere else.”