Dozens Of British Fighters On The Loose In Syria As Islamic State Crumbles
Dead. Captured. On the run, those are the fates of the dozens of British citizens who travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the so called Islamic State terror group.
But even as the so-called Caliphate crumbles, remarkably little is known about what has become of its British followers.
“It really is shrouded in mystery and guess work,” said Shiraz Maher, a researcher at King’s College London who has interviewed about 100 foreign fighters in the course of research into the conflict.
“They used to be very active on social media, just giving away information, and secondly they would talk to researchers like me. But that stopped about 18 months ago,” he added.
The reasons for the sudden silence are partly because of attrition – Dr Maher believes large numbers of British insurgents were killed during battles for the north Syrian town of Kobani in 2015 – and tighter internal security imposed within Isil.
British authorities estimate that about 850 people from Britain have travelled to Syria to fight with Islamist groups during the course of the six-year conflict.
About 250 of those are believed to have returned, but they were mostly fighters with other Islamist groups like al-Nusra, which still boasts a significant British contingent.
A database compiled from open sources published by the BBC this summer listed 276 known British fighters.
It listed 82 of them were listed as alive in Syria or Iraq.
British Isil fighters still at large are believed to include Zimbabwean-born Raymond Matimba, – the sniper revealed by the Telegraph to be a key player in the group around Mohamed Emwazi – Issam Abuanza, the NHS doctor from Sheffield who moved to Syria to join the terror group in 2014, and Sally Jones, the widow of the British computer hacker Junaid Hussain, who like Emwazi was killed in an airstrike.
But almost nothing is known about their specific whereabouts.
And while many of them are still considered to be at large, that may because there have been no credible reports of their deaths.
“The last one I know was definitely alive was the British fighter Omar Hussein, the ‘supermarket jihadist’” said Amarnath Amarasingam, co-director of a study of Western foreign fighters based at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
“He was last online in July, but nothing has been heard since.”
Experts believe about 15 to 20 per cent of the Western fighters who joined Isil were women, many of whom now have children born of marriages to Isil fighters.
As the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces close in on Raqqa, Isil’s de-facto capital, non-combatants are likely to have been evacuated to the group’s remaining strongholds around Deir Ezzor.
An unknown number of male fighters may have gone with them. Others may attempt to blend in as refugees, escape to Turkey, or defect to other jihadist groups in Syria or in conflicts further afield.
But many will probably never leave Syria.
“A bunch of the people I’ve spoken to I think will die fighting,” said Dr Amarasingam. “They are pretty hardcore and devoted to the cause.”
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