This was not a furtive move, the coalition rented 50 trucks, 13 busses and added to the 7 km long convoy more than a 100 of personal vehicles of ISIS militants.
More ominously, they allowed them to keep their weapons and personal belonging and let their families accompany them. It was a coalition sponsored orderly evacuation.
And most importantly, it was a secret operation.
Great pains were taken to hide it from the world. But the BBC has spoken to dozens of people who were either on the convoy, or observed it, and to the men who negotiated the deal. (...)
The Kurdish-led SDF cleared Raqqa of media. Islamic State’s escape from its base would not be televised.British and American commanders of the coalition forces and their Kurdish allies in SDF were all in on it. Here is a clip made by SDF troops showing the escape.
When confronted by the BBC with evidence of orderly evacuation, the coalition folks claimed that they had no choice. It was all done by the locals.
“We didn’t want anyone to leave,” says Col Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the Western coalition against IS.
“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 says.
While a Western officer was present for the negotiations, they didn’t take an “active part” in the discussions.Moreover, Col. Dillon claimed that only 4 fighters left and they were now in SDF custody.
And SDF maintained that "only a few dozen fighters had been able to leave, all of them locals."
But the actual number is 4,000 people, including families.
BBC could substantiate 250 fighters leaving in the convoy. But in February, the New York Times reported that over 1,000 ISIS militants left Raqqa.
Curiously, the same Col. Dillon who reluctantly acknowledged the operation but downplayed its scope in November 2017, denied in December that any evacuation took place and claimed that some might have slipped through Syrian defenses.
And when asked about the much higher number of militants escaping, he conveniently blamed Syrian forces.In December, Col. Ryan Dillon, the chief spokesman for the American-led military campaign in Iraq and Syria, said in a briefing with Pentagon reporters: “Syrian regime commanders in eastern Syria suggest that ISIS fighters” from the Middle Euphrates River Valley “may have slipped through porous Syrian and Russian defenses to arrive in areas near Damascus.”
What am I repeating these allegations? For two reasons.Asked late last month by The New York Times about indications that as many as 1,000 fighters and family members had fled the Euphrates River area just in recent days, Colonel Dillon’s command replied in a statement: “We know that the Syrian regime has given ISIS the leeway to travel through their area of operations, but we cannot confirm any alleged incidents or operations that are taking place outside our area of operations.”
The first one, as the New York Times underlined, these battle-hardened fighters are not running away defeated and spent. They are regrouping in various pockets to get ready for a true insurgency fight.
As many of the fighters flee unfettered to the south and west through Syrian Army lines, some have gone into hiding near Damascus, the Syrian capital, and in the country’s northwest, awaiting orders sent by insurgent leaders on encrypted communications channels.That means ISIS is far from dead. In fact, their big problem was defending a territory and it never made much sense for a terrorist group to build a country other than my Pipelineistan theory.
Now, they will move around and strike soft targets to terrorize the civilian population.
“The group is transitioning into an underground organization that places more weight on asymmetric tactics, like suicide bombings against soft targets in government-secured areas like Baghdad,” said Otso Iho, a senior analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center at IHS Markit in London.
The second reason for concern is the fact that a lot of these coldblooded killers are returning to their home countries.
To understand what that implies let me remind the story of a returning Jihadist. Three and a half years ago, a Turkish man who gave his middle name as Can told the New York Times the process through which one becomes an ISIS fighter.
After 15 days at a training camp in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto headquarters of the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the 27-year-old Can was assigned to a fighting unit. He said he shot two men and participated in a public execution. It was only after he buried a man alive that he was told he had become a full ISIS fighter.So, in the span of two weeks, he shot two men, killed someone with his hand (possibly a beheading) and buried another one alive.
Think about that for a minute. This is the official regiment to become an ISIS fighter. It is not just him.
We don't even know what he did beyond those two weeks. Or what an ISIS soldier does regularly.
And now he is back in Turkey. Even if you assume that he is a repentant Jihadist (instead of a sleeper cell member) can you imagine him reintegrating into normal life without any issues?
Multiply this case by several thousand and you can see the enormity of the problem.
Of more than 5,000 Europeans who joined those ranks, as many as 1,500 have returned home, including many women and children, and most of the rest are dead or still fighting, according to Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s top counterterrorism official.So far, Turkey leads the list of countries hosting former Jihadists with 900 returnees. And there are hundreds more from Western Europe hiding in the country.
I will make an easy prediction for Turkey. Some of these people will become suicide bombers at critical turns negatively affecting tourism and also the electoral process that is widely expected to take place in the next few months.
Yet, as far as I know no returning militant was placed in custody or checked for criminal activities.
As for Western Europe, I also predict that there will be more "lone wolf" attacks.
Now, some people claimed that all Western European countries need to do is to arrest and prosecute them upon their return. That's easier said than done.
The UK Home Office, for example, disclosed last year that of the 400 British foreign fighters who had returned from Syria and Iraq, only 54 were convicted.Australia only prosecuted 2 returning fighters.
That's the same numbers for Canada, i.e. 2 fighters.
The Netherlands convicted one woman. "It then set her free."
Belgium also convicted 1 fighter. [Link in Dutch]
Well, there aren't any.
The only one that is still working is the Aarhus institute in Denmark which I praised almost three years ago.
In 2016, France announced the opening of 12 deradicalization centers. The sole institution they opened closed in less than a year and there are no further plans.
Apparently, they thought daily lectures about philosophy and religion might be enough to change these people's mind.
It is as if no one wants to change the inevitable outcome.