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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

ISIS WhatsApp messages show desperation to escape coalition air strikes

The messages show ISIS members communicating with family in Germany, and discussing smuggling routes to Europe

WhatsApp messages show ISIS members planning their escape out of ISIS held territory
WhatsApp messages show ISIS members planning their escape out of ISIS held territory

A batch of WhatsApp messages and voice recordings passed to The National shed light on the efforts of those still living in what remains of the ISIS caliphate to flee.

As the group’s once fearfully vast territory has waned to little more than a collection of backwater towns in Syria’s eastern desert, many have tried to find a way out, some to other rebel held parts of Syria, others to Europe. Despite the seemingly indefatigable propaganda output, many ISIS fighters it seems, were unwilling to fight and die over the final scraps of the caliphate, instead choosing to flee.

The messages, passed exclusively to The National, were obtained by coalition forces in a raid on a house in eastern Syria last month, they show a side of the group beyond the propaganda that implies business as usual in the caliphate.

In messages sent just last month, two men, speaking in a local Syrian dialect, discuss an attempt to escape from what remains of Isis held-territory in eastern Syria, smuggling themselves into Kurdish city of Hasakah.

The National
The National

“If you want to leave someone is going this Thursday, you can go with him. Others might leave too.”

His friend responds. “So far it is only talk. I am thinking about it, but going there is difficult”

Roy Cooper / The National
The National

The male in SDF held Hasakah warns the other still in ISIS controlled territory that Kurdish authorities are scanning the finger prints of all those crossing into Kurdish areas. He warns, “You can come to Hasakah, but they have to finger print you. Before you go to any district try to find someone at the criminal section so they won’t finger print you”.

“I've been trying for the past two hours, I can’t leave, if the patrol catches me they will throw me out, because I don’t have resident agreements or any approval to live in Hasakah”, he adds.

The security source added “They are not dedicated to the cause; rather, they want to escape to live another day. They are right to be vigilant about biometric testing devices - they’ve proven very effective in capturing ISIS members, especially foreign fighters.”

Roy Cooper / The National
The National

He adds “I feel imprisoned, around here it is different with the Kurds, they can stop me and question me anywhere.”

He also complains about being denied freedom in Kurdish areas. “No one bothers me but here with the Kurds, things are different, any patrol can stop me and insult me, you don't know and at times they don’t even listen to you.”

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In one conversation from March, a Syrian woman in Al Mayadin, a former ISIS stronghold in the country's east, speaks with her aunt who has made it to Germany. “Here we have no Eid, the Germans have opened a children’s playground for Syrian refugees, but I didn’t go”.

Roy Cooper / The National
The National

The woman, whose identity is unknown, seems desperate to flee the ISIS stronghold as it comes under aerial bombardment. “Today we were terrified, we put our fate in God's hands, today many people died, some say 40, some say 60 killed, God punish them. It started at 10:30 until 12:00, a strike every 5 minutes. We did not know where to turn to, but thank God, we had nothing. From Al Tayiba Mosque to my cousins’ they all were struck with cluster bombs, the new market, the car parks - with rockets.”

But the aunt in Germany warns her about trying to escape the airstrikes and artillery for Europe. “Don’t dream about leaving and going anywhere. It has been really hard getting anywhere”, she warns.

“The trafficker is taking all these people to Greece, and they have been stuck there for a long time, they left Syria to come to Germany and they are still in Greece, they are now charging $10,000 for each person in order to fly them to Germany”, she adds.

Kyle Orton, a Syria analyst, said “The clear evidence that many Western foreign fighters with ISIS tried to flee, rather than go down with the caliphate, suggests a distance between their stated beliefs and their actual beliefs, and this is plausible since the Western jihadists tended to be firewalled away from the core of ISIS.

“At the same time, there was a general instruction from IS to preserve what was left to fight another day and hundreds of operatives relocated to Turkey and other safe spaces. So even if it was a failure of nerve at the end, it can be rationalised within ISIS's framework.”