Cryptocurrency and the crumbling caliphate: The high tech money trail left as jihadi families try to flee refugee camps

·11 min read
A Syrian woman waits to leave the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp holding relatives of alleged Islamic State group fighter (AFP via Getty Images)
A Syrian woman waits to leave the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp holding relatives of alleged Islamic State group fighter (AFP via Getty Images)

From inside the secrecy of her tent in a sprawling camp in northeast Syria, Sara, a European woman affiliated with Isis, furiously messages people across the world begging them to send her cash.

“I just need 15,000 dollars to escape to Turkey, Idlib or wherever,” she writes on an encrypted app in al-Hol, a squalid desert camp holding 65,000 people, including families who once lived in the caliphate.

“I already have $2,000,” she adds with a flick of desperation. “It’s a big amount I know, but if you can spare anything.”

Over the last two months The Independent has pieced together a money trail that stretches from living rooms across Europe, Southeast Asia and beyond, and ends with jihadi families escaping from the squalid camps in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria.

The investigation shows women, including Brits, are increasingly spearheading these fundraising drives run by Isis-affiliated networks by using social media platforms and unconventional funding systems such as cryptocurrencies and money transfer apps to funnel cash to smugglers.

We have spoken to several European Isis-affiliated women behind the schemes, including those inside al-Hol, those inside Roj, which is smaller and more heavily policed, as well as those who have escaped and are now in northwest Syria, Turkey and abroad.

We have also reviewed money transfer receipts as well as hundreds of messages in Telegram channels and Facebook pages created to support the fundraising efforts .

The new methods have made it easier and faster for the women to get money to smugglers in Syria who can bribe security officials to make the escapes possible.

Sara is among former affiliates of the jihadi group using the tools of electronic finance to fund her escape.

Her story was first shared in a general call out across different Syrian and international pro-Isis messaging forums or channels on the popular Telegram app regularly fishing for funds to help smuggle jihadi families out of al-Hol and another high-security camp called Roj.

The price for getting a European woman and her children out of the camps ranges from $12,500 to as much as $25,000. Donors will be well protected, the fundraisers claim. “You don’t send the money straight to Syria,” says one Isis-linked fundraiser, that manages an extensive network across Europe and beyond.

“With Bitcoin and Western Union you can send it to our trusted sisters in other countries, then it comes to Turkey before going to Syria to the person our [office] sends us.”

A Kurdish fighter stands guard as Syrian women, suspected of being related to Isis, gather at the al-Hol camp (AFP/Getty)
A Kurdish fighter stands guard as Syrian women, suspected of being related to Isis, gather at the al-Hol camp (AFP/Getty)

Quick Cash

The method is surprisingly simple.

The women, including British citizens who claim to have escaped the camps themselves, use their own Facebook or Telegram accounts to put out the initial calls. They list Paypal and Western Union accounts, as well as lesser known transfer apps like Tikkie.me, which allows you to send money via WhatsApp and Qiwi, a Russian app.

Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Monero are becoming even more widely used as fundraisers have begun complaining that their Paypal accounts keep being shut down. It’s also easier: cryptocurrency coupons can be sent via secure messaging apps and sold off for cash in online auctions.

The fundraising networks evade suspicion by getting donors to split the payments up into smaller amounts or to label larger transfers as a “holiday payment”.

The money is then effectively laundered: it is paid to a network based in the area where the donor is, including the UK, Europe, sometimes south-east Asia and, even places like Russia, before being transferred straight to Syria or sometimes to Syria via Turkey, according to the fundraisers The Independent spoke to.

Vera Mironova, a visiting fellow at Harvard University and expert on the camps in Syria, explained that the move toward aggressive online fundraising came relatively recently when the women realised that raising cash “is not very hard to do”.

“They don’t need boys sitting in Europe or Syria doing it for them, they realised they can do it directly,” she says. “Now they are trying to fund the escape attempts themselves without a complex male middleman campaign.”

The Rojava Information Centre, which has been monitoring the escape attempts at al-Hol forwarded some messages they intercepted, which corroborated the ones that The Independent found.

RIC researcher Robin Fleming told The Independent it was impossible to know how many had successfully escaped, but that attempts were increasing.

The channels and Facebook groups calling for donations, meanwhile, are a continuous feed of sob stories written in English, German and Russian and largely addressed to potentially sympathetic men. Each call for donations almost hysterically paints the alleged suffering, hunger, abuse these women claim they have been subjected to, with “the Kuffar”, or unbelievers, and “atheist Kurds”.

“Please help her … Even if it’s $10,” writes one well-known and well connected fundraiser based in Turkey, sharing a photo of a woman in al-Hol holding a handwritten message that asks for $7,000.

“[The Kurds] beat her up in front of her kids. THIS FAMILY IS PRIORITY THEY ARE WANTED,” the fundraiser, who claims to have escaped al-Hol, adds.

Russian children from the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp (AFP/Getty)
Russian children from the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp (AFP/Getty)

They also berate men who do not cough up.

“Think of your own wives and sisters and mothers. What would you do if your wife is in that camp?” reads one message about a woman trying to escape from al-Hol.

“Oh men of Ummah!” says one, referring to the broad Muslim community. “What has become of you? Where is your manhood? Where is your honor?” reads another written by a woman in Roj camp, a high security sister camp to al-Hol.

‘Inhumane conditions’

Driving this surge in fundraising is desperation.

As the months have marched on since Isis was defeated and the caliphate collapsed last March, humanitarian conditions within the camps have deteriorated and with it the security situation.

The Kurdish authorities who run the camps told The Independent they do not have the resources to police this many people, and have repeatedly urged countries to help by repatriating their citizens.

According to the RIC, which keeps a tally of the incidences in north-eastern Syria, in al-Hol alone at least three Iraqi nationals were killed last month in firearm attacks.

Humanitarian officials admitted to The Independent several parts of al-Hol are completely inaccessible because it is simply too dangerous.

With the coronavirus pandemic, and closure of borders cutting off key lifelines of aid to northeast Syria, conditions have been described by the UN as “appalling” and “inhumane”.

This, as well as the tightening of security, has driven a surge in escape attempts, according to one woman, again from Europe, who goes by the nom de guerre “Om Ahmed” and successfully smuggled herself out of al-Hol a few months ago.

Like many escapees she is now living with her family in Idlib, a northwestern province that is the last opposition held pocket in Syria.

Others like Tooba Gondal, a former Goldsmith university student accused of being an Isis recruiter, manage to make it onwards to Turkey.

The escape

Om Ahmed, said her escape to Idlib took three weeks and involved thousands of dollars in bribes. She first traveled to Syria from Europe in her mid-twenties and married a man who was affiliated with Isis, settling down in Raqqa. When the caliphate crumbled she ended up in al-Hol where she said she briefly met British Isis members Zahra and Salma Halane, the so-called “Manchester terror twins” who have since been transferred to Roj camp.

Although she escaped the camps she does not want to go back to Europe, as she knows she will face prison and separation from her children. She harbours an intense distrust, even hatred of the west.

A Syrian child, suspected of being related to Isis, at the al-Hol camp before being released to return to her home in al-Hasakah (AFP/Getty)
A Syrian child, suspected of being related to Isis, at the al-Hol camp before being released to return to her home in al-Hasakah (AFP/Getty)

She said many like her decided to escape after the Kurdish officials announced they would be releasing an estimated 20,000 Syrian nationals from al-Hol who were not accused of violent crimes, dramatically reducing the population of the camp and so making it harder to slip past the guards.

In a bid to tighten security, the Kurds also plan to move several thousand of the most radical foreigners to a new section of Roj, where escape attempts are near impossible and mobile phones are not permitted.

“This means everyone wants to get out of al-Hol. Before it’s too late,” Om Ahmed adds.

But the route Om Ahmed took out of al-Hol has since been discovered, making attempts now even harder, she claims.

Her escape was organised, she says, by a group of men she refers to as “brothers” and their “amir” (prince, leader) who had to evade groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Shams, an al-Qaeda breakaway and a rival to Isis. They did the fundraising for her, but she now spearheads her own efforts to raise money via PayPal to feed and clothe her children where they live in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, home to several jihadi groups and pro-Turkish rebel factions.

She claimed her journey began by paying off a camp guard, so she and her children could get out of the foreigner “annex” via Al Hol’s medical centre. Once in the section for Syrian families, which is less heavily policed, they climbed inside a water truck which eventually took them to a boat and beyond.

“I was lucky to get out when I did,” she says.

Many foreigners, like Sara, are still inside al-Hol and are eager to get out before they are transferred to Roj.

Despite mobiles being banned and security far tighter, one woman currently in Roj, we’ll call Khadija, manages a fundraising network for women to escape both camps that relies on cryptocurrency.

“Escaping from all the camps has been very difficult these last few months,” she admits, adding they have had trouble bribing guards.

“But we are still collecting money.”

In Roj they have better access to water and electricity in their tents but wearing Islamic face-coverings are banned and security is incredibly tight, she continues.

“Roj is like a prison … al-Hol is basically a big village, it’s easier to escape,” she adds.

‘Before it’s too late’

Fearing further escape attempts the Kurdish-led militias running the camps continue to beg the west to repatriate its citizens but few European countries have responded.

The exact numbers of repatriations are not known. The Independent understands only four Brits have been sent home, all of them children, despite the fact that rights groups estimate there are at least 60 British minors in the north-east Syrian camps.

In fact in total only a handful of westerners have been retrieved by their governments, most of them unaccompanied or separated children.

The al-Hol camp holds 65,000 people, including families (AFP/Getty)
The al-Hol camp holds 65,000 people, including families (AFP/Getty)

“International support is almost non-existent,” said Mervan Qamishlo, a commander in the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces, adding that the situation was unsustainable.

He said no one was responding to appeals to help build an international court in north-east Syria to at least try those with ties to Isis.

Hannah Neuman, a German Member of the European Parliament, who this month became the first MEP to visit al-Hol, also sounded the alarm about the escape attempts and said that European countries should consider backing these internationally-monitored trials of their citizens in northeast Syria that are scheduled to start next year.

She said she feared the longer they remained in the camp, the further radicalising they will become until the day they escape.

“Do we want to have people detained for their affiliation with Isis to undergo fair trials, and de-radicalisation programmes so they can be tracked and eventually reintegrated into society?” she said. “Or do we leave them in detention until they will eventually be released or might even escape? Then we have no idea what they will be doing, while they remain at least as dangerous as now, maybe even more radicalised.”

She urged the EU and the UK to come together to build a joint approach before it is too late.

The Isis-affiliated women The Independent interviewed said their feelings against their home countries have only hardened in the last few years. They showed skewed views about what Muslims are subjected to in the west, painting countries like France as violently cracking down on and imprisoning conservative observers of the faith. They expressed fears that their children might be “tainted” or brainwashed by western or “kuffar influences”.

Back on the Telegram channels, meanwhile, the fundraisers are busier than ever, sending out a stream of photos of al-Hol in the rain, memes of freed prisoners and lines of bad poetry.

After sending out a photo of a black-gloved woman holding a sign reading “freedom”, one reader posts: “No amount is too less, and no amount is too high, even just $1.”

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