An international criminal gang based in Syria which kidnapped a British aid worker in November and demanded a $4 million ransom in Bitcoin has been smashed. Birmingham-born Mohammed Shakiel Shabir was taken at gunpoint two months ago from outside his apartment block in war-torn Idlib.
Kidnapping in this area of Syria has become an everyday risk for civilians and aid workers but Shabir never imagined that it would happen to him. Working in the country since the revolution began in 2011, he is a well-known and charismatic figure who has always managed to navigate his way skilfully through the minefield of warring militias' on-the-ground politics.
He became a committed humanitarian aid worker after taking part in the first Viva Palestina Convoy which travelled from Britain overland across North Africa to the besieged Gaza Strip in 2009. The enclave was reeling from Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" military offensive against Palestinian civilians.
Never far from danger, the British aid worker continued to devote his time to the "people of Sham" and became admired by many charities operating in Syria. It was, therefore, perhaps inevitable that he would be targeted by the ruthless gang of kidnappers, made up mainly of Chechens and a few Syrian gangsters. They have conducted a reign of terror from Idlib and the surrounding district up to the border with Turkey, targeting mainly wealthy Syrian families. In the past year, they are thought to have made millions from kidnapping, using sophisticated banking networks across Europe for ransom payments which occasionally involved Bitcoin. It is now believed that the whole operation was run by just one group involving no more than 30 people.
Giving the first interview since his release to MEMO, Shabir looked fragile after his ordeal. "Today was the deadline for the payment and I thought that this day would be my last one," he reflected philosophically.
He described his horrific experience like a plot with so many twists and turns that it could have come from a Hollywood movie. Throughout his detention he was tortured, electrocuted, beaten, drugged and at times denied food and water. During one of the many beatings that he received, his right foot was broken and left untreated and unsupported.
The only act of kindness was when he was given a small copy of the Qur'an. "This is what got me through everything," he said, holding up the precious book. "It was a wake-up call for me and an opportunity to assess my life and my work."
So will he be quitting the aid sector? Shabir gave one of his trademark smiles and said, "No way! I am more determined than ever to continue working in Syria for the people. Nothing is going to stop me."
However, while the experience has brought him closer to his faith, he did admit that the whole nightmare had shaken his trust when it emerged that several of the kidnappers turned out to be a group of men he had actually tried to help. There was little or no normal communication with his captors and he was kept hooded or blindfolded in their presence. As such, he had no clue as to the identity of those around him. It was only when his ordeal ended in dramatic fashion that he discovered their identities.
"I was shocked. Among them were Chechens I'd helped and supported previously. I'd given them food, loans, and even offered them a bed for the night. To be repaid in this way has shaken me. It's a betrayal of trust."
When he was initially taken he was hooded and kept in a house in the city before being moved to another location and finally to a house in a village called Jisr Shuhr, which is in the mountains. During the first few weeks, his captors kept changing the narrative in order to hide their true identities. Initially he thought that they were remnants of Daesh, which has been driven out of the region. Then he felt that they might belong to another militant group.
At one point during his captivity, Shabir was accused of being a spy as well as stealing aid. "The questions kept changing direction and I think it was all designed to keep me confused," he explained. "In the end I realised that this was a criminal gang motivated purely by money. They seemed to think that IHH would pay the ransom." His work has involved partnership initiatives with the well-known Turkish charity.
The kidnappers made videos of him asking for help. As the payment deadline drew close, the aid worker admitted, he knew that no one would be able to pay anywhere near the $4 million ransom demanded.
While news of Shabir's kidnapping was kept from the outside world, several charities and Syrian militant groups, including Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) tried unsuccessfully to find him. The major breakthrough happened when the same gang pounced on a 15-year-old boy with wealthy parents. Amazingly, the young lad resisted his captors; grabbing a hand grenade from one, he pulled the pin and threw it at them. He then fled and raised the alarm with neighbours.
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Members of HTS who happened to be nearby were able to seize two of the injured kidnappers. A phone without a battery was found in their possession, which aroused the curiosity of one of the militants. It was taken off them and deleted data was recovered, revealing one of the video messages from Shabir.
After further questioning, one of the Chechen kidnappers took HTS to the remote house on the mountain where Shabir was being held. Fighters from the militant group surrounded the building before launching the rescue bid. Within a tense few minutes, the Birmingham aid worker was a free man.
"I was dazed and thought I was dreaming when someone shouted my name. I had previously had dreams of being rescued and I thought this was another." The footage of the rescue shows clearly that he was dazed. "It took a few moments to realise this was for real."
He had been shackled in chains for virtually his entire captivity. "When I woke up this morning," he told me when we met a day after his rescue, "I went to move the shackles around my legs and realised they were no longer there. I was a free man."
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which is largely made up of Syrian men and not foreign fighters, now insists that it will put the kidnappers on trial once all of the suspects are rounded up. They can expect the death penalty.
For Mohammed Shakiel Shabir, meanwhile, life must try to return to normal, whatever "normal" is for Syria. At the moment, it is still too soon to know exactly what it will mean for him, a British kidnap victim about whom most of us know nothing, but he insists that he will be staying put in order to help as many people as possible.
Note: This article was updated at 10.50am on January 13, 2019. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mr Shabir was on the Mavi Marmara aid convoy. Although Mr Shabir was supposed to be on the Mavi Marmara aid convoy to Gaza in 2010, he was unable to go due to the death of a close member of his family. The article has been amended to reflect this.
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