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SDF releases former Daesh fighters in exchange for money, investigation reveals

A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of Daesh in Mosul, Iraq on 1 March 2017 [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images]
A mural bearing the logo of Daesh on 1 March 2017 [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images]

Kurdish-led militias in north-east Syria have reportedly released former fighters of the terror group Daesh for large sums of money, in a "reconciliation" process revealed by the Guardian newspaper.

Over two years, after the military and territorial defeat of Daesh at the Syrian town of Baghuz in March 2019, the surrendered and captured fighters were imprisoned, while their wives and children were placed in detention camps such as the Al-Hol and Roj camps in the north-east.

Based on the accounts of two of the former fighters and an anonymous source in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), however, the paper reported that the SDF is now allowing prisoners to buy the release of them and their families.

According to the two former fighters the paper talked to—Abu Jafar and Abu Muhamad, who were both captured following the group's defeat –they signed declarations promising that they would not re-join any armed group and that they would leave the territories controlled by the SDF with their families.

They then travelled to the north-western Idlib province, controlled by the opposition militia, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), from which they carried on into neighbouring Turkey.

One of the men, Abu Jafar, said that for around two years after his capture "we were waiting for a court or something to clarify our destinies. After a point, we knew we had to find our own way to get out of that place." He paid his way out with an $8,000 fine, and with a further $22,000 to various SDF officials, using money wealthy family members sold property to attain.

Despite the fact that he was a security officer in the Daesh stronghold of Raqqa serving in one of its branches infamous for punishing and executing locals, he claimed that he himself never harmed anyone. He also claimed that he could not easily leave the group, as "leaving isn't something you can control. The moment you leave, they consider you as kafir [unbeliever] and you have to die."

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The other former fighter, Abu Muhammad, was arrested in Baghuz after surviving on the front lines for five years, in which he led a Daesh unit in the battle to take the border town of Kobane in 2014.

He told the paper that "the releasing process wasn't easy, but after contacting many SDF leaders my family was able to get me out of jail after paying $14,000 in bribes in addition to the official $8,000 to the SDF's public finance department."

He detailed the torture that the SDF conducted within its prison system, which the militia has long denied, saying that the "SDF guards used to hang us to the roof of investigations rooms to torture us, and leave us hungry and thirsty."

Abu Muhammad admitted that "they did the same thing that we did to the people we arrested when we were in charge as Daesh leaders. I really regret that now, but I can't describe myself as a victim after everything I did."

That element of regret is reportedly common amongst former fighters who make it out of the prisons, with many having allegedly fought, not for ideology but for money, influence, or due to coercion. As for Abu Jafar and Abu Muhammad, one of them said that he never believed in Daesh's extremist ideology, while the other said that, although he joined for religious purposes, he did not know that the group would become so violent.

When confronted with the reports by the Guardian and a copy of the declarations for release– provided by a source in the Kurdish-led militia—the SDF denied that it released any former fighters for money.

Farhad Shami, one of its spokespersons, said that the SDF has previously released prisoners through a process of reconciliation and agreements with the tribes they belonged to, in exchange for a promise not to re-join the group. He added, however, that "their hands were not stained by blood of innocent civilians and [they] didn't do any crimes. They were either employees in Daesh-run offices or were forced to join."

The Guardian asserts that, despite the SDF's denial, the two former fighters confirmed the declaration shown to them was the same one that they signed.

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