‘Infidels’ at the gate, but IS will fight on, say women of ‘caliphate’
As the jihadists’ experiment in empire wheezes its last in Syria, the last people to have lived in it remain defiant
The woman’s face was hidden behind a black veil but her voice was full of defiance and pride for the caliphate that she had left just hours before.
“You’re the first infidel I’ve seen in four years,” Umm Hamza said as we approached. She gestured back towards Baghuz, the village in eastern Syria that is now the last fragment of territory claimed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS). “The brothers are lions. They will fight on,” she said. “The Islamic State remains. We are weak now but we will come back again.”
The 21-year-old was one of thousands of bedraggled women who emerged from Baghuz in recent days. They waited in a huddled mass in a clearing to surrender to the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Mothers clutched dirty blankets and tugged suitcases through the mud while trying not to lose track of their exhausted children. A woman lifted her black abaya to defecate in a field. There was shouting as families shoved past each other to get to the trucks that would take them north to the refugee camps.
These are among the final citizens of IS, the last people to have lived in the jihadists’ failed experiment in empire. The SDF now estimates that about 5,000 civilians and 1,500 fighters remain in Baghuz, more than originally thought but still a fraction of the eight million people who once lived under the jihadists’ black banner. Even in their hour of humiliation and defeat, many of the women still burned with the fanaticism that powered IS for the past five years. They offered no remorse for the so-called caliphate’s crimes and vowed that it would one day return.
That was the promise of Umm Mohammed, a 37-year-old from the nearby town of al-Bukamal. Like most IS women she identified herself by her Arabic nickname, meaning Mother of Mohammed. Whatever her oldest son’s real name was he is dead now. He was killed defending al-Bukamal, she said, while a second son was cut down in the town of Sousa. Her five remaining children were huddled around her feet, their eyes wide with fear and faces caked with dirt.
Was it worth losing two sons in battle and subjecting her other children to horrors of war?
“We stayed in the Islamic State because we want heaven. And we buy heaven with our souls and our children’s souls,” she said. “God didn’t create us for this life, he created us for the next life.”
In between dense paragraphs of religious dogma and venomous condemnations of Shia Muslims, Umm Mohammed offered glimpses of the situation inside Baghuz. She and her family had been living in a tent made of rags for two weeks. “Our tents were like palaces because they were in the Islamic State,” she sneered.
She said there were shortages of food and poorer families were unable to pay the high prices. IS fighters had distributed some food but it was not enough. Without phones or internet access they had little sense of the scale of IS’s collapse. They knew only that Western warplanes were overhead all night and all day.
As she spoke, a female Kurdish fighter searched the folds of an IS woman’s abaya. The jihadist’s wife stood patiently as the young woman in the colourful scarf checked her. As far as the Kurds knew, any one of these women could be a suicide bomber. IS has no qualms with using women or children in attacks and none of these people had been searched for explosive vests before they reached the SDF’s lines.
The frantic hours it took to load the IS families onto the trucks passed without incident under the watchful eye of Kurdish fighters. A column of American special forces drove past and bearded commandos peered through the windows at people from Baghuz. There were moments when the women’s certainty seemed to crack. One mother said the IS fighters had promised them the UN would be waiting to receive them once they came out of Baghuz. Instead they found only their Kurdish conquerors and waiting journalists. But she insisted IS had not misled her. “There is no betrayal in the Islamic State.”
The woman said IS had ordered them to go as part of a deal between the jihadists and the SDF. Some suggested that the SDF agreed to let them out in return for IS releasing Kurdish prisoners. The SDF strongly denied there was a deal but said they welcomed civilians coming out of Baghuz. “We are fighting a terror group. Either they surrender or they have to fight and die,” said Adnan Afrin, an SDF commander.
The women said that was the intention of the remaining IS fighters, who were heavily armed and prepared to launch suicide bombers to defend Baghuz. “The brothers have everything and they are ready. Even the women are carrying guns and are ready to be suicide bombers,” said one.
SDF commanders have been shocked at how many women and children have emerged from the tiny pocket of IS-territory. They had originally expected there were only about 1,500 civilians inside but so far more than 5,000 have come out. The large numbers of civilians have made it difficult for the SDF to call in airstrikes and will probably confound the predictions of a quick victory made by US President Donald Trump and others. Afrin said it was impossible to predict how much longer the operation would take.
While most of the women continued to proclaim their loyalty to IS, a few began a familiar routine of claiming that they had nothing to do with the jihadists. Umm Mohammed had some advice for them: “Everyone here is from the Islamic State. Every one of us. Anyone who says they are not is a liar.”
– © The Daily Telegraph