Video report by ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo
Money is apparently being sent from the UK to Syria to smuggle women and children out of detention camps, an ITV News investigation has revealed.
British women have been successfully smuggled out, including at least one who has made it to the UK and is known to the authorities. Others are thought to be living in Turkey or Syria.
It is thought that only a few dozen remain in the camps, including several who have been stripped of their British citizenship.
Twin sisters from Manchester, who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State group, are among the British women who have attempted to break out of the Al Hol camp in north east Syria, where they are held by Kurdish forces.
Zahra and Salma Halane had been trying to escape to return to Europe when they were caught in the summer of 2020.
Speaking from a Kurdish-run detention centre, they told ITV News they had tried to leave alongside a group of other women and children, using a smuggler whose details had been circulated within the camp.
“A number was given, and it was clear that it was helping injured people (to get) out,” Zahra Halane said.
“We went to a certain point, there was a ladder, and I went there, and I climbed up. They captured four and the rest, they ran away.”
The sisters were spotted then arrested by Kurdish soldiers and were sent to a high-security centre where they are held in conditions akin to those which the male fighters are held under.
But unlike the Halane twins, others have been successfully smuggled out without being caught.
The fundraising efforts often begin on the encrypted messaging app, Telegram, where ITV News observed conversations in public groups about smuggling methods.
Women claiming to be in the giant Al Hol and Al Roj camps posted pictures of the conditions in which they are being held, appealing for benefactors to come forward.
Some women, claiming to be in the "tent cities," discussed their continued support for the terror group, with many debating how they might get out.
ITV News approached one woman who claimed to be in one of those camps who had asked for financial help to escape. In a series of messages posted over Telegram, the woman, who identified herself as Umm Abdullah, said: "You can help me with money".
"We are trying for our freedom… it cost a lot… thousands of thousands dollar…"
Umm Abdullah went on to describe how money could be transferred to her, suggesting the preferred option would be to use the cryptocurrency Bitcoin: "Why don’t you try through bitcoin…it will be more secure". (sic)
She said there might be someone in the UK who could help explain the process: "There is a brother who can tell you how it works..cox he send through bitcoin."
And she offered to put us in touch: "I’m gona text to him…so that you both can talk…the brother told [me] to giv [him] ur number."
Nine minutes later ITV News was contacted by a UK mobile phone number: "Some sister gave me ur number…U wanted to make donation". (sic)
The conversation continued over Telegram, known for its use by those wishing to take advantage of its encrypted platform to keep their communications private. But the individual ITV News was now speaking to had included a profile name: Moynul.
Moynul claimed to be involved in a complex funding operation: "I have sent thousands over the last 6 months.
"They have someone in Turkey who converts bitcoin straight into paper currency, then they send a person to Syria…Every time I send, never have issues".
He warned that escapes are expensive: "It will cost a lot of money to release prisoners."
But made a moral argument for donating.
"You need to ask yourself, if it was your daughter, sister or mother would you hesitate to send?"
ITV News Global Security Editor questions Moynul as to why he allegedly sent money to Syria
Moynul also appeared to be aware of the risks of transferring funds, which is against the law: "I sent up to 2000 in a single month… Flags are raised when u deposit a lot".
But despite his apparent caution, the mobile phone number being used to send these messages also appears elsewhere online.
When ITV News’ cameras tracked him down he denied having sent money to Syria, before running.
In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said: "Information has been passed to the MPS which relates to the matters reported by ITV News on 19 March, and officers from the Counter Terrorism Command will review this information."
ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo on how Britons are allegedly turning to smugglers to get back home
They spent months considering ways to escape the Syrian detention camp where they had been held since leaving Islamic State territory. They said life there had become “unbearable” and complained the water in the "tent city" had “turned yellow”.
Salma Halane and her twin sister Zahra settled on the most obvious route out.
Six years earlier, aged sixteen, they fled their family home in Chorlton, south Manchester, where both were studying for their GCSEs and were considered to have bright prospects.
Now 22-years-old, they were married to fighters they met while living under the rule of Islamic State group; Zahra was now the mother to a young son.
There are many women in the same position, considering the same attempted escape plan.
ITV News has learned of British women who have successfully broken out using illegal smuggling operations - including at least one who has made it to the UK and is known to the authorities. Others are believed to be living in Turkey or Syria.
It is thought that only a few dozen remain in the camps, including several who have been stripped of their British citizenship. Our investigation reveals that women continue to turn to smugglers paid for by illegal funds sent from within Syria and abroad.
On the rumour mill at Al Hol camp in north east Syria, the Halanes’ home for sixteen months, the sisters had heard whispers about the latest mysterious figure claiming to be able to arrange late-night break outs.
After all, among the thousands of women in the detention camp who travelled from abroad to join Islamic State group and want to return home, there are endless conversations about how to get smuggled out.
The names and contact details for potential facilitators are shared during chats between the tents and over messaging apps on contraband mobile phones.
Alongside a small group of other women and children, the Halane sisters and Zahra’s young boy were instructed by a smuggler to go to a meeting point in the camp one evening – their apparent route to ‘freedom’, then who knows where. Who paid for the operation is not clear.
"A number was given, and it was clear that it was helping injured people (to get) out," Zahra Halane said.
"We went to a certain point, there was a ladder, and I went there, and I climbed up. They captured four and the rest, they ran away."
But the sisters were spotted, then arrested by Kurdish soldiers and sent to a high-security detention centre – akin to the conditions under which the male fighters are held. From there they granted ITV News an interview last August.
"We (had) tried our best to go to hospital, we tried our best to do something for our health. So, it was like survival of the fittest. We wanted to go to a better care."
Many of the women housed in the Kurdish camps are aware of their scarcity of options and have given up on the hope of seeing a diplomat from their home country turn up one day to bring them back. Many cannot return to their home countries – not without facing consequences.
Issues of citizenship for former IS members or those linked to IS being played out abroad are widely discussed in the camps. For example, when ITV News last visited, in 2019, many of its residents were familiar with the ins and outs of the case of Shamima Begum from London, and the public debate in the UK surrounding the stripping of her British citizenship.
Not all women are cut off from the world – some have phones and access to the news. Given the uncertainty around many of their futures, the illegal smuggling trade appears to be booming.