ISIS fighters hunkered down in a riverside camp surrounded by battered vehicles and makeshift tents in eastern Syria today as US-backed forces pushed to expel the militants from the last scrap of their dying ‘caliphate’.
Thousands of men and women have poured out of the pocket of territory in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border in recent days, their wounded, and dust-covered children, in tow.
The extremist group created a proto-state across large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, ruling millions of people, but has since lost all of it except a tiny patch in Baghouz by the Euphrates River.
The last IS fighters and their families were cornered on Friday among a dense gathering of vehicles and tents on the water’s edge, caught between advancing US-backed forces and Syrian regime fighters across the river.
Men and women draped in black walked between a sea of small pickup trucks and caravans scattered across the uneven riverbank as the fighters were pushed out of their final stronghold, footage obtained by AFP showed.
But General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, warned today that many of those being evacuated from the area are ‘unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised’.
He told Congress the fight against ISIS was ‘far from over’, and stressed the need to ‘maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organisation’.
A still from a video released by the Free Burma Rangers showing people moving between tents in a makeshift camp in the last ISIS-controlled piece of territory in Syria’s Baghouz
The militants and their families were forced to set up camp amongst battered pickup trucks and tents on the last scrap of land of ISIS-controlled territory
ISIS forces fleeing the village of Baghouz in the eastern Deir Ezzor province have been cornered into a small piece of land between US-backed forces and a riverbank
Women hugging near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria, as US-backed forces sweep the dying ‘caliphate’ out of its Syrian-controlled territory
Thousands of men, women and children have streamed out of the ISIS group’s embattled holdout of Baghouz in eastern Syria in recent days
Children sitting next to their injured mother with one resting his head on her as she lies on the ground surrounded by discarded possessions near the village of Baghouz
General Joseph Votel, who oversees US operations in the Middle East, said ISIS fighters had already dispersed across Iraq and Syria and remained radicalised.
He told the House Armed Services congressional committee: ‘Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment but the fight against Isis and violent extremism is far from over.
‘What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organisation but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.
He added: ‘We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organisation that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and toxic ideology.
‘The ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised.’
Defeated but unrepentant, some jihadists were seen limping out of their besieged final bastion in eastern Syria still praising ISIS and promising bloody vengeance against its enemies, reporters on the ground said.
The skeletal and dishevelled figures shuffling out of the smouldering ashes of the ‘caliphate’ may look like a procession of zombies, but their devotion seems intact.
At an outpost for US-backed forces outside the besieged village of Baghouz, ten women stood in front of journalists, pointing their index fingers to the sky in a gesture used by ISIS supporters to proclaim the oneness of God.
They shouted in unison: ‘The Islamic State is here to stay!’ Most refuse to disclose their names or nationalities.’
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walking in front of two trucks carrying refugees to a camp in the north of the country, near the village of Baghouz
A child sitting in a baby carriage surrounded by scattered blankets and other possessions near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have struggled to deal with thousands of people who have fled Baghouz
Men sitting together in a queue waiting for aid, some injured and others living in makeshift camps near the village of Baghouz
Aid groups have said that children who have fled Baghouz are ‘victims of the conflict’ who must be protected
As the so-called caliphate crumbles, many Western countries have struggled to decide what to do with its citizens returning from the fighting.
In Britain, the authorities have been dragged into legal wrangling and soul-searching over the fate of jihadi bride, Shamima Begum, and her newborn son.
Despite begging to be allowed to return to Britain after fleeing to Syria from Bethnal Green, east London, aged 15 in 2015, she was stripped of her citizenship last month by Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
Donald Trump waded into the debate when he urged European countries to take back their suspected fighters and try them in their own countries, threatening via Twitter that US-backed forces in Syria would release the militants into Europe.
The Kurds also want foreign nations to repatriate their citizens and jail them in their lands, but are willing to make compromises if the international community will provide the funding and security for new prisons.
Last month Iraq announced a group of 13 French citizens accused of fighting for ISIS are to be tried in the country rather than face charges in their home country.
And the Kurdish government in Syria said if Britain and other European countries will not take back their jihadi citizens, then international tribunals, similar to the Nuremberg trials used to convict Nazi’s after the Second World War, could be set up to deal with the problem.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leaders said on Thursday they were hoping to finish the evacuation of civilians from the final ISIS stronghold of Baghouz to allow a final assault on the hundreds of hardened fighters thought to have dug in for a final stand.
The images of the cornered jihadists and their families, filmed by the Free Burma Rangers aid group this week, showed a motorbike darting between a dark earth berm topped with clumps of reeds and a line of makeshift shelters.
Members of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) help a woman near Baghouz with her food and belongings as one of the soldier’s Kalashnikov rifles rests against her bags
A Syrian fighter of the Turkish-backed Hamza Division mans a turret mounted in the back of a pickup truck flying a Turkish flag at a position in the village of Ulashli near the frontline in the northeast of Aleppo
A member of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) helps a woman near the village of Baghouz as thousands of men, women and children flee the fighting
A Syrian fighter of the Turkish-backed Hamza Division aims a Kalashnikov assault rifle from a position in the village of Ulashli near the frontline in the northeast of Aleppo
A boy looks out of a truck tarp near the village of Baghouz as he is transported in vehicles taking displaced families to refugee camps in Kurdish-controlled norther Syria
Just a few metres from the river, a few figures sat behind a wall of breeze-blocks erected among a thick bed of reeds, shielding them from the other side of the waterway.
Amid the haphazard dwellings, a black cow grazed on a patch of dry grass.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS, are waiting for all civilians to be evacuated before moving in to retake the last scrap of IS-held territory.
More than 7,000 people, mostly women and children, have left the enclave this week, into territory held by the Kurdish-led SDF.
On Thursday, AFP saw dozens of women and children at a screening point for new arrivals outside Baghouz.
A woman dressed from head to toe in black sat slumped on a wheelchair, with other women and children wrapped in thick jackets scattered on blankets at her feet.
All around, women and children sat together in groups under a cloud of churned-up orange dust.
Near a field of yellow flowers, two SDF fighters carried a man with a long beard on a wooden stretcher.
He was the latest wounded man to emerge from the dregs of the ‘caliphate’, after a stream of men limping out on crutches a day earlier.
Around a tenth of the nearly 58,000 people who have fled the last ISIS bastion since December were jihadists, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.
It is unclear how many people remain inside, but the SDF has been surprised by the large numbers streaming out in recent days.
Civilians evacuated from the ISIS’s embattled holdout of Baghouz wait for bread and water at a screening area held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Deir Ezzor
A woman walking with crutches stands next to a child as people evacuated from the area of Baghouz
Baghouz is currently the only active front in Syria’s eight-year civil war, the latest battle in a complex, devastating conflict that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions from their homes.
Indistinguishable under their identical black robes, a group of women arriving at the screening point manned by the Syrian Democratic Forces swarmed around reporters like hornets.
Some threw rocks at the cameras of those trying to film them, while one screamed at a photographer and called him a pig.
Another grabbed the uncovered hair of a female reporter, saying: ‘Have you not read the Koran, are you not ashamed?’
A third woman snarled at the way the reporter is dressed: ‘God curses women who resemble men’.
The SDF are closing in on diehard jihadists and their relatives holed up in a makeshift encampment inside the village of Baghouz.
More than 7,000 people have fled the bombed-out bastion over the past three days, escaping shelling by the SDF and air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS.
But for Umm Mohammed, a 47-year-old woman from Iraq’s Anbar province, the men who have fled are ‘the cowards and the meek’.
As for the women, ‘we left because we are a heavy burden on the men’, she says.
‘We are waiting for the [next] conquest, God willing.’
An injured woman and her four children evacuated from ISIS’s holdout of Baghouz sit at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
A queue of civilians being evacuated from the brutal fighting in the Baghouz area, where thousands of militants and their families have fled
More than 7000 people, mostly women and children, have fled the shrinking pocket over the past days, as US-backed forces press ahead with an offensive to crush holdout jihadist
Children believed to be from the Yazidi community, who were captured by ISIS fighters, pictured after being evacuated from ISIS’s last stronghold
Nearby, a little boy hums a jihadist anthem as he walks beside his mother, his jacket covered with dust.
The so-called ‘cubs of the caliphate’ – boys raised under IS rule and trained to fight from a young age – are the reason the group will survive, another Iraqi woman says.
‘The caliphate will not end, because it has been ingrained in the hearts and brains of the newborns and the little ones,’ says the 60-year-old, refusing to give her name.
Many women told AFP that they want to raise their children on the ideology of the caliphate, even as its territorial presence fizzles out.
Abdul Monhem Najiyya is more ambivalent about the group.
‘There was an implementation of God’s law, but there was injustice,’ he says, claiming he worked as an accountant for IS.
‘The leaders stole money… and fled,’ he says. ‘We stayed until the bullets flew over our heads.’
The 30-year-old with white hair prays for the ‘caliphate’ and wishes IS ‘many conquests’ to come.
But he says many senior IS figures have fled to the northwestern province of Idlib or crossed into Turkey and Iraq.
Najiyya’s harshest words are for the group’s elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whom he says he never saw once.
‘He left us in the hands of people who let us down and left,’ he says. ‘He bears responsibility, because, in our view, he is our guide’.
Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) carrying a man suspected of being an ISIS fighter near a screening area
A woman kisses the hand of a soldier at a reception area for people evacuated from the last shred of territory held by ISIS militants, outside Baghouz
Women and children evacuated from Baghouz which is currently the only active front in Syria’s eight-year civil war, that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions from their homes
More than 7,000 people, mostly women and children, have fled the enclave of Baghouz this week, into territory held by the Kurdish-led SDF
When asked why it took him so long to quit the redoubt, Najiyya said he was afraid of being detained by the SDF because his cousins are IS fighters.
He also says that rumours the jihadists would be granted safe passage to Idlib, largely controlled by a rival jihadist group, encouraged some to stay.
Nearby, a bearded man with a leg wound cursed the coalition, whose warplanes have pummelled the last jihadist redoubt.
‘I only surrendered because of my injury,’ he says. ‘I have been with IS since the beginning.’
One woman, who says she is from Damascus, said: ‘We have left, but there will be new conquests in the future’.
Speaking from behind a veil that covers her face, she says: ‘We will seek vengeance, there will be blood up your knees.’
At the height of its rule, ISIS imposed its brutal interpretation of Islam across an area the size of the United Kingdom.
After it lost major cities in both countries in 2017, the fall of Baghouz would be a symbolic end to its territorial control.
Beyond Baghouz, ISIS fighters are still present in Syria’s vast Badia desert and have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory, including one that killed four Americans in the city of Manbij in January.
US President Trump stunned allies in December when he announced all 2,000 US troops would withdraw from Syria as IS had been defeated.
The White House later said that around 200 American ‘peace-keeping’ soldiers would remain in northern Syria.
The SDF is holding detained jihadists in jail, while civilians are being trucked to Kurdish-held displacement camps hours north.
Syria’s Kurds have detained hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for IS, as well as family members, but their home nations have been reluctant to take them back.
The SDF will resume their assault on ISIS’s last enclave in eastern Syria if no more civilians or fighters emerge by Saturday afternoon, a spokesman for the group said today.
Mustafa Bali said nobody had come out of Baghouz since Thursday. The SDF announced it was launching a final battle for the enclave last month but has slowed its attack to allow civilians to leave. Thousands of civilians and fighters had emerged earlier this week.