A shadowy Islamic State fundraising cell seeking to free Western jihadi brides from Kurdish refugee camps in Syria has been exposed by The Mail on Sunday.
Undercover reporters spent weeks communicating with a ‘fixer’ in Turkey before catching a ‘courier’ on camera in London last Friday picking up what he thought was a £4,500 donation to the terror group’s cause.
In fact, the brown envelope left at the ‘dead drop’ contained only a crossword puzzle book.
As the Metropolitan Police began an investigation, this newspaper can reveal the sophisticated network apparently created to fund the escape of jihadi brides from camps in Syria. The camps include Al-Hol where Shamima Begum, who fled Britain aged 15 to join ISIS five years ago, was held.
The Government last week launched a bid at the Supreme Court to overturn a decision to allow Begum, now 21, to leave Syria and return to the UK to challenge a decision by the Home Office to strip her of her British citizenship.
VEILED PLEA: A letter from a detainee at a camp in Syria that has been posted on Facebook by a group raising funds for her escape
SETTING THE TRAP: One of our undercover team kneels to place the envelope under gas cylinders at a service station in Acton, West London
Its lawyers argued that doing so ‘would create significant national security risks’. Meanwhile, there is mounting concern about the resurgence of ISIS influence in the camps where an estimated 13,500 foreign women and children linked to the terror group are held.
According to a report last week, an Instagram group called Caged Pearls – believed to be run by British women detained in Al-Hol who are raising money to fund their escape from the camps – is advertising itself with a poster reading: ‘Al-Hol – The cradle of the new Caliphate.’
It was at the sprawling Al-Hol camp where the MoS first learned in September that ISIS supporters were raising money in the UK to help jihadi brides bribe their way to freedom, either to return to their homelands or rejoin the remnants of the terror group scattered across the Middle East.
One such fundraiser was named as ‘Sumaya Holmes’, who had been smuggled out of the camp and travelled to Turkey. Holmes is said to be the widow of a British convert who died fighting for ISIS in Syria and the wife of a Bosnian jihadi now serving a prison sentence in his home country.
TAKING THE BAIT: A man thought to be ‘Anas’ arrives and follows our directions to find the A4 brown envelope under the gas cylinders
On her Facebook page, Holmes openly touts for donations, posting photographs of women in burkas holding up placards pleading for help to escape.
‘Assalam Alaykum [May peace be upon you all] I am a sister from camp Al-Hol and I need $6,000 [£4,500] so that I can escape from PKK [Kurds]. Please, I ask everyone to help me and donate as much as they can,’ reads one sign.
Below it, Holmes has written: ‘This is my friend and she is in need of help. She sent me this photo yesterday…Please, even if you can’t help, pass it to those who can donate to her. Jazakallah Khayr [May God reward you].’
Another picture posted by Holmes shows a woman holding a piece of paper inside a tent. It reads: ‘I am your Muslim sister in Al-Hol camp. I need help from my brothers and sisters to be freed from the hands of the SDF [Syrian Defence Forces]. Allah only knows our situation, and I am in need of support. I need $7,000 [£5,200] to be able to get out with my children.
ON HIS WAY: ‘Anas’ heads back to his motorbike clutching the envelope
‘You can trust Sumaya Holmes on FB, she is trying to help me raise money needed.’
Posing as a South London drug dealer who had converted to Islam, a reporter contacted Holmes on Facebook to ask what support he could offer. Holmes immediately asked to communicate on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app used by extremists and criminals due to its high levels of security.
Holmes initially asked for a donation using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. When our reporter declined, she suggested making a deposit in an associate’s bank account in Jordan and then hawala, a method of transferring money that leaves no paper trail.
She sent the address and mobile phone number of a fundraiser based in Britain who she said ran a money exchange that could provide such a service. Again, the undercover journalist refused.
SAFE STORAGE: The motorcyclist puts the envelope in his topbox
HE’S OFF: The mysterious ‘Anas’ rides away from service station
Holmes then provided details of a man called ‘Anas’ in London who could collect the cash in person. When an offer to donate £4,500 was made, Holmes wrote: ‘Ok akhi [my brother] this amount of money you want to contribute to free 1 sister or its for the sisters in camps?’ The reporter replied, ‘Free one sister,’ and received the response: ‘OK i will see to one sister insha Allah [God willing].’
How our man set up sting to trap ISIS money man
I am a sister from camp Al-Hol, and I need $6,000 [£4,500] so that I can escape from the PKK [Kurds]. Please, I ask everyone to help me and donate as much as they can.
- Jihadi bride’s message is posted on fundraiser’s Facebook site seeking donations.
Sister, what do you need? Is it possible to send it [money] without using my name? To the sisters, but in private, I can’t use my name.
- MoS reporter, posing as sympathiser, offers to send cash to jihadi in Turkey.
Akhi [my brother] this money you want to contribute will go to free 1 sister insha allah [God willing].
- She tells reporter the money will help jihadi bride escape Syrian camp.
This is the guy’s number in London for the hand to hand money transfer. The brother will take the money, inshallah.
- Our investigator is put in touch with the handler in London to arrange money drop.
I’m Anas brother, here is my site, I am free at any time. Tell me quarter of an hour before you arrive.
- ‘Cash’ handover is arranged at a secret location in Acton, West London.
Holmes had meanwhile been busy spouting her support for ISIS on her Facebook page. In one post, she described Abdullakh Anzorov, the Chechen who last month beheaded teacher Samuel Paty near Paris, as a ‘hero’, adding: ‘There are no words that can describe my feelings towards him and what he did for our Prophet, peace be upon him. Little Mujahid [jihad warrior], you’re an example to many Inshaallah [God willing] #chechanhero.’
Back in London, a second undercover reporter arranged on WhatsApp to meet Anas in a residential street in Acton, West London.
‘Akh [brother], how shall I bring the cash? In an envelope or what?’ the journalist asked when a time on Friday had been agreed. ‘An envelope, please anytime, but tell me a quarter of an hour before you arrive, please,’ replied Anas.
In the event, the reporter changed the plan – citing concerns that the police might be watching – and left an A4 brown envelope under gas cylinders at a nearby service station. As it is illegal to hand over money to a suspected terrorist, the envelope contained only a crossword puzzle book. The journalist then informed Anas where he could find the package, attaching a photograph of where he had left it.
Within moments, as an MoS team looked on, a bearded man wearing a white crash helmet arrived on a silver scooter. He knelt down, dragged out the envelope and smiled before messaging the reporter: ‘File received, let me check the money and tell you.’
The man was soon back in touch. ‘There are [sic] no money in the envelope, there is only a book. ??? … It seems that you are not serious about your subject.’
We immediately informed Scotland Yard. Last night, a spokesman said the information was being assessed by counter-terrorism detectives. Confronted yesterday, Anas denied involvement. ‘No, no, I don’t take anything, you are wrong,’ he said before hanging up. He did not answer further calls.
In a series of messages on Facebook Messenger, Holmes denied involvement. ‘That’s not true, you’re bulls****ing,’ she wrote. ‘Good luck with publishing your lies.’
With the UK’s terror threat level at ‘severe’, the revelations will reignite concerns about the dangers of ISIS supporters who have returned to the UK or will seek to in future. Estimates suggest about 300 of the 900 Britons who went to Syria to join ISIS are back in the UK.
Dr Vera Mironova, an expert on ISIS and research fellow at Harvard University, said: ‘To escape from the camps costs about $18,000 [£13,500] and the success of these campaigns shows the sheer amount ISIS are able to fundraise online,’ she said.
‘Once the women are smuggled out, it is impossible to monitor them. The women who collect money online are still with ISIS and are trusted and supported by the organisation’s members worldwide. They work with a network of supporters globally.’