US seizes only two British Isis prisoners in Syria, leaving others
US forces in north-east Syria were able to seize only two British Islamic State prisoners, leaving behind a cluster of others despite previous briefings that somewhere around 40 had been forcibly taken from Kurdish custody.
Kurdish military guarding the prisoners – supposedly among the most dangerous of several thousand Isis fighters in the region – refused to allow US special forces to take individuals other than Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh.
The duo are members of the so-called Beatles cell, a group of Britons accused of being behind the torture and beheading of some British and US hostages, incidents that were apparently filmed and broadcast on social media.
Initial briefings had suggested that the US had taken around 40 prisoners to Iraq but overnight officials first told the New York Times that only Kotey and Elsheikh had in fact been seized, because the plan had at least partially backfired. British officials indicated on Monday that they believed only the two men were under US control.
Turkey launched an offensive against the Kurdish-led SDF over its southern border on Wednesday, a move widely condemned by the international community for triggering a humanitarian disaster, opening a new front in Syria’s complex war and risking the re-emergence of Isis, which lost control of its final slivers of territory in March.
On Sunday the US ordered all 1,000 US troops to withdraw “as safely and quickly as possible” from the region after learning that the Turkish operation was likely to extend further than Ankara’s proposed 20-mile (32km) “safe zone” on the border between the two countries.
The fate of the 10,000-plus Isis prisoners, whose numbers include at least 1,000 Britons and other foreigners, remains unclear as Turkey continues its invasion of Kurdish north-east Syria.
But there have been repeated warnings that they could be released or escape amid the chaos of an invasion, although they may also now fall into the hands of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose military is now entering north-east Syria at the invitation of the Syrian Kurds in an attempt to repel the Turks.
Other fighters and Isis supporters remain in refugee camps – holding in excess of 100,000 – which were safeguarded by the Kurdish military, the Syrian Democratic Forces. On Sunday Kurdish officials said that around 850 foreigners had escaped from the camp at Ain Issa, near the frontline of the fighting.
The expectation is that Kotey and Elsheikh will be take from Iraq to Virginia, in the United States, where the courts are considered to be the most experienced in handling terror cases, although human rights lawyers said they would expect to challenge their forcible transfer across two borders.
British politicians have previously indicated that the UK is happy to hand over the two men to be tried in the US, although that is being challenged by Elsheikh’s mother in the British supreme court.