Josie Ensor in Beirut
ISIL’s Western fighters have fled Raqqa ahead of an impending battle for the group’s self-declared capital, according to activists and US-backed forces on the ground.
The last of the European jihadists are said to have left in a convoy heading for Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria late last month.
“The city is now completely under the control of Arab fighters for the first time since 2013,” said Tim Ramadan, an activist with the anti-Isil group Sound and Picture, who lives in Raqqa and uses a pseudonym for his safety. “There are no Westerners left.”
Several thousand British, French, Belgian and other Europeans travelled to Raqqa, the centre of Isil’s caliphate, which became a hub for planning attacks against the West.
“Daesh needs to keep the foreigners safe,” Aghiad al-Kheder, another member of the group, said from Germany, using the Arabic name for Isil. “They are more important to them for propaganda reasons, for sending messages to the US and Europe to recruit more supporters.”
He said Isil, anticipating the assault on Raqqa and coming under increasing pressure from coalition strikes and advancing US-backed troops, has effectively moved its capital to Deir Ezzor province, which lies 140km south and connects its territory in Syria and Iraq.
Deir Ezzor is largely flat desert land, making it much easier to defend. It is also home to Syria’s largest oil deposit, the al-Omar, which has proved hugely lucrative for the group.
Asaad Almohammad, a Syrian research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism, said Isil has already moved vast sums of money and cash reserves, as well as its senior foreign leaders, to the city of Mayadin in Deir Ezzor.
“Recently obtained information indicates that a large number of leading foreign and local members of Isil and their families were moved to the city of Mayadin and towns in close vicinity of it,” he said. “It is clearly viewed by Isil as a safe haven.”
Shervan Derwish, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a partner force of the US-led coalition, said that it tracked dozens of Western Isil fighters and their families from Raqqa to Deir Ezzor.
“We know that many Daesh, mostly foreigners, headed south to Deir Ezzor on April 26,” he said. “The city is much better protected and much safer as Raqqa comes under attack from coalition forces.
“It also means these fighters will be in Syria for a long time.”
The development will be a concern for Western security services. Britons in Syria are thought to be in contact with sympathisers back home and their move away from Raqqa will see them even more deeply embedded.
There are estimated to be somewhere between 250-300 British jihadists still fighting with Isil in Syria and Iraq.
One member, Stefan Aristidou, defected last month, crossing into Turkey and surrendering to authorities at the border. Several dozen other Western fighters are understood to have contacted their embassies in Turkey from Isil-held Syria looking to return.
A total of around 3,000 Isil fighters are believed to be left in Raqqa, where an estimated 300,000 people are living under jihadist rule.
News of the Western jihadists’ flight emerged as the SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, captured the last major town on the approach to Raqqa, clearing one of the final obstacles ahead of an assault on the city.
The fighters drove Isil forces from the town of Tabqa and its nearby dam.
SDF troops have surrounded Raqqa from three sides, aiming to encircle the city before moving in for the final battle.