Original article by Richard Hall, The Independent.
Fundraising comes amid growing concerns over radicalisation at al-Hol camp
Women detained in a camp for Isis families in Syria have raised thousands of pounds through an online crowdfunding campaign.
The fundraising effort, named “Justice for Sisters”, was launched last month with the help of an intermediary in Germany, and appears to be aimed at soliciting donations from sympathisers in Europe.
The campaign comes amid growing concerns over radicalisation at al-Hol camp, which is holding thousands of suspected female Isis members and their children, many of whom are still loyal to the terror group.
Security services in the UK and around the world are concerned that citizens detained in Syria who still hold extremist views will eventually find their way back home. The British government believes that women can pose as significant a risk to national security as returning male fighters.
The Justice for Sisters campaign is one of two known fundraising efforts for women in al-Hol, the other of which is a campaign explicitly aimed at raising funds to pay smugglers to help them escape.
Analysts have warned that deteriorating conditions at the camp could potentially lead to more women seeking to smuggle themselves out, and potentially more fundraising campaigns to help them.
The latest effort began last month, when videos and letters written in German, Arabic and English from women claiming to be detained in the camp were posted to an Isis-affiliated channel on the Telegram messaging service.
The women, at least some of whom appear to be European citizens, complained of poor conditions in the camp. One message, written in English, says that “life in the hands of the kuffar is not easy”.
“Most of all, we need water, electricity and financial help. Many children and women are malnourished and need fruit, vegetables and milk. Everything is there but many sisters cannot afford it,” read one message.
The group shared handwritten letters and photographs purporting to be from inside the camp. In one picture, four women hold signs made out of cardboard to demonstrate the authenticity of the campaign. One sign reads: “Free Prisoners. Your sisters in Al Hol”. On another is written: “Germany”.
The group shared handwritten letters and photographs purporting to be from inside the camp. In one picture, four women hold signs made out of cardboard, designed to demonstrate the authenticity of the campaign. One sign reads: “Free Prisoners. Your sisters in Al Hol”. On another is written simply: “Germany”.
Participants shared links to several PayPal MoneyPool accounts, which collectively raised more than €3,000 (£2,600). They may not be the only accounts associated with the campaign, however, and the total amount raised is likely to be higher.
In an apparent effort to avoid being taken down by PayPal, they used coded messages to disguise the aim of the fundraising. One was labelled “Honeymoon in Vienna”, while another claimed the funds were to be used for a boxing event.
In a message posted on the encrypted Telegram channel, a member of the group reminded potential donors: “Please don’t use Islamic terms in the donation, there’s danger of the Account being closed by PayPal.”
The campaign was promoted by a man believed to be an administrator for a number of Isis Telegram channels, who also tweeted that the fundraising effort was genuine. The Telegram channel was eventually closed. It is unknown whether the campaign is still ongoing.
The campaign was revealed by the Rojava Information Centre – a collection of international media activists based in northern Syria. The Independentreviewed chat logs and screenshots from the Telegram channels and four PayPal campaigns shared by the group.
Although the group’s creators told donors that the funds were for women and children in the camp to buy food, the amount raised could be used to pay smugglers to help them escape.
Similar fundraising campaigns have claimed to have had success in freeing women from al-Hol camp in recent months. One such effort, set up with the explicit aim of freeing women, was launched by al-Qaeda supporters based in Idlib, northern Syria, in January.
The “Free the Female Prisoners” campaign said this week that it had succeeded in freeing its fourth woman from the camp.
In a Telegram post, the campaign announced, “Glad tidings! Your brothers in this campaign have managed – with Allah’s help and the collaboration of various parties and money from altruists – to secure the release of an immigrant sister from al-Hol refugee camp and ensure she reached liberated areas”, in a reference to rebel-held areas in northern Syria.
It previously released a poster detailing what donors were paying for. It said “$8,000 secures the full release of a sister and the Golden share $4,000 covers half the cost.”
While it is unclear exactly how many women have managed to escape the camp, researchers working on the ground in Syria have heard anecdotal evidence that it is occurring.
“It’s incredibly expensive and costs thousands of dollars, and therefore very few can afford to leave. But some women have been able to smuggle themselves out of the camp,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, who recently visited the camp.
“They are desperate to get out. Conditions in the camp are terrible,” she added. “For foreign women, it is also a way to escape justice since they may be prosecuted in their home countries.”