The civilians able to escape have fled. Now there are just an estimated 500 fighters, many of them foreigners, making the last stand of the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ in a remote Syrian hamlet near the Iraqi border. They include some of the group’s most battle-hardened veterans, many wearing suicide vests and using civilians for human shields as they attempt to resist the surrounding forces using tunnels drilled through the walls of houses in Baghouz.
Once these feared jihadis ruled eight million people in an area the size of Britain, relying on savagery to impose their medieval creed, and social media to woo recruits from Britain and around the globe.
But they have been pushed back into a fast-shrinking 840 square yards pocket beside the Euphrates River – and within days, perhaps hours, Islamic State will be declared dead after five bloodstained years of carnage, chaos and fear.
Civilians fleeing the Islamic State’s group embattled holdout of Baghouz walk in a field on February 13, 2019 during an operation by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force
Ciya Furat, a commander with the Kurdish-led attackers, said yesterday in eastern Syria that his group will ‘very soon bring good news to the whole world’.
The stage has been built to hail this momentous victory. ‘We have won,’ Donald Trump has already declared on Twitter, while Vice-President Mike Pence says the terror group ‘has been defeated’.
Similar bold statements were made 14 months ago in Iraq after troops reclaimed the lost one-third of the country, including its second city Mosul. This was ‘the biggest victory against the forces of evil and terrorism’, proclaimed Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister.
Yet listen to the tale told to me on Friday – in a refugee camp filled with families from Mosul in neighbouring Iraq – by Hamida Mohammad Taher about a neighbour who worked for the Baghdad government in the recaptured city.
‘Every day he would go to work and their three daughters went to school. One month ago a group came to their house when just his wife was at home. They killed this woman and wrote on the walls in her blood and brains, “This will be the same fate for you.’’ ’
That was her chilling reply when I asked if IS was still active.
Later, she described the horror of being forced to watch another woman being stoned to death as punishment for failing to cover up correctly.
And it was echoed by other families from the region and senior officers in the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military who spearheaded much of the fighting against IS, aided by Western special forces and aircraft. ‘In daytime the ground is controlled by Iraqi troops but at night Daesh [IS] returns,’ said one Kurdish colonel, a claim I heard echoed by villagers who spoke of jihadists coming after dusk to demand food and money.
A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) armored vehicle drives through destroyed streets near the frontline on February 10, 2019 in Bagouz, Syria
Some laughed when I asked if the group was finished.
These people told me of ethnic cleansing, of kidnappings, of burned homes, of brutal beatings, of revenge missions by militia forces and of scores settled with accusations of collaboration – even in one case in a spat among two suitors over the same woman.
Others spoke of a toxic sense of despair when there is no work and no schooling for children, with homes left destroyed and hopes of peaceful normality crushed. ‘It is like living in a film with different episodes but the same storyline,’ said one middle-aged man.
He was lamenting the loss of Saddam Hussein, whose ousting led US President George Bush to naively declare ‘Mission Accomplished’ 16 years ago after the US-led invasion of Iraq that sparked so much of the misery across this region. The fear among analysts is that Bush’s brash successor in the White House will promote a similar myth, confusing the crushing of a despicable ‘caliphate’ with defeat of their deadly ideology that drew in devotees from around the world.
Among them was Shamima Begum, the London teenager who crossed a continent with two friends to become a jihadi bride. Now 19, and pregnant for the third time, her request to return to Britain last week sparked fresh debate over the repatriation of such recruits.
Begum was one of an estimated 900 Britons who flocked to join the fanatics. Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has vowed to block her return to Britain, or try her for terror offences if she comes back. It is thought at least 21 female recruits have already returned.
Ian Birrell was told of ethnic cleansing, of kidnappings, of burned homes and of brutal beatings
The former Bethnal Green schoolgirl was found in al-Hawl, a camp with 39,000 displaced people including many IS family members. As the group’s control weakened in recent months, thousands have flooded out – more than 1,200 from Baghouz in the past week alone – swamping efforts to screen them.
Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East division at Chatham House think tank, said land loss would not definitely mean the demise of IS. ‘The group’s foreign fighters remain mostly at large because they have nowhere else to go as they face trials in their countries of origin.
‘IS will try to offset territorial losses with insurgency attacks to prove it is still relevant and, as long as socio-economic and political grievances continue in Syria and Iraq, IS will take advantage of them to try to attract people to its ranks.’
Certainly much of the infrastructure remains in ruins. More than 50,000 homes and 62 schools were destroyed in Mosul alone – as I saw amid the final skirmishes for liberation – and one year later more than eight million tons of debris still needs to be cleared.
Almost two million people are displaced inside Iraq in camps such as Hasansham U2, about 20 miles from Mosul, which I reached last week after driving through ‘ghost villages’ filled with stray dogs but few people.
Khaled Abd, 38, a shopkeeper, told me he had tried to return home. ‘I was searching every day for work but there was nothing. So I called people in the camp to return since we were slowly starving. All we want is a decent life.’ Bassam Mohammad, 26, said he was whipped for selling cigarettes under IS, yet still dare not go home due to attacks by government troops and militia. ‘They demand money or take people away with no evidence. They are the same as Daesh but in different uniforms.’
One weeping old woman told me her husband had been locked up for IS membership and others spoke of sons, cousins and friends imprisoned. Several thrust scraps of paper at me with names of arrested men scrawled on them.
All denied their detained family members supported the group or said they joined in desperation for cash and, amid the chaos, with ten-minute trials and allegations of routine torture, it is hard to establish truth.
‘My son was in a camp and returned home with his family,’ said Fathia Abdullah, 55. ‘He was arrested with 25 other people by militia after another man was made to confess. The judge said my son must stay in jail for life.’
Shamima Begum, 19, is pleading with the Government to allow her back into the country to have her baby but admits she’ll miss her jihadist husband
Another man showed me video on his mobile phone from inside a Mosul jail, with dozens of men crammed into one cell in hideously crowded conditions. ‘I was told it would cost $4,000 to free my brother,’ said a woman as people gathered round to voice complaints.
Several did not know the whereabouts of family members. ‘My son was 17 when he joined IS because we had no money,’ said Awd Zaydan, a farm labourer. ‘They sent him to the mountains near an oil refinery and I’ve no idea if he is alive, dead, arrested or kidnapped.’
This is fertile terrain to find recruits for fresh insurgency and IS indicated it was switching back to guerrilla assaults rather than full-scale military combat as its ‘caliphate’ began to crumble.
In the first ten months after declaration of victory in Iraq, there were 1,271 attacks and 148 assassinations of local leaders there alone.
Zryan Sheikh Wassani, a senior Kurdish general, said Abadi was lying when declaring the IS defeat and he showed me film footage from a firefight in the mountains taken on the same day.
‘I pointed out the bodies,’ he said. ‘We killed eight of them and lost one Peshmerga.’
He said the terror group was moving around empty zones between Kurdish and Iraqi forces – in some places, quite openly in cars.
‘It is worse than before because they do small daily operations and then they go back into hiding. You cannot find them as easily.’ Although the general was wounded in deadly chemical attacks launched by Saddam on the Kurds in 1988, he said Islamic State was a more dangerous opponent.
He showed me his car riddled with bullet holes from a recent ambush that killed a bodyguard – then said two other bodyguards had been killed, three disabled and 18 wounded in three years of fighting.
A recent report by Hassan Hassan, a Washington-based analyst, highlighted how IS has returned to the ‘strategy of attrition’ adopted after it was nearly defeated by the US ‘surge’ in 2007. He said the group’s own publications had drawn comparisons with this time.
The push hit the terror group so hard it was down to 700 fighters in 2008 but it rebuilt so fast that only six years later it shocked the world by seizing Mosul and launching attacks in European cities. By the end of last year, it was still thought to have up to 30,000 operatives.
‘They have disappeared overground but moved back underground,’ said Abdel Bari Atwan, a prominent journalist who interviewed Osama Bin Laden and has written a book on IS. ‘They did not have the experience to run a state with health and education.’
Atwan fears this only makes them more dangerous. ‘They will be in small cells which are cheap to run and easy to move. They will turn to terrorism again and look to take revenge.’
Meanwhile, a breakaway faction holds control of an enclave around the Idlib province in Syria, home to about three million people and an estimated 50,000 jihadi fighters. Armed militant groups from Nigeria to the Philippines have also declared loyalty.
In its birthplace of Iraq, there are renewed fears the insurgency will be fuelled also by rising sectarianism and tribal tensions, something I heard from senior Kurdish soldiers and, above all, among displaced people from places such as Mosul and nearby Tal Afar.
For these people are Sunni – the branch of Islam that is a minority in Iraq and supported Saddam, whose ousted officers were key figures in the formation of IS. But the Baghdad government is dominated by Shia, who also make up gangs of roving militia in the region.
‘Our homes have been burned down so we are terrified to return,’ said one man, who said he was scared to be identified.
‘They are even beating the children because they want us to leave our villages. There are lots of revenge attacks.’
Zakia Dawood, a mother-of-nine, said she was afraid to return to her village of Tamart, near Tal Afar, since her brother had been arrested and most of the young people killed. ‘My family is still living there but gangs break the windows and beat them the whole time.’
No wonder many experts and citizens fear this maelstrom of mayhem and murder is far from over, despite the death of an estimated 60,000 IS fighters and looming end of their self-declared caliphate with its beheadings and barbarity.
If Trump goes ahead with his threatened pullout of US forces, which led to the resignation of his defence secretary and dismay among senior military officials, there could be a fresh eruption of conflict if Turkey attempts to drive out Kurdish forces from their Syrian terrain.
‘We just want safety and justice and jobs,’ said one farmer, sadly. ‘But I fear this problem is never-ending. We had Saddam, we had Daesh, now we have this.’