The town nicknamed ‘Little London’ at the heart of Islamic State’s war

From The Telegraph

There was little to draw foreign visitors to the town of Manbij in northern Syria before the civil war. It had not much more than a prison and a large flour mill. When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) took over, however, this unremarkable town became a meeting place for jihadists from around the world.

Most of all, it drew British fighters. So much so, it has now become known as “Little London”. 

As many as 100 Britons have lived in Manbij in the last year, residents have told the Telegraph. An estimated 700 are thought to have travelled to Syria to fight since 2011, half of whom have since returned to the UK.

“There are about 30 nationalities of Isil fighters here: Britons are the highest, then the Germans and the French, then the Saudis and the Algerians,” said an activist living in Manbij who gave his name as Husain Husain. “It has the most Europeans of any town in Syria.”

Last week, one of its youngest British residents became the unwitting star of an Isil propaganda video, which showed the execution of five men accused of being spies. Four-year-old Isa Dare – who was taken by his mother, Khadijah, from Lewisham in south-east London to Manbij – was seen threatening the “infidels” in the West. 

Western fighters with young families are sent to Manbij rather than the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, 80 miles further east, because the town is considered safer — largely spared from regime and coalition air strikes.

Isil has strict and unchallenged rule over the town, which has a population of around 150,000, around the size of Exeter. Women must cover their hands and face and must not mix with men in public; Western clothes are banned, so are music and smoking. A former resident who used the pseudonym Ali Al-Khatib told the Telegraph: “Manbij used to be one of the most liberal places in Syria, but people have no freedom now, they are all slaves of Daesh, The foreigners came and invaded our town, telling us what we can say, what we can wear, what we can eat. The women aren’t used to covering up like this, but they are threatened with violence if they do not. The British are the most brutal.”

Among its residents are 17-year-old “jihadi brides” from Manchester, twins Salma and Zahra Halane. Khadijah Dare, whose own husband died last year fighting opposition rebels, has lived for the last 18 months in the town with Isa and her younger son, alongside the family of another British woman, known only as Ayisha, who is married to a British fighter. (the reporter means traitor)

One resident recalled seeing Mohammed Emwazi, otherwise known as Jihadi John, in Manbij in the spring of 2014 – just after the town fell to Isil.

Once Isil wrested control of the town, they quickly began staking their claim: changing the place names of surrounding villages, and setting up their own court and police station.  Foreign fighters were given small apartments on the edge of Manbij, kept away from the local population. They live on salaries of around $150 (£100) a month – paid for by the taxes Isil imposes on residents and shopkeepers.

Minorities such as Christians, Shia and Alawite Muslims must also pay an added religious levy known as “jizya”, if they refuse to convert to Sunni Islam. Shops are fully stocked, unlike most of the rest of Syria, as food is regularly brought in from Turkey 25 miles away.

Another important recruitment tool is the education system. Children are enrolled in school from around the age of four in classes divided by gender, studying Arabic, sharia and how to be good citizens of the “Islamic State”.

Leaked Isil documents have shown that the brainwashing of children and the use of child soldiers is key to the group’s consolidation of its “state”.

At the age of 10, children are enlisted in “cubs of the caliphate” training camps. They are taught how to fight, use weapons, behead captives, deal with prisoners – and even how to carry out suicide missions. A handful of British children are understood to be among the 100 or so “cubs”. Once they have completed this training, aged 15, they will be assigned their roles and stations.

Western jihadists generally have lower rank within Isil than native Syrians, Iraqis and other Arabs. However, the more competent foreigners, usually those with good Arabic or media training, are rewarded with more senior roles. 

The Telegraph understands that a group of German and British fighters are charged with running a feared unit within Manbij’s prison. A recent court case in Germany of a returning jihadist exposed the inner workings of the jail. Members of the unit, which is responsible for the arrest and interrogation of deserters and dissidents, is referred to as the “storm troop”. The suspect, known only as Nils D, described routine torture sessions. These jihadists wear masks in public and receive better salaries and bonuses from Isil, including looted antiquities from the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Abdulaziz, a former Manbij resident who now lives in London, said: “The foreign fighters don’t integrate, many of them can’t even speak good Arabic. They walk around patrolling and they say they are police but they have no uniforms.”

In November, Manbij has seen a number of protests – suggesting a popular backlash against the foreigners. One local resident shot a judge, a Tunisian national, who ordered three members of his family to be beheaded for “photographing Isil strongholds.” But acts of rebellion remain rare. Isil responded to the killing of the judge by kidnapping dozens of women and executing scores of civilians trying to flee. The leader of the protests was arrested and tortured to death. His body was dumped in the street. 


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