The SDF's ransom racket in northeast Syria

SDF
8 min read
25 October, 2021
In-depth: An investigation reveals the extensive use of extortion against families in the SDF-held region in northeast Syria. Civilians are arrested based on flimsy charges, which are dropped as soon as their families agree to pay for their freedom.

An investigation by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, has revealed that groups affiliated to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the US-backed alliance of militias who constitute the military wing of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) - are extorting families in the areas it controls.

Family members are arrested using fabricated accusations or are held without charge before payment is demanded for their release. These charges are invariably dropped as soon as the ransom has been paid.

Abdullah al-Hassan (not his real name) was arrested in March 2021 whilst crossing a checkpoint in the village of Al-Busayrah in north Deir az-Zour. He was then held in al-Omar oil field prison, in the Mayadin district of Deir az-Zour. His family had to pay $5,000 to the SDF-affiliated faction responsible for his arrest, which was led by Ahmed al-Khabil, the chair of Deir az-Zour Military Council, in exchange for their son's release.

"Family members are arrested using fabricated accusations or are held without charge before payment is demanded for their release. These charges are invariably dropped as soon as the ransom has been paid"

"Contradictory accusations were levelled at me – I was accused of belonging to ISIS and then to a terrorist cell belonging to the Syrian regime…it became clear that the aim was to blackmail my family for money".

Al-Hassan’s family was blackmailed multiple times over 2020 and 2021, according to Nour al-Khatib, head of the Department for Detainees and Forcibly Disappeared Persons at the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). She adds that between 2011 and June 2021 the SDF forces have imprisoned 3,796 people, including 659 children and 176 women.

Money for freedom

Anas Shawakh, a researcher from the Jusoor Centre for Strategic Studies, says that the SDF focuses on the wealthier families in the area it controls for purposes of extortion.

infographic - Syrians in SDF prisons
Between 2011 and June 2021 the SDF forces have imprisoned 3,796 people, including 659 children and 176 women [The New Arab]

TNA's investigator documented five instances in which families were subjected to extortion in Deir az-Zour, Raqqa, and Manbij. Yousuf Saleh was arrested in April 2019 and held in Ayed prison, south of Tabqa City in Raqqa province.

He only realised afterwards that his family had been forced to pay $2,500 to what is known as Raqqa's 'General Security' in order to secure his release. He says the process was done through mediation with tribal sheikhs in the area who have links to AANES officials. He adds: "I was fainting from the torture and the beatings with sticks and electric cables".

Saleh al-Juloud, in his seventies, has a similar story. His family paid $1,600 dollars for his release three days after his arrest in December 2017. The official responsible was Ahmad al-Hamdo, known as Abu Tariq, who works in the AANES public relations office. He and three members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) stopped al-Juloud as he was returning to his village near Ras al-Ayn in al-Hasakah province.

"I was fainting from the torture and the beatings with sticks and electric cables"

"The family negotiated with Abu Tariq directly to make sure I would be released after they paid".

On the whole, the militias fund their activities through extracting and selling oil, revenues from taxes, and charging transit fees at crossing points according to Shawakh. He adds, however, that "security commanders also extort families for financial gain, including personal gain".

He says the lack of prosecution of high up figures embroiled in this and other crimes is because these cases can be used for blackmail purposes themselves by the SDF administration: "They can bring out these cases at the opportune time to condemn certain officials or to impose their control over them. However, it is also true that the SDF rarely acknowledges violations carried out by its members in the areas it controls".

Mediators are often locals with close links to the SDF-affiliated commanders in the area. They will liaise with the families, says Shawakh. "The size of the ransom will depend on the wealth of the prisoner's family, what the accusation is, and the group responsible for the arrest".

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Al-Khatib adds: "In some cases, the SDF has demanded support from tribal mediators, or certain tribal elders who wield influence in their communities in exchange for the release of prisoners from those tribes.

"Not all extortion revolves around the prisoner's release – sometimes the exchange could be that the prisoner will be transferred to a prison closer to the family home, or that his case will be expedited and advanced to the courts, or that his detention conditions will be improved and he will be looked after inside the prison and protected from abuse, and will be granted privileges in terms of access to food and calls".  

Sasha al-Alou, a researcher at the Omran Centre for Strategic Studies, which published the study 'The Autonomous Administration: A legal approach to understanding its model and practice' on 11 May 2021, says that by way of these tribal negotiations many prisoners accused of being IS members (albeit with no evidence) are released in exchange for ransoms.

"In the extortion cases, prisoners' cases are prevented from advancing to trial – where they would come into contact with the Autonomous Administration's judiciary. This allows the militias to blackmail the relatives quietly"

"The study documented and scrutinised 450 cases of arbitrary arrest which occurred throughout 2019 and 2020, in areas under AANES control. Many of these arrests were during anti-terrorism campaigns carried out by various wings of the security services, anti-terrorism forces and 'Asayish' – the Kurdish security forces".

An inactive judiciary

The SDF oversees 18 prisons in the Hasakah, Raqqa, Deir az-Zour, Qamishli and Manbij according to Shawakh, adding that "in the extortion cases, prisoners' cases are prevented from advancing to trial – where they would come into contact with the Autonomous Administration's judiciary. This allows the militias to blackmail the relatives quietly. Additionally, these arrests are made without arrest warrants".

This was the case for Mohammed al-Fayez (not his real name) who was arrested on 20 January 2018 at the Aown al-Dadat crossing (dividing the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army-controlled area in Jarabulus from SDF-held Manbij in the northeast of Aleppo province) by an SDF intelligence officer called Rashid Mamo. Al-Fayez was accused of terrorism, and there was no arrest warrant, according to his testimony.

Areas of Syria under SDF control
Area of Syria under SDF control [The New Arab]

Al-Alou points out that while the judiciary will issue arrest warrants for various offences, they are not issued for political or security cases, where arbitrary arrest and detention happens with no warrant or court notice.

"The Executive Council of the AANES is dominated by the security and military wings, which consider themselves superior to the judiciary. They act with impunity and furthermore the failure to implement judicial rulings has been monitored", he says.

In any case, judiciary employees lack sufficient qualification, with the exception of one judge who defected from the regime, says al-Alou, adding: "The AANES has 326 judges working in its courts. 65% of these are lawyers. However, only half of them have previous legal experience: the other half are recent graduates. Of the remaining 35%, 30% have secondary school certificates, and 5% are graduates in other subjects".

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The AANES response

Riad Darar, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD), Lelwy Abdullah, spokeswoman for the Deir az-Zour Military Council and Ainur Zeid Pasha co-director of the Social Justice Council in AANES were all approached for comment but did not respond.

Berivan Khaled, co-chair of the Executive Council of AANES was contacted regarding the SDF violations and replied: "The Autonomous Administration uses the judiciary to investigate violations and takes decisions accordingly.

"The doors of our courts are open, and anyone with a complaint can have it reviewed in these courts, and will be assigned a lawyer to defend him".  When questioned about the fact that security cases don't go through the judicial system in the first place and that arbitrary imprisonments are taking place without arrest warrants, she did not respond.

The SDF's ransom racket in northeast Syria
The SDF has arrested thousands of Syrians for alleged acts of terrorism offences and links with the Islamic State (IS) group. In many cases there is no evidence and charges are dropped once a ransom has been paid [AFP via Getty Images]

Imad al-Karaf, co-chair of the Justice Council of AANES, was asked about how commanders of the SDF security services would be dealt with in the case of the above violations being committed. He replied that the judiciary holds no such files and that no blackmail is taking place.

However, all those interviewed in the course of this investigation stated that they were given no access to legal representation or support. Ahmad al-Hamed (name changed for security reasons) was jailed in June 2015 in Arba'in village, in Ras al-Ayn, which was under the control of the YPG at the time.

According to al-Hamed they had expelled the inhabitants of the village and were using local shops and buildings as detention centres. He was held without trial, but his family was able to make contact with Hussein Kojar, director of the Public Relations Office in Ras al-Ayn and requested his release.

Kojar initially refused, saying that he couldn't be released while the battle against IS was still underway. However, al-Hamed's family contacted him again after months later and Kojar agreed to his release so he could tend to his harvest.

However, three days later he was rearrested by a YPG military patrol for "entering the area without permission". Finally, al-Hamed was informed via a relative that a ransom would need to be paid for his release. In the end, his brother sold his car - a Hyundai H100 - and paid $12,000 for his brother's freedom.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here. 

Translated by Rose Chacko