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FRANCE 24 exclusive: The battle-hardened foreign jihadi brides trapped in Syria

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Hundreds of foreign jihadi brides are being held in a Kurdish camp in northern Syria as the war to drive out the Islamic State (IS) group enters its final phase. As the only media to gain access to the camp, FRANCE 24 spoke with some of these women.

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Almost all of the women in the Kurdish-controlled al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria are foreign nationals who travelled to Syria at the height of the IS group’s so-called caliphate. They are held in a fenced-off area away from the other camp residents.

These "brides" tell FRANCE 24 that their husbands are either still fighting, dead or in prison.

In all, some 500 jihadi brides and their children are at the camp, housed alongside approximately 30,000 refugees – many of whom fled the IS group's reign of terror.

'We have changed'

Since arriving at the camp, most of these women claim to have abandoned the IS group’s ideology.

“I’m a Brazilian, from Germany!” a burqa-clad woman exclaims, while another says: “I’m German, German, I have my German passport with me!”

“We have changed. We can’t say we were not part of the IS group. We were part of it. When we moved here, we loved it,” one of them tells FRANCE 24. However, she goes on to say: “The Islam of our Prophet Mohammed, peace be with him, was never about killing children, was never about imposing injustice. It was never about those things.”

Many of them now want return to their home countries.

‘The punishment is supposed to last our whole life?’

“We are human beings. Sometimes we do fair things. Sometimes we do unfair things. So we did some unjust things, and we regret them. And so the punishment is supposed to last your whole life, or what?” one of the detained women says.

Kimberley, a 46-year-old Canadian, insists she ended up a jihadi bride simply because she didn’t know any better, claiming that in 2015 she decided to join because of “humanitarian reasons”.

“I actually didn’t know much about what you would refer to as Daesh (an Arabic acronym name for the IS group). I didn’t know a lot about the organisation itself, I just knew that they were big and that as an Islamic organisation at the time, they were doing some really good things. I don’t think that negates the negatives, but I tried to leave and they put me in prison so I ended up being trapped,” she tells FRANCE 24.

“Yes I knew about Charlie Hebdo (the terrorist attack on the magazine’s offices in Paris in 2015). But again, we’d had an attack on Canadian soil as well. I chalked it up to being a handful of individual lone wolves who were kind of acting on their own.”

James Andre discusses the situation on the ground in Syria

Some are ‘ferocious’

One of the camp’s directors says that although some of the women claim to be innocent of any crime, others are clearly very dangerous.

“We thought we could put them together with the Syrians and the Iraqis, and that they would adapt. But they’re ferocious, they burned some of the Syrians’ tents, they would call them cockroaches, infidels. They consider themselves as the only true Muslims. So we had to separate them,” he explains.

“The problem is their intentions, they tell us what we want to hear, but we have no idea about what they really think. That’s a problem that must be addressed by experts. When they gave themselves up, some of them told us that the IS group briefed them, telling them, ‘Surrender, go back to your countries, get your strength back and we will start again’.”

Half a million dead

Four years ago, the militants controlled territory the size of Britain and millions of people. Major General Christopher Ghika, the deputy commander of the US coalition fighting the group, on Thursday said that "now less than 1 percent of the original caliphate" remains.

The coalition has taken control of Hajin, which was the last IS group town of note.

Since then, thousands of suspected IS group fighters have attempted to blend in with civilians fleeing the jihadists' last bastion, including a large number of foreigners.

More than half a million people have died in the Syrian conflict since it began in 2011 and half the pre-war population have fled their homes, including more than 5 million who have gone abroad.

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