A British aid worker has been kidnapped in Syria by members of a Sunni Islamist militant group in rebel-held Idlib, it emerged on Monday night. Tauqir Sharif, 31, from Walthamstow in East London lives and works in the north-west Syrian city, with a large number of other British humanitarian workers who together are part of a coalition called The Unity Project.
Details of his kidnapping continue to be sketchy, but Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) is regarded as behind his disappearance. It is comprehended that Sharif was snatched from his home near to the Atmeh refugee camp nearby the Turkish border at around 8.30 pm local time by around 15 members of the group and taken fully to an not known destination.
Delivering aid in Syria is fraught with difficulties, but those humanitarian workers operating on the ground usually are allowed to move about freely by the controlling Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. Nevertheless, occasional clashes between charities and rebel groups operating in the area have already been reported, making the delivery of humanitarian aid a lot more precarious than in most war zones.
Sharif and his British wife Racquell Hayden-Best have already been in Syria since 2012 when that he acted because the head of logistics for the first aid convoys from Britain to the war torn country, using ambulances to just take in food and medical supplies. He stayed behind to set up makeshift schools and launch his or her own aid organisation.
He has become a well-known figure among British charities operating in Syria and is hugely popular on a lawn with local Syrians. His popularity might have contributed towards last night’s kidnapping, as anyone with a rising profile is treated with resentment and suspicion by the increasingly paranoid HTS militia leadership.
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Using internet sites, television fundraisers and other crowdfunding appeals, Sharif has raised tens of thousands of pounds over the years for scores of charitable projects in Idlib.
In a statement released by his news network in the town, American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem said that it turned out confirmed that British aid worker Tauqir Sharif has been “arrested” by HTS. Abdul Kareem called for the immediate release of Mr Sharif or an official charge against him, in writing, coupled with a path to a good trial and justice.
“Unfortunately we have seen too many cases of HTS arresting those who have fought long and hard for the Syrian people and not formally charging them,” the US journalist explained. “This leaves the detainee in limbo and his family worried sick. It is exactly the kind of oppression we have pledged to stop in Syria. I personally have tried many times to encourage HTS to deal with the people formally and to observe detainee rights. The group’s fighters have done a lot of good for the Syrian people but I feel the leadership isn’t in step with its members when it comes to justice.”
The abduction is yet another blow for Sharif, known affectionately as Tox by his friends, after his British citizenship was revoked and his eldest daughter was refused a passport right back in May 2017. He has been highly critical of the British government’s actions and previously urged the Home Office to examine its revocation policy for several workers engaged in humanitarian projects in war and conflict zones.
Sharif was the first aid worker to boycott the secretive citizenship legal process at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) court last year. He described the procedure as an “affront to justice.”
The removal of British citizenship relies heavily upon the utilization of secret evidence in secret legal proceedings, with an individual’s only expect defence resting with a state-vetted special advocate. Bizarrely, the vetted lawyer can’t disclose any details of the state’s case to the accused which in turn makes it impossible for defendants to challenge the evidence used against them.
“The lifesaving work I do today was inspired by what I believe are the British values of compassion and doing good deeds to benefit others,” Sharif told me this past year when I visited Idlib. At the full time, he had just launched The Unity Project, a coalition of like-minded individuals and charities operating on the ground in partnership with local Syrians, Syrian refugees and Western aid workers.
After it emerged that his citizenship was revoked, that he accused the British government of “making it a crime to care” but reserved most of his criticism later for the trick court system which would decide to try him in his absence. “The SIAC and special advocate system which reinforces it really is an affront to justice. Not to be able to see, aside from challenge evidence used against me, made me realise very quickly that there could be absolutely no possibility of a fair trial.
Appealing contrary to the government’s decision, he was preparing an instance for a good hearing in an open court when he was snatched yesterday by members of HTS. At the full time of writing, it is not clear if Sharif has been arrested by the group or kidnapped, because no ransom has been demanded. However, the behaviour of HTS is becoming increasingly unpredictable, according to locals on the ground.
The Sunni group was formed in January 2017 by way of a merger between Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, the Ansar Al-Din Front, Jaysh Al-Sunna, Liwa Al-Haqq and the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement. There are concerns that it has become lawless and authoritarian as Idlib slides in to further chaos under attack from Assad regime forces, the Russian military and Iranian-backed militias.
Idlib is undoubtedly the last major stronghold for anti-Assad rebels and jihadist groups in Syria. While pro-Assad forces and their allies have captured areas of the border province, rebels and Islamist fighters still control strategic areas. HTS is the main Islamist group operating there.
This just isn’t the first time that Tauqir Sharif has been targeted since he arrived in Syria. Groups associated with Daesh also have tried to seize him. Last year, he unveiled that Daesh had tried to kill him, adding that they are the “worst representation of Muslims.”
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Working alongside other British ex-pats, including clinicians, doctors, hospital staff and teachers, Sharif founded Live Updates from Syria in 2012, to offer support and help to families living there. Widows, children and orphans are among a few of the groups he’s helping in more than 40 projects, which employ 170 staff, both British and Syrian.
He has always insisted that he has broken no laws and points to his proven track record in the humanitarian field to spell out his intentions and good reasons for being in Syria. During one British media interview he unveiled that he carried a handgun for self-defence. “I’ve maybe not had to make use of it. There have been threats to my entire life because I distribute aid. It’s highly dangerous work in conflict zones. We travel in convoy to different towns, and we come under attack from all sides, sometimes finding ourselves in the middle of battles or attacked by those that want to steal [the aid]. We have to protect not only the aid but additionally ourselves.”
He admitted that until 2017 that he also carried an assault rifled and had “stupidly posed with it” for alleged trophy images until some body tried to blackmail him over the pictures. “I have never aligned myself with any group involved in the conflict or taken part in any operation that is not related to my aid work,” that he said at that time. After hiring security personnel to protect the aid and the ones distributing it, he stated, he no further carries a rifle.
Last year, another British aid worker, Birmingham-born Mohammed Shakiel Shabir, was kidnapped by a group which demanded a ransom of £3 million. He was freed in a dramatic raid and gave an exclusive interview to Middle East Monitor.
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