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, which has a large number of other British humanitarian workers who together are part of a coalition called The Unity Project.
Details of his kidnapping are still sketchy, but Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) is thought to be behind his disappearance. It is understood that Sharif was snatched from his home close to the Atmeh refugee camp near the Turkish border at around 8.30 pm local time by around 15 members of the group and taken to an unknown destination.
Delivering aid in Syria is fraught with difficulties, but those humanitarian workers operating on the ground are usually 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 been reported, making the delivery of humanitarian aid even more precarious than in most war zones.
Sharif and his British wife Racquell Hayden-Best have been in Syria since 2012 when he acted as the head of logistics for the first aid convoys from Britain to the war torn country, using ambulances to take in food and medical supplies. He stayed behind to set up makeshift schools and launch his own aid organisation.
He is now a well-known figure among British charities operating in Syria and is hugely popular on the ground with local Syrians. His popularity may 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.
Using social networks, 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 city, American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem said that it had been 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 fair 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 back in May 2017. He has been highly critical of the British government’s actions and previously urged the Home Office to review its revocation policy for all 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 process as an “affront to justice.”
The removal of British citizenship relies heavily upon the use of secret evidence in secret legal proceedings, with an individual’s only hope for defence resting with a state-vetted special advocate. Bizarrely, the vetted lawyer cannot disclose any details of the state’s case to the accused which in turn makes it impossible for defendants to challenge the evidence being 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 last year when I visited Idlib. At the 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 had been revoked, he accused the British government of “making it a crime to care” but reserved most of his criticism later for the secret court system which would try him in his absence. “The SIAC and special advocate system which reinforces it is an affront to justice. Not being able to see, let alone challenge the evidence used against me, made me realise very quickly that there would be absolutely no chance of a fair trial.
Appealing against the government’s decision, he was preparing a case for a fair hearing in an open court when he was snatched last night by members of HTS. At the 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 has become increasingly unpredictable, according to locals on the ground.
The Sunni group was formed in January 2017 by 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 into further chaos under attack from Assad regime forces, the Russian military and Iranian-backed militias.
Idlib is regarded as the last major stronghold for anti-Assad rebels and jihadist groups in Syria. While pro-Assad forces and their allies have captured parts of the border province, rebels and Islamist fighters still control strategic areas. HTS is the main Islamist group operating there.
This is not the first time that Tauqir Sharif has been targeted since he arrived in Syria. Groups affiliated with Daesh have also tried to seize him. Last year, he revealed that Daesh had tried to kill him, adding that they are the “worst representation of Muslims.”
UN calls on donors to fulfil Yemen aid pledges
Working alongside other British ex-pats, including clinicians, doctors, hospital staff and teachers, Sharif founded Live Updates from Syria in 2012, to provide support and help to families living there. Widows, children and orphans are among some of the groups he is 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 explain his intentions and reasons for being in Syria. During one British media interview he revealed that he carried a handgun for self-defence. “I’ve not had to use it. There have been threats to my 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 who want to steal [the aid]. We have to protect not only the aid but also ourselves.”
He admitted that until 2017 he also carried an assault rifled and had “stupidly posed with it” for so-called trophy pictures until someone tried to blackmail him over the images. “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,” he said at the time. After hiring security personnel to protect the aid and those distributing it, he pointed out, he no longer 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.