(TELEGRAPH) As many as 300 Britons are still fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a recent defector from London has revealed, amid growing concern the jihadists are plotting attacks on the UK.
Stefan Aristidou, 23, from Enfield, was arrested last week in the southern Turkish town of Kilis, three miles from the Syrian border, after surrendering to authorities.
Speaking in an interview before crossing into Turkey, Aristidou said there was “somewhere between 250-300” British Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) fighters remaining – some in Iraq but most of whom are operating in Syria.
“Most of the British members were not foot soldiers, they were in charge of the media and propaganda for the group,” Aristidou told the Telegraph through an intermediary in Syria. “They have higher roles.”
Muslim convert Aristidou left the UK in April 2015 with girlfriend Kolsoma Begum, a 22-year-old Briton of Bangladeshi heritage.
The couple claim they did not join Isil to fight, but moved to Syria to live under sharia law.
They settled in Raqqa and married before Begum fell pregnant in February 2016.
Aristidou then moved to Mosul before the Iraqi army began its offensive to retake the city from Isil last October. But he had a disagreement with his commanders and returned to Raqqa, at which point Isil stopped paying his wage.
He described life under the jihadists as “like a prison” and spent weeks planning his escape.
The family managed to flee the city earlier this year with the help of smugglers. They then waited in the rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria until deciding to cross into Turkey on April 20.
Aristidou had said before his arrest that he accepted he would probably have to spend time in prison for joining the terror group but was prepared to do so in order to return home and “rebuild” his life.
Begum and their six-month-old daughter are now being held in a detention centre, where they are waiting to be deported back to the UK.
It is not known whether Aristidou will be tried in the UK or in Turkey. If he is extradited, he could be charged under the Terrorism Act and face a life sentence.
An estimated 850-1,000 Britons left to join Isil and other jihadist groups. Almost half of those have returned to the UK and more than 100 are believed to have been killed.
There are fears that those still in Syria could be planning terror attacks in the UK, where a number of plots have been foiled in recent weeks.
“Many who joined Isil have returned to the UK and they could be awaiting instructions,” said Olivier Guitta, managing director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting firm. “It is very likely that there is communication (between those still in Syria and those at home.)
“There is now almost daily arrests of terrorists: two attacks were foiled in London just this week. Since 2015, the UK has been at the top of the list for targets for jihadists since the intervention in Syria, before that they were a tier two country.”
Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, told the Telegraph it was “a definite threat” and that it was not inconceivable the fighters were acting as handlers.
A parliamentary report released last week into an unprecedented RAF drone strike on a British jihadist in Syria revealed he was a prolific recruiter and attack planner for Isil.
Reyaad Khan, a 21-year-old former student from Cardiff, was killed by a Reaper drone in August 2015 in the Raqqa area of Syria – the first time that the UK had conducted a lethal drone strike against a terrorist target outside of participation in a military campaign.
According to the assessment from the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), Khan “encouraged multiple operatives around the world to conduct attacks against the UK” and provided practical instructions for the manufacture of bombs.
However, Aristidou said some British members, like him, have become disillusioned with the Islamist group, which has suffered huge territorial losses and the deaths of much of its senior leadership.
“Some want to stay, but there are some who want to leave,” he said. “It’s getting tougher and there are splits in the group about its future.”
Leaving the caliphate is difficult and has become harder since Isil’s main strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa have come under attack.
Raqqa is almost completely encircled by coalition-backed forces, which are due to move in for a major offensive in the coming weeks.
The terror group has focused much more of its effort into attacks on the West as it begins to lose its caliphate.
It has been explicitly threatening attacks on Britain since the country joined the anti-Isil coalition in late 2015.