For 18 months, a former British soldier known as John Carney made repeated incursions into the most dangerous parts of Islamic State territory. His mission? To save the young women who wanted to escape the caliphate and return to the West. He talks about how and why he did it.
You are in a supermarket doing your weekly shopping. Just ahead of you is a tall, bearish bloke in shorts and flip-flops. He’s in his mid-40s and has a heavy stubble and dark, greying hair. He stops, puts a six-pack of beer in his trolley, then continues on his way.
Suddenly, his phone starts to ring. He answers, wedging it between his shoulder and chin to talk while he browses. From what you can overhear, the voice on the other end of the line belongs to a girl. You get the sense that she is talking quickly and insistently, while he, in response, makes low, reassuring noises after first establishing that she is OK. The conversation continues in hushed tones for a minute or so, then finishes with the man telling the voice on the phone that he will come and get her as soon as he is able. He puts his phone back in his pocket. If you had to guess, you’d say that he was a dutiful father who’d just had his weekend plans rearranged by a teenage daughter.
But you would be wrong. The girl on the phone is calling from Mosul. Or Raqqa. Or any number of other towns or cities that were, for a time, under the direct control of the Islamic State.
She had, at the age of 17 or 18 or 19, secretly traveled to the Middle East from her home somewhere in Europe to start a new life — to become a “jihadi bride.” Only, it is now mid-2017. Coalition forces have the caliphate in full retreat. Airstrikes screech overhead and bombs explode nearby, making the walls of her bare home shake and her baby scream. There are punishment beatings and executions and thousands of skinny, wild-eyed young men seeking martyrdom. Everywhere, it seems, is gunfire and death. She wants out.
She has already contacted her family back home — the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands — to tell them this, and they have made some inquiries. Their government cannot or will not do anything to help. But they come to hear of a man who can. His name is John Carney and he is a former British soldier turned independent intelligence operative with years of experience in the Middle East. And during the height of the fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS), he acquired a reputation for doing something incredibly dangerous. He would go into ISIS-held territory and rescue — or, as he puts it, “retrieve and extract” — women and young children who were desperate to get out.
“There were times when they would call me up while I was at the shops or doing the school run,” he said. “‘Where are you? Where are you, John? Help me now, help me!’ There’s someone’s life on the other end of that phone. You can’t just turn it off. You can’t just ignore it.”
He didn’t. Over an 18-month period between 2016 and 2018, Carney led operations that resulted in the retrieval and extraction of some 70 women from Syria and northern Iraq. As Iraqi-led coalition forces fought with Islamic State jihadists for control of Mosul — a bloody, nine-month battle for a city of 2 million people — Carney and his small team of predominantly Kurdish operatives raced about the “apocalypse” of the bombed-out cityscape in a people carrier trying to track down their girls, swapping GPS coordinates and messages on WhatsApp like some nightmarish parody of an Uber driver attempting to find their customer.
Armed with assault rifles, body armour and grenades, Carney and his team would often have to fight their way out of trouble when it became clear that they would not be able to simply speed away. You might think that this is the sort of thing that only government agents would be allowed to do. In fact, says Carney, it’s the other way around. The very fact that he was able to take a call directly from a terrified jihadi bride and then show up in the middle of a major modern battle in a people carrier to collect her is precisely because he does not work for anybody other than himself.
“I’m not attached to any security service; I’m not attached to any government,” he said. “So I get dropped off at an airport, get picked up by a friend, we can collect weapons, jump in a vehicle and drive somewhere. That process is impossible for any agency because their risk assessment needs to be in place. Our risk assessments are shorter. We haven’t got the worries of someone being kidnapped or paraded about or having their head cut off on TV.”
Which is not to say that there is not still a risk of being kidnapped or having your head cut off when you go around rescuing young women from the Islamic State. It’s just that, compared with the same thing happening to an actual spy, it’s a lot less embarrassing for the government. “We’re deniable,” Carney said. And if he does end up decapitated? It’s not like the Islamic State has killed James Bond. Carney says he’s just some anonymous “numpty” crazy enough to go to that part of the world. It will barely register with people watching the news at home. “It’d just be like, OK, next channel,” he said, shrugging.
It’s a drizzly afternoon and we’re in a pub not far from London Bridge. Carney drinks pints of cider. He’s wearing a white shirt, smart trousers and a waterproof coat, which makes him look like any number of city workers knocking off early for the day.
You’d have to get pretty close to him to notice that his fingernails are incongruously dirty. And speaking of getting close to Carney, this is as good a time as any to mention that he is, in fact, on an Islamic State death list — which complicates things a little. His name is not really John Carney. He does not seem twitchy or paranoid, but he does politely ask that I don’t offer anything more than a general description of him.
“You’re always checking in the rearview mirror; you’re always doing your little bits like making sure you go round a roundabout twice,” he said, explaining that this is how he checks for anyone who might be tailing him. “If you’re in a big city like London and you see the same set of eyes twice in a day, there’s something wrong.”
There are many details about himself that Carney cannot reveal. What he can tell us, though, is that he grew up in Wiltshire in Southwest England, had a rough childhood — his father was violent, his mother didn’t seem to care, according to him — and he was in and out of youth detention centers until he found his way to the army. He served six years with the Yorkshire Regiment, did two tours of Northern Ireland and then, immediately after the end of the Iraq War, joined a private defense company working in Iraq.
Since 2011, he’s worked for himself, offering security services across the Middle East and, more recently, running deradicalization programs on the Syrian-Turkish border. He has a wife and daughter and they all live on the Greek island of Crete. He tries not to let the death-list stuff bother him too much. “From the age of 12, my girl could strip, assemble, load and fire a shotgun, so she’s looking after the house at the moment,” he said. “She’s 15 now.”
Carney has written a book about his experiences, “Operation Jihadi Bride.” It’s fascinating, not least because it serves as a portrait of the Middle East as observed and experienced by a man who has spent a long time living and operating there, understanding the customs and worldviews of Kurds, Arabs, Shias, Sunnis and all the other moving parts and peoples that make up the region.
“I’ve built up relationships. You know, going for a whisky with the local sheikh or local governor, sitting down, eating with people, living with families,” he said.
There have been times when he’s been engaged in battles with local militias that have then called a truce and asked him, a little bashfully, if they could not do any fighting at a certain time tomorrow, as that’s when one of their fathers will be herding his sheep through the village. “You go, ‘OK, that’s fine. Not a problem.’ Yes, it’s an interaction with somebody who is normally trying to kill you. But you don’t have to go toe-to-toe all the time. And it helps to have an understanding of who you are fighting.”
This willingness to listen to and engage with the local people around him meant that, by the time he was first contacted about a young woman who wanted out of the Islamic State in 2016, Carney had a huge network of contacts he could mine for help. The woman in question was called Laura Angela Hansen, a 21-year-old from the Netherlands who had converted to Islam. She’d met and married a man who would take her and her two young children to northern Syria under the pretense, she would later claim, of a “holiday.” The reality was that they traveled to Raqqa, then Mosul, to live under the caliphate.
The woman’s family had been able to raise $10,000, some £8,000, for her safe return — a risible amount given the risk involved — and yet, even when it transpired that they had been swindled out of this sum by middlemen, Carney, for some reason, still committed to the rescue mission. “There was a girl with two children out there,” he remembers in “Operation Jihadi Bride.” “If I didn’t bring them in, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
Which brings us to the question of motivation. Why did a worldly gun-for-hire choose to make the retrieval and extraction of women and children from the clutches of a fanatical death cult his mission in life?
I’ve tried very hard to get to the bottom of this, to work out if it’s a saviour complex or repressed guilt. And over the course of 300 pages of his book, plus two hours of conversation and seven and a half collective pints, there is only one solid conclusion I can offer: Carney is just a very good bloke.
Or, as he puts it, “a hard bastard with a chip on my shoulder.” His childhood, he says, was “crap.”
“When I first arrived in borstal [youth detention], I’d always have to have a fight against a bigger person. My thinking became, ‘You’re bigger than me. Let’s go for it,’” he said. “One recollection of secondary school was walking through the playground and seeing a girl being bullied by a much older guy. So I jumped in and beat the guy up.” This landed him back in borstal, meaning that the whole process repeated itself until a need to help the underdog became hardwired. So, as the caliphate began to crumble and he heard of more and more young women desperate to flee, he realized that there were few people better positioned — or motivated — to help than he was.
Laura Angela Hansen was, in the end, picked up by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in July 2016. But Carney was already planning more rescue missions of his own. Operating out of Erbil, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, he and his small team built up detailed profiles of the women they had been approached to rescue. Carney would spend hours interviewing their family members over Skype and, if possible, establish communication with the women directly.
This, though, was a huge risk. If a woman without the right connections was found with a phone in the caliphate, she could be beaten. If she was found a second time, she could be stoned to death. “In fact, if these girls were found to be talking to me, their children may have been taken and killed as a result.”
Carney said that one method used by the Islamic State to ensure compliance or extract information was to douse a baby or infant in petrol and stand over it with a lit match. “You see that, you go down on your knees and beg to have your head cut off to save the child.”
Typically, the families involved would offer Carney between $1,000 and $15,000 to free their daughters; he would frequently use any larger payments that he received to cover multiple extractions. Often he was barely meeting the cost of the operations. “To be honest, I was covering expenses from my own pocket on occasions,” he admitted, adding wryly that he did not become “rock star rich” from this line of work. “The money was the main Achilles’ heel.”
Still, as Carney and his team began to extract more and more women, he was able to build up a picture of what they had experienced and what had motivated them to join the caliphate in the first place. Many of the women taken as wives by Islamic State fighters had faced rape and abuse. In his book, he recounts a scene in which he has taken three young women back to the safety of Erbil. They drink bottles of beer and describe their experiences to him. “They passed us around like sweets,” one woman said. They spent hours locked up and faced starvation. Men exchanged food for sex. Strict dress codes were enforced to ensure their modesty, a sick hypocrisy given how so many of them were treated. “They liked to keep our hair long and remove every trace of body hair,” one girl told Carney, explaining that the same shops that sold the clothes that would cover them head to toe also sold the sexiest lingerie imaginable. “When they peeled away our clothes, they wanted to find children dressed as porn stars.”
Carney admits that these debriefings, which he would do before passing the young women on to official state agencies, were challenging. “I was never trained to speak to a 16- or 17-year-old girl about these things.”
But it was also insightful, because not all the women he rescued had experienced this kind of horror — nor had they all been “radicalized” or “recruited” online. Often, their motivations for coming to cities like Raqqa or Mosul were simple and, he found, relatable. Many just loved their husbands and thus followed them east. Others were from backgrounds where poverty, family dysfunction and racism were rampant. “They could be who they wanted to be when they went to the caliphate, rather than living in a dilapidated house on an estate. There, she was actually somebody.”
Talk, inevitably, turns to the case of Shamima Begum. In 2015, she was one of three 15-year-old British schoolgirls who left London to travel to the caliphate. In February this year she was located by The Times foreign correspondent Anthony Loyd in a refugee camp in northern Syria. Married off to an Islamic State fighter within weeks of arriving, she had lost two children and a third, born shortly after her discovery, died in the refugee camp within a few weeks of his birth. Begum had hoped to return to the U.K. and, despite this possibility being blocked by the government, has since received legal aid to fight for the right to do so. She remains the highest-profile test case as to how we, as a society, treat the young women who willingly traveled to join the Islamic State.
Carney is circumspect about commenting on Begum directly, but his general view is that there are strong arguments for bringing young women in her position back home. “I’m a firm believer that everyone should have a second chance,” he said.
There’s also the question of justice. If someone has been involved, even tangentially, with a terrorist organization that has caused death and destruction in the U.K., he thinks that person should be extracted from that refugee camp and brought to trial. He cites the Manchester Arena bombing as an example: How would the families of victims feel if there was the possibility that somebody involved was currently in a refugee camp? “I’m not saying that this person you mentioned [Begum] was one of them. But I think that should be part of the process — not to leave the families in Manchester with no closure.”
I get the sense that Carney also feels protective of these girls. Regardless of their beliefs, seeing them demonized frustrates him. It gives the impression that the issue is an open-and-shut case, that the likes of Begum are simply evil and that’s that. “When you’ve got a young girl telling me she used to go to KFC with her dad and that he’d tuck her in at night with her favorite teddy bear, it makes that person real. They’re not just the set of eyes and a flowing black headscarf you see in the media.”
Also, he continues, we need to understand that, however brutal the Islamic States seemed to us in the West, its regime was not degrees of magnitude more cruel or brutal than what had come before. It was just part of a continuum of horror that has been in motion since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Carney has been operating in and among the civil, sectarian and tribal conflict that followed the U.S. withdrawal, all of which was pre-ISIS and all of which was equally horrific. “We had guys that would get taken, put in acid baths, murdered, executed. If you get caught, you get tortured — then they cut off your head. The brutality doesn’t just come from ISIS. It’s across the board. It’s not, ‘Oh, they’re playing a different game.’ They’re playing the same game as everyone else. Torture is torture. Death is death.”
During one rescue operation, he lost a close friend and colleague, a Kurd, to enemy fire. Although he describes himself as “a civilian,” Carney has himself had to fight and, on at least one occasion, kill Islamic State fighters when there was no other option left but to battle their way out of trouble. “So as soon as you make that decision to fight, that’s it. Your weapon is already cocked, you flip the safety catch off and you go into your drills,” he said. “Your drills are to fight your way through and that’s what you do. You put as much lead down as you can and you kill them.”
In March this year, the last tiny pocket of ISIS-held territory in the Middle East fell to Syrian troops. Carney does not believe for a moment that this means the group is no longer a threat. “When you fragment something, it splinters, it goes into underground networks,” he said.
It’s also important to remember that the Islamic State was — and is — not just an ideological project, but a money-making exercise, too. The idea that it can be killed off simply because it no longer exists on a map is naive in the extreme. “It’s growing in Africa, Eastern European states, the Balkans,” Carney said. “All those areas.”
He is very much still in business and expects to be for some time. His body is still holding up. “If it aches, then you go through it. If it’s painful, then you just have to remember that pain is a weakness,” Carney grins, finishing his last pint of cider.
He said that many of the young women he’s helped are now back in society and living normal lives. “They’ve been vetted, they’ve gone to court, they’ve had their trial and nothing’s come of it. Their kids are in schools. They’ve carried on with their lives. They’ve matured. They could,” he says, smiling, “be your dentist.”
He gets up to go. The cider doesn’t seem to have touched the sides. He said that he just hopes that people can see, whatever they think of the girls who ran away, that he was just trying to do something positive. The fact that he is also a hard bastard with a chip on his shoulder probably doesn’t hurt. But then, nor does the fact that he’s just a very good bloke.
“I mean, I’ve got my own family, so I know the perils of children growing up and the decisions they can make. I’d like to think that if my daughter did a similar thing, that there would be somebody I could go to and say, ‘Please can you help me?’” he said. “And that they would.”
About the Author
Ben Machell is a feature writer and columnist for The Times of London. This article is reprinted with permission from The Interview People.