"Since they were a group of women, it posed no problem to me,” the 41-year-old said. “One cannot be afraid of a group of displaced widows. I even felt sorry for them and tried to help them however I could by providing them with essential supplies"
When Sahar al-Hassan first rented her ground floor house in Maarat an-Numan to a group of widows, she felt confident they were simply refugees from Rif Halab.
“Since they were a group of women, it posed no problem to me,” the 41-year-old said. “One cannot be afraid of a group of displaced widows. I even felt sorry for them and tried to help them however I could by providing them with essential supplies.”
But Sahar became suspicious when they were joined by a bearded man wearing a long tunic who rarely left the house, and only then at night.
“They said he was the husband of two of them and the brother of the two others and that he had been injured in a battle between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the regime forces and had recently finished his treatment.” she continued.
Sahar was not convinced by this story and began to suspect that her tenants were connected to remnants of Islamic State (IS).
“Will my family and I remain safe if I report him to the authorities, or will they take revenge on me and my family?” she said, adding, “There is no doubt that IS has hidden cells operating in the region.”
Three years after IS forces withdrew from Idlib and its Rif, locals fear that the threat from the militant group is re-emerging as new campaigns are launched against opposition factions in northern Rif Hamah.
After the battles of Raqqa and Aqirbat, the wives of many IS fighters left with their children to seek safety in Idlib and its Rif. Opposition factions allowed them to enter the area, although actual combatants were arrested.
“Men and young boys above the age of 15 were arrested by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham for interrogation, then those found guilty of participating in IS operations were held accountable and young boys went through religious training to cleanse them from IS influence over their minds and future behavior,” said senior FSA official Mostafa Abou al-Qassem.
Unlike elsewhere in Syria, IS have made no formal announcement of its operations on the borders of southern Idlib Rif and northern Hamah Rif. These maneuvers have coincided with attempts made by regime forces and their allies to invade the east of Idlib so as to reach the strategic military airport of Abou Dhour.
Al-Qassem said that the regime had allowed IS elements to enter “so that launching an offensive on the region becomes legitimate in the eyes of the international community under the pretext of fighting against terror”.
He continued, “We understand this strategy very well, they won’t be able to get what they want and ISIS will enter the region over our dead bodies.”
Officials explained that they did not suspect genuine widows of IS fighters of any wrongdoing.
“We, as local councils, regard the wives of ISIS fighters as displaced widows,” said Maarat an-Numan local council member Abou Ibrahim. “They are weak, displaced and only looking for safety and stability, so we should not be afraid of them and on the contrary are providing them with assistance and food rations and taking care of them and their children.”
However, the 40-year-old made clear that IS fighters themselves were not welcome in the region, as they represented “an extremist organisation which wreaks havoc in any area it controls because of its terrorism and fanaticism”.
Some of the widows of IS fighters insist that all they want to do is keep themselves to themselves.
Sara Abbas, 38, the widow of a militant who was killed in Raqqa – and whose eldest son was arrested by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham – recently settled with her other five children in Rif Idlib.
Sara rarely leaves her house, but when she does, she covers her face and hands and tries hard not to interact directly with her neighbours or any other people.
She refuses to send her children to school, explaining that they would be forced to study what she called a “secular” curriculum.
“Women here go out to the street without covering their faces, they even wear coloured clothes and cloaks, and this is not religiously permitted,” Sara continued. “Women here also work for organisations with men and this is also not religiously permitted. Some of them smoke and drive cars; they imitate male behaviour.”