Two special correspondents of CNN’s Arabic Service went to Raqqa, Syria, to follow the story of Fridhat Khaled, the wife of an Islamic State militant who entered the group disguised as a woman in order to avoid the battle-torn city’s stringent rules against women.
After two years of living in IS territory, Khaled agreed to leave the group after her husband died, lured by an offer to join a religious movement set on establishing the strictest version of Islam.
Khadijah and her husband traveled to Morocco and then traveled into Syria. When they reached Syria, Khaled’s passport was taken away by IS and she was forced to travel through the various checkpoints in the already dangerously packed city.
There, Khaled ended up on the border of Iraq and Syria. She eventually reached the Syria-Iraq border where the Iraqi army was undertaking a massive operation to retake territory from the Islamic State group. It had been the last border the group controlled.
The operation was like a final battle. The battle for Mosul took months of preparation, as IS militants cleared and cleared up before the resounding Iraqi offensive that liberated Mosul in July 2016.
Although government forces had seized several settlements and settlements from IS, the lines in town were so stretched and fierce that the Iraqi army and the US led coalition forces were met with intense resistance and pockets of IS in Raqqa could not be completely cleared without considerable causalities among both soldiers and civilians.
Despite Khaled and her family’s departure, the last place they could have left Raqqa was in Mosul. And the Iraqi military units fighting for the liberation of Mosul as well as those behind the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa have now been mandated to stay in those liberated territories to protect civilians from the return of IS.
As a result, the only way Khaled could leave Raqqa, at least by road, was via Iraq. And this is when she was diagnosed with severe asthma, which is why she had managed to make it through with a short stub of a toe to reach the border in Syria.
At the border, Iraqi forces saw a potential opportunity. As Khaled approached, they saw two teenaged boys who were unearthing a mortar from the back of a truck that had been abandoned at the border. The boys announced their intentions to surrender to the Iraqi forces. A car arrived with a briefcase of documents belonging to the Americans who had helped the Iraqi army evacuate the males of their families from Raqqa city. As Khaled disassembled the bomb in front of an Iraqi officer, she quickly overheard conversations among the vehicles’ occupants who spoke in the Arabic language.
Fearing the potential long-term damage a prolonged incarceration could have on her health, Khaled pleaded with the Iraqi officers that she wouldn’t be able to tolerate more hardships. After weeks and weeks of negotiations, a deal was finally struck.
The Iraqi officers later learned that Khaled had had a suicide attempt at one of the checkpoints in Raqqa and was forced to undergo medical treatment. She was then reunited with her husband in Mosul and crossed into Iraq with him and her two teenage children.
As her husband spoke to CNN on camera in Mosul, Khaled was under supervision by Iraqi government officials during the crossing into Iraq.
Although her health had improved, she returned to Raqqa to meet her husband who led her through the city to the nearest cross-border zone, where she discovered that IS had established a tent shelter for the Syrian and Iraqi families, many of whom came from IS territory.
As expected, with her life in limbo, Khaled wanted to return to Syria to visit her husband’s grave, but her husband would not let her go. He had died only days before, in May 2016, and Khaled knew that if she went back, she might be killed by Islamic State members who could threaten or arrest her.
Looking back on that trip, Khaled said the only thing she regrets was not re-crossing into Iraq sooner.
Following the war, it is difficult to know exactly how many members of the Islamic State group remain in the territory under their control. Only a fraction of the militants who conquered swaths of territory in 2014 have been formally identified. Much remains to be discovered. This CNN report is based on interviews with both Khaled and her husband, as well as interviews with several civilians in ISIS territory who helped Khaled evade capture and in many cases later helped her reunite with her husband in Iraq.