Syria: News reports say Jolly Bimbachi and Sean Moore of Chatham freed by al-Qaeda affiliate

Two Chatham residents held captive in Syria by a former al-Qaida affiliate, including a mother of two, have been freed and are returning home, ending an ordeal their MP said had left people at home at “wit’s end” to help.

Jolly Bimbachi and Sean Moore had been held by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a terrorist group in Syria, the BBC reported - writes

The two are fortunate to have made it out of that corner of the world safely, said an international security expert at Western University in London.

“There are hostage-takings everywhere,” said political scientist Erika Simpson. “If you choose to travel in a ­country that is at war, like Syria, you need to recognize that you could be kidnapped or held hostage.”

In November, Bimbachi flew to Lebanon to reunite with her young sons — Omar, 9, and Abdel-Ghaniy, 7 — more than two years after her estranged husband took them on a trip to visit family in May 2015 and didn’t return.

A month later, Bimbachi fled Lebanon north to Syria, hoping to reach neighbouring Turkey and return to Canada, a trek involving three countries under federal government travel advisories.

Global Affairs Canada said Canadians should avoid non-­essential travel to Lebanon, exercise caution in Turkey, especially in certain regions and avoid all travel to Syria.

“Tourists are expected to read that ... and adjust their travel plans accordingly,” said Simpson.

The mother of two decided to flee to the north after losing her legal battle to bring her sons home, her father, Ben Bimbachi, said.

The elder Bimbachi, who had communicated with his daughter on social media, said Syrian officials she encountered treated her well.

“I asked her so many times in different ways, ‘If they were nice with you?’” he said.

She told him, “they treat her like one from them.”

Bimbachi said a Syrian officer responsible for his daughter allowed her to stay with his own sisters.

Bimbachi and Moore were reportedly detained by a one-time al-Qaida offshoot that has some 31,000 fighters in Syria. How the two wound up in the group’s hands wasn’t immediate clear.

The original group was formed in 2012, but merged with four smaller factions in January 2017 to become Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think-tank.

Al-Qaida officially cut ties with the terror group last May.

Moore had travelled to war-torn regions several times before last fall’s trip to Lebanon.

In 2015, he went to Iraq to help civilians caught up in the regional conflict with the Islamic State (ISIS).

“He just really wants to help people, he’s got a good heart,” said Jeff Bultje, who went with Moore to Iraq. “He’s not scared of anything, he gets it done.”

If Canadians are taken captive abroad, Simpson said the Canadian government will try to help, but has limited tools — especially in war-torn countries.

Ottawa also maintains publicly it won’t ransom money to captors.

“That’s their policy — that they will not promise to pay ransom. Otherwise, that opens the floodgates to encourage people to take people ransom,” said Simpson. “Sometimes, families are left not knowing what to do.”

The safe return of his two constituents came as a relief to Chatham-area MP Dave Van Kesteren (PC – Chatham-Kent-Leamington).

With the help of his longtime friend, Selcuk Ünal, Turkey’s ambassador to Canada, Van Kesteren got involved in the case.

“We were kind of at wit’s end,” the MP said. “The government was doing everything they could. This was a very difficult situation.”

Van Kesteren said he received notice from the diplomat Monday morning that Bimbachi was in Turkey.

“We’re all really excited,” he said. “We’re just glad we were able to help.”

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