A British man who went to Syria to fight Islamic State has been killed in Raqqa, a month after Kurdish commanders declared the “total liberation” of the group’s de facto capital, Kurdish sources have confirmed.
Oliver Hall, 24, from Portsmouth, is believed to have been clearing mines in the city with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) when one exploded near him on Saturday.
Multiple sources with close links to the YPG confirmed his death to the Guardian.
Mark Campbell, co-chair of the Kurdish Solidarity Campaign, said: “It is with deep regret and sorrow that I can confirm via Kurdish sources in Syria that Ollie Hall, a UK national who travelled to Syria in August to help in the liberation of the Isis city of Raqqa with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), fell on 25 November from an explosion of ordinance left by Daesh [Isis] after the liberation of the city. Our deepest sympathies are with the family and friends of Ollie at this time.”
Hall’s family were informed of his death on Tuesday. Campbell added: “They have requested that they are left alone by the media to be able to process this shocking and tragic news.”
It is understood that Hall travelled to Syria from his home on the outskirts of Portsmouth last August and underwent the YPG’s mandatory month-long training programme, in which new recruits learn basic Kurdish, weaponry and battlefield tactics on top of a crash course in the socialist and feminist ideology of the YPG. He was then assigned to an infantry division, which comprised a mixture of Kurdish and international fighters. There, he was given the nom-de-guerre Canşêr Zagros.
It is understood Hall did not have any previous military training before heading to Syria. Kevin Benton, a British ex-soldier who volunteered alongside Hall in Syria as a medic, described him as “an amazing guy”.
“When you get out to Syria you can tell the divide between soldiers and people there for the revolution and he managed to get on with everyone, a popular guy loved by everyone,” he told the Guardian. “He was excited to learn new skills and always asking for advice and questions. Nervous but not scared. He was there to stop Isis and help the people.”
Jan Lukas, a German volunteer who also knew Hall in Syria, paid tribute to his friend on Facebook: “He was the first YPG fighter I met, because we sat in the same plane,” he wrote. “My first thought was that we might be travelling to the Middle East for the same reason, but then I thought: ‘What a ridiculous idea.’ A few hours later we got picked up by the same car and both were a bit embarrassed about how crazy we must be.”
He went on to describe an argument the pair had during their training. “We had some minor arguments and a serious one, due to our fundamentally different political mindsets,” he wrote. “In every other context we wouldn’t have been friends, after we insulted and yelled at each other. But inside the YPG there is a system of criticism and self-criticism (tekmîl). We spoke out, apologised and became hevals – friends.”
He added: “In German language there is the idiom that we pretend to only remember the good things about the dead, but I can honestly say that I learned a lot from heval Canşêr and am more than happy to spend an important time of my life with him.”
On Thursday the YPG released Hall’s “martyr’s video”, a short statement of intent that all new volunteers are asked to make in case they are killed. Sitting in front of a banner bearing the pictures of two other international volunteers killed in Syria, including Kosta Scurfield, the first Briton killed fighting Isis in March 2015, he says: “My name is Oliver Hall. My Kurdish name is Canşêr Zagros. I am 23, from Portsmouth, England. I came here of my own free will, knowing all the risks and consequences that can follow. Whilst being here I’ve received language training, political history and background. Greetings to all my family and friends if unfortunately you are reading this.”
In a statement, the YPG said: “The mop-up operation initiated in the city of Raqqa since the end of the liberation campaign of the city has been continuing unceasingly. Hundreds of mines and traps have been placed inside almost every building in the city, so the cleaning process is carried out with great care.
“Fighters show a great effort and abnegation even after the operation to ensure that the inhabitants of the city return safely. On 25 November 2017, Canşêr Zagros (Oliver Hall), who was involved in mine clearance work, martyred as he was trying to defuse a booby-trap.”
Hall’s death comes as the ground war with Isis appears all but at an end.
On 20 October, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – of which the YPG is the majority component – declared the “total liberation” of Raqqa, which for more than three years was the de facto capital of Isis.
Then, two weeks later on 9 November, the Syrian Army drove Isis militants from their last stronghold, Abu Kamal – a strategic town in eastern Deir ez-Zor province near the border with Iraq – following a government offensive that in effect marked the collapse of the group’s self-styled Islamic caliphate in Syria. It mirrors similar gains made against extremists across the border in Iraq.
However, despite its fall, the group’s media apparatus has remained active and its fighters are likely to keep up their insurgency from desert areas, where the SDF and Syrian army continue to hunt them down.
Hall is believed to be the seventh British citizen killed with the YPG in Syria since the first foreign volunteers joined the fight against Isis in the autumn of 2014, and the second since the liberation of Raqqa.
On 23 October, the former IT worker Jac Holmes – one of the longest-serving volunteers with the YPG – died in a similar IED explosion as the sniper unit he commanded cleared mines to make way for freed civilians to leave the war-ravaged city.
Other Britons to be killed fighting Isis in the past year include the press officer Mehmet Aksoy, 32, from London, and Luke Rutter, 22, from Birkenhead.
On 21 December 2016, the former chef Ryan Lock, 20, shot himself to avoid capture, five months after Dean Evans, 22, a dairy farmer from Reading, Berkshire, died in the city of Manbij. In March 2015, the former Royal Marine Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, 25, from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, died in the northern village of Tel Khuzela.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office refused to comment specifically on Hall, but said: “The UK has advised for some time against all travel to Syria. As all UK consular services are suspended in Syria, it is extremely difficult to confirm the whereabouts and status of British nationals in the country.”