It was a good thing John Carney came strapped for combat. His life hung in the balance.
Decked out in a Kevlar vest, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, Glock at his hip and Ray-Bans shielding his eyes, the former British infantryman found himself pinned down in the world’s most dangerous battlefield during the retaking of the ISIS-held city of Mosul, Iraq, in 2016.
Only he wasn’t there to kill jihadists.
His mission, a private and unsanctioned enterprise, was to rescue Diana Abbasi, a young Dutch woman who had joined ISIS and was therefore considered the enemy. But she was being raped by its thugs and desperately wanted out. Her father had spread the word.
There was no one else to help, so Carney and his small band of ex-Kurdish commandos trailed coalition forces in a daring operation, risking their lives to save her.
They dodged trip-wire mines, suicide bombers and caliphate snipers blasting anyone in the streets. Some children got shot in the back as they fled.
Now Carney and his men were trapped in a shattered farmhouse.
“The noise is constant: the clatter of machine guns,” Carney writes in “Operation Jihadi Bride: My Covert Mission to Rescue Young Women from ISIS” (Monoray), out now. “The whoop and thump of mortars, the ricochet of stray rounds bouncing off vehicles like jangling keys.”
He’d faced fire before, but this danger was new.
“I had always felt invincible,” writes Carney, who used a pseudonym for the book to protect his family. “I didn’t feel that way anymore.”
And yet, “I couldn’t help thinking we were in the right place at the right time.”
After completing six years of British army service in 2003, Carney, 42, was working security for oil executives in Iraq. It paid handsomely, and after a decade of cashing in, he bought a mountain-top villa in Crete for himself, his wife and 12-year-old daughter, Ntileini, an outgoing, carefree girl not much younger than those he hoped to save.
Because of “Natty,” as he calls her, Carney felt for the disillusioned ISIS wives — many of them naive teens duped into ditching their families for the promise of a new life in Iraq. They “had set out to give meaning to their lives by joining what they believed was a holy war,” he writes.
Instead, many had been whipped with canes and gang-raped. “I just had to find them and bring them out.”
He got involved in June 2016 after a stranger called him at the suggestion of Matt Lambert, an MI6 agent who knew of Carney from his security work. The stranger begged him to help rescue a woman by the name of Laura Hansen, saying “there’s a girl stuck in Mosul, a jihadi bride. He reckons you’d be able to get her out.”
Carney thought it was a joke.
“The military can’t get into Mosul,” he told the caller. “I certainly can’t.”
But the man sent e-mails on the case, explaining that Hansen, 21, from Holland, married a Palestinian with Dutch papers she’d met on a Muslim dating site. Now she was being beaten daily and, he was told, her two young kids would die if they weren’t rescued.
Photos showed “a girl with big dark eyes who looked about 16,” Carney writes.
Carney was aware of the consequences.
“ISIS didn’t arrest kaffirs — white faces, infidels. They cut off their heads,” he writes.
But he couldn’t shake her image. He reached out to Lambert, who told him that Hansen’s family had raised $10,000 to bring her home.
Carney flew to Erbil in northern Iraq, where he set up a safe house and recruited a team of three with the help of a Kurdish intelligence pal.
But the Hansen mission went sideways. The money, sent through a middleman, vanished. Carney’s group, which had planned to meet Hansen and her kids near an ISIS checkpoint, was forced to bolt.
Later, Carney discovered that Kurdish forces hired by the family had spirited Hansen and her family out of Mosul.
“We had played no role,” Carney writes.
But then new e-mail pleas poured in via Lambert’s network. One stood out. It was from the father of Diana Abbasi.
“She 22,” it read. “She want to come home. She shamed. They hit her with stick. They rape her. Many rape.”
Abbasi was a Dutch citizen with a Pakistani family and a degree in international relations from a university in London. But when she went on a holiday with her brothers to their parents’ home in Pakistan, it was a trick — for an arranged marriage to a villager twice her age.
She was crushed and dreamt of running away.
“She knew before she reached Mosul that it had all been a terrible mistake,” Carney writes.
His crew was all in, though they needed cash for arms and equipment to get her back. Carney would have covered the costs but Lambert kicked in $5,000 from his investment profits. They left for Mosul.
That’s how Carney ended up trapped during the siege on the city. His men opened fire on the ISIS position. An unknown woman emerged from a shed, and she ran to them with her young son. The two somehow ducked fire, and the Kurdish militia unleashed a volley of mortar rounds. Carney scooped them up.
She 22. She want to come home. She shamed. They hit her with stick. They rape her. Many rape.
– note from the father of Diana Abbasi to John Carney
“Merci, merci!” she cried.
The woman, Marie-Claire, said she was 25 and from the city of Lyon, France.
A few days later Carney and his gang heard about Sophian, a young woman from Australia who was holed up in a bombarded hospital in Mosul behind enemy lines. So they set off, again entering a nightmarish wasteland of death and destruction.
“We turned left and right through a lattice of skeletal buildings,” Carney writes. “I thought this is what the world will look like after a nuclear war.”
They snuck past a machine-gun nest and wound their way through rubble near the hospital. Two women wearing dark shemagh scarves around their faces raced out, one with a baby. They jumped into Carney’s vehicle and the group sped off, eluding the notice of two ISIS teens with rocket launchers.
Once they were safely away, Carney told the women it was OK to remove their headgear.
The woman holding her infant revealed herself as Sophian.
And the other he recognized from her photo: It was Diana Abbasi.
They’d gotten her out, but Abbasi faced possible prosecution from Dutch authorities. Carney worked his sources, including contacts in MI6 and the CIA, arguing that she and other ISIS women hated the regime and could become assets with the right handling.
She was eventually cleared, moved to London, and was hired as a counselor for a government counter-terrorism and deradicalization program.
Laura Hansen was found not guilty at trial and began a new life.
But many of the jihadi brides got stuck in refugee and internment camps, “tied up in red tape,” Carney writes. “Some had disappeared, probably dead. Some were still out there.”
Carney, who claims to have rescued more than 100 such women, also found himself in trouble. When he and his family made a return trip to England for Christmas in 2016, airport security at Heathrow detained him.
“How do you explain, Mr. Carney, that your name appears on the UK Terrorist Watchlist?” they asked.
“F–ked if I know,” he responded, and told security to call his MI6 guy.
Carney also pointed out that he’d been working with the Kurds — “the ones who found Osama bin Laden” — and revealed to agents that he was also on an ISIS death list. When he told them he’d been watching women and children being shot for the last 10 weeks, they finally let him go.
Today, Carney’s group receives funding from an American Christian charity and others, and is continuing its work, organizing deradicalization efforts on the Syria-Turkey border while supporting the British government’s counter-terrorism programs and a UK charity for missing kids.
Though ISIS has since been driven from Iraq, he’s not optimistic about the fight against the terror group.
“The guilty are dead or have fled to make jihad in Africa,” Carney writes. “It will never end.”