Fears for the safety of dozens of Western captives—among them journalists and aid workers—kidnapped in northern Syria by al-Qaeda factions are mounting amid signs they are being moved deeper into territory firmly under jihadist sway. Private security experts and Western intelligence sources say the captives are in the process of being transported closer to the Iraqi border in an operation directed by a Chechen commander.

The movement of the captives appears to be a precaution against them being freed as a consequence of furious rebel infighting that has plunged insurgent-held areas in northern Syria into chaos in the past two weeks.

Speaking on the condition they would not be identified, private security experts working on several abduction cases say a commander called Abu Omar al Chechen, a former Georgian soldier who has sworn allegiance to the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is overseeing the movement of the captives amid heavy security.

“The Westerners are being moved in groups and individually in armored vehicles,” one of the security advisers told the Daily Beast. Foreign fighters, including Saudis, are guarding them, he says.

About 30 Western journalists—among them American freelancers James Foley and Austin Tice—have been abducted in Syria since the start of the country’s civil war. Most are thought to be in the hands of jihadists and other Islamist militants, although the State Department says it suspects the Syrian government is holding Tice. And one of the media outlets Foley worked for, Global Post, said in a statement last year they too suspected the Syrian government might now be holding him. Foley has been missing for more than a year.

Foreign aid workers have also been kidnapped, among them seven employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who were kidnapped in October in northwestern Idlib province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-headquartered pro-opposition group with a network of activists in Syria, accused al-Qaeda-linked ISIS for the abduction of the Red Cross workers.

And on January 3 five employees of the NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were abducted from a shared house the organization was using in northern Syria. Those who disappeared were from Belgium, Denmark, Peru, Sweden and Switzerland, according to MSF. ISIS admitted responsibility for the abductions, saying it had “arrested European doctors who were spying on jihadist combatants.”

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