ISTANBUL, September 2014, Newsweek (With Alev Scott)
When Deniz Sahin’s ex-husband phoned out of the blue to say he wanted to see their two young children, the call came as a welcome surprise. The father, a former alcoholic, who had kicked his addiction and turned instead to fundamentalist Islam, had shown little interest in his children for the past year, but she thought they missed him.
“I told him not to be more than two hours,” says 28-year-old Deniz, who weeps silently as she pores over photographs of Halil Ibrahim, 4, and Esma Sena, 10. After their father, Sadik, picked them up from their home in Kazan, near Turkey’s capital Ankara, in April, she never saw them again.
In one of the pictures, which were sent by Sadik a week after their disappearance, a smiling Halil Ibrahim clutches a pistol. The index finger of his other hand is held skyward in a gesture associated with the Middle East’s most feared armed group: the so-called Islamic State, also known by its former acronym Isis. The children now live with their jihadist father in Syria’s Isis-controlled Raqqa province. They are among an unknown number of Turks – potentially in the thousands – being abducted or lured into Syria and Iraq either to populate Isis’ self-declared caliphate or to fight in its bloody sectarian war.
Stories shared with Newsweek in recent days by Deniz and others show the group has sunk its tendrils deep into Turkey, a country that may now be in its firing line after being named as part of a Nato alliance to combat the jihadist group. Many fear Isis has the capacity to wreak havoc in a nation that attracts 35 million tourists a year and whose porous border adjoins Isis-controlled territory.
Last week at a Nato summit in Wales, US President Barack Obama said Turkey was part of a “core coalition” to fight Isis. However, Deniz and other victims of Isis recruitment question their government’s willingness or ability to tackle the terrorist organisation’s infiltration of Turkey. They speak of their frustration at police inaction and of their powerlessness to retrieve their loved ones. In her extended family alone, Deniz says, 15 people – including five children – have gone to live under Isis rule or fight in its ranks in recent months.
Her story is echoed by others in Istanbul, who describe an organised recruiting network operating online and through religious study groups, targeting young men from Sunni Muslim districts plagued by poverty and drug addiction. One family, whose son joined Isis, says that he was among 19 young men from their neighbourhood alone who left for Syria recently, with at least four others planning to join them soon.
In June, Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper reported that as many as 3,000 Turks have joined the group. “No other Nato country is as exposed to the threat of Isis jihadism as Turkey is,” says Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and head of Edam, an Istanbul-based foreign policy think tank. In the past, Western diplomats have accused Turkey of indirectly facilitating the flow of arms and foreign fighters to Isis by operating an open-border policy with Syria in its eagerness to help the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad. After the group overran Turkey’s consulate in Mosul in June and took dozens of staff hostage, however, most now agree that authorities in Ankara has woken up to the seriousness of the threat, but may now have its hands tied in responding to it.
Forty nine Turkish citizens, including the consul general, remain Isis’ prisoners. In the past month it has beheaded two American journalists it was holding hostage in retaliation for US airstrikes.
“Turkey is not ‘soft’ on Isis,” a Turkish government official says. “It just avoids unnecessary rhetoric, in particular on the issue of hostages in Mosul.” He adds that “all necessary actions and precautions are being taken” to combat the domestic threat posed by the group.
ISIS IN ISTANBUL
That claim is disputed by the family of Ahmet Beyaztas, a 25-year-old Kurdish car mechanic, who joined the group last month. Speaking at home in the bleak factory town of Dilovasi, a polluted and poverty-stricken community on the fringe of Istanbul, his brother Kenan tells of how local Isis supporters openly displayed its flag in the windows of their cars and homes.
A month ago, Ahmet was among 19 young men from the neighbourhood who boarded two minibuses and headed to Syria to join the fighters. A member of parliament for an opposition party recently told a local newspaper that he believed 90 young men from another nearby town have made a similar journey in recent weeks.
“There are many, many more who are joining. And the police are doing nothing,” says Kenan, 30, a schoolteacher. “I’m Kurdish and a leftist. If four Kurds get together the state will break them apart. Of course they can stop them if they choose to.”
Dilovasi has long been notorious in Turkey as an industrial dystopia. A town of 45,000, it hosts some 150 factories focused around dirty industries such as scrap metal smelting and paint manufacturing. The air is thick with an acrid chemical stench, and a study by a local university in 2004 found that cancer rates here are two and half times higher than the national average. Meanwhile, Kenan says, it is a haven for cemaats and tarikats – conservative religious movements, which were suppressed by Turkey’s secularist governments but have flourished under the Islamist-rooted administration of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Like many children in the town, Ahmet left school at 13. Like Deniz’s husband Sadik, he had a history of drug addiction before turning to a hardline religious group around two years ago.
“His psychological situation wasn’t good. He had taken drugs for two years, but was off them when he joined Isis,” Kenan recalls. While many people in the community are devout, according to Kenan, the Isis mentality is not “natural” to the area, but an extreme version of existing religious communities. “Until two years ago, Ahmet wasn’t very religious – he was religious like the rest of us, but not radical.”
After joining the local Isis sympathisers, Ahmet and his friends began to withdraw from their families. They stopped attending mosques, which in Turkey are run by government-appointed imams, whose sermons are approved by the state. He and his friends described them as münafik – a derogatory term referring to a debased or insincere form of Islam. “They stopped watching television,” says Kenan. “[Ahmet] told us to keep men and women in the family separate, and he refused to be in the same room as my wife.”
Kenan believes he and his friends didn’t fully realise what they were becoming involved in. “The local Isis people here don’t really understand the reality of it. They don’t believe the horror stories.” Nevertheless, Kenan himself avidly follows the news from Syria and is all too aware of the danger facing his younger brother. “From the first day Ahmet got involved . . . we knew something bad was going to happen and we knew one day he would go on jihad. The police wouldn’t do anything, because they said they had no reason to hold him. Ahmet told us not to meddle. There was nothing we could do.”
Now the family calls his mobile phone daily in the vain hope that he will answer. “Every hour,” according to his 65-year-old mother, Fezile, who weeps quietly as she recalls her son. His phone is always off. “Ahmet was gentle and kind,” she recalls. “If there was a plate of lokum [Turkish delight] he would always offer it around. He thought that if you were Muslim you shouldn’t kill . . . We hope that if he goes there and sees what they are about he will change his mind.” If she could speak to him, she says, she would tell him: “Don’t hurt anyone; just come back.”
Kenan hopes his brother may indeed return if he changes his mind about Isis when he sees the reality, or else that he is injured and left in a Turkish hospital. “We know they hurt people and they behead people. We know about the rapes, about what they did in Şengal,” he says, referring to the Iraqi town that Isis last month purged of its inhabitants, who belonged to a religious minority that the group considers devil-worshippers. “We’re under no illusion as to what he’s doing.”
CALL OF THE FAITHFUL
While typical Isis recruits are young men like Ahmet, other stories show that the group also targets women and children – often online – in its drive to populate its self-professed state. At the opposite end of Istanbul, Sahin Aktan, 44, a powerfully-built, unsmiling man, is struggling to understand what has happened to his ex-wife and son. In marked contrast to the Beyaztas family, his background is prosperous. He owns a clothing company and lives in Buyukcekmece, a bustling, secular suburb on the city’s western edge. Two months ago, his ex-wife, Svetlana, a 25-year-old Kyrgyz woman and native Russian speaker, took their three-year-old son Destan to Raqqa after deciding to join the Islamic State.
Aktan has devoted himself to working out the story of her indoctrination by posing on Facebook as an Islamic woman with similar ambitions, befriending and stalking Svetlana online. He employed taxi drivers to follow her while she was still in Istanbul and managed to find the Isis safe house where she briefly lived after their divorce. He is determined to track her down.
“Believe me, I’ve been working like a policeman,” he says, as he pores over the file he carries with him everywhere, containing photographs of his ex-wife, maps of Syria, divorce papers and Facebook transcripts, all of which he has shared with Turkish police. His primary aim is to find and rescue his son. “If she blows herself up, then the child will stay in Syria. How will I find him then? I will have zero chance, and who will look after him?”
He shows one photograph of himself and his ex-wife embracing. The picture was taken six years ago, soon after they married. “Svet was 19 when we married, she spoke hardly any Turkish but I taught her quickly – she is very clever,” he says, adding that he met her through the clothing industry.
“We had a loving relationship. She was from a Christian family, I don’t think she even knew what Islam involved. She drank whisky, we went on holidays. There was no problem.”
Svetlana was isolated in her new home, he admitted. With little social life, she spent more and more time online. “This was her only friend”, he says, holding up his smartphone. “This, and me. She learnt about Islam online and decided to convert from Christianity. One day she said, ‘I want to cover myself,’ and I said, ‘Ok, then, cover yourself.’ She was on the internet all the time. I didn’t realise where it would lead. She told me to grow a beard, she said we had to pray five times a day and read the Quran for two hours. Of course, I didn’t want to do that.”
Aktan is morose on the subject of his wife’s religious transformation: “It was as though a different woman had entered my life.” He recalls how Svetlana appeared to lose interest in the marriage, she stopped cooking and stopped caring for the couple’s pet rabbit and dogs.
“When she said she wanted a divorce, I was not surprised,” he says. “She told me that she wanted to take our son and live in the way of Islam and tevhid [in unity with God]. I said she could do that here in Istanbul. She said, ‘No’.”
Within 15 days, the divorce was complete, granting custody of Destan to his mother and weekend visits to his father. Aktan started keeping tabs on his ex-wife via Facebook and learned that she had gone to live in a house in central Istanbul with other women and children from central Asia under the guidance of an Afghan man.
Aktan panicked and rushed to the house to rescue his son after receiving a message from Svetlana on July 30th that read: “The people who live under the black banner are good people, and I am going to live in the land of Sham [Greater Syria].”
He was too late – when he reached the house the door was opened by a young girl who told him everyone else had gone. The girl had no knowledge of Svetlana and Destan – it seemed they had been given Islamic names: Assia and Abdullah. Aktan later discovered from their Facebook correspondence that his ex-wife had been in contact with an Afghan mujahideen for four months before their divorce and was hoping to go and join him. “He convinced her that she had to live in the land of Isis. He was based in Raqqa but he came in and out of Turkey.”
Finally, Svetlana went to Gaziantep and the Afghan man came and took her into Syria, via smuggling routes. Aktan lost contact with her on September 1st, when she deleted her Facebook account after realising his true identity. Like Ahmet Beyaztas’ family, Aktan is scathing about government efforts to combat Isis, and claims many other families are in a similar situation to himself, but are too scared of the group to speak out.
“Between Syria and Turkey there is essentially no border. Everyone knows this. The state knows this, but they do nothing about it. The Turkish police are weak and deaf . . . Isis is a terrorist organisation, but there’s no case against them in any court.”
It remains to be seen what ability Isis has to strike inside Turkey, however there have been warning signs of the threat it poses. In March, Isis members murdered a Turkish soldier, a police officer, and another civilian when the militants were stopped in a car en route to Istanbul, according to the government official. Meanwhile, disputed evidence has emerged that the group was linked to two bomb attacks last year in the town of Reyhanli on the Syrian border, in which 52 people were killed, and which was among the deadliest in Turkey’s history. There are also fears that Isis supporters could become embroiled in a violent struggle inside Turkey with armed leftist groups linked to Kurdish rebels fighting it in Syria. Recently, the youth wing of the PKK, the Marxist Kurdish group whose Syrian affiliate is currently battling the jihadists, claimed to have killed an Isis organiser in an attack in an Istanbul suburb.
Bunyamin Aygun, a Turkish photojournalist who was held for 40 days by Isis fighters, says Turkish members of the group had boasted to him of their ability to devastate the country with bomb attacks. During his captivity in November and December last year, he was almost constantly blindfolded, with his hands cuffed behind his back, and never saw his captors’ faces, but in between interrogations they had long conversations in his presence.
Many were Turkish, recalls the 42-year-old. Some had accents from the country’s conservative eastern region, others were Turkish-German, and a couple were from Istanbul. They spoke of their hatred for Turkey’s conservative government, saying current President Erdogan was not a real Muslim. “Turkey fears us,” they told him. “We can set off bombs in all four corners of the country. If they close the borders we will cause civil and economic chaos.”
Aygun was told he was “worse than a Christian” because he worked for Milliyet, a mainstream daily newspaper that publishes pictures of scantily-clad women. Eventually, he was sentenced to death by a sharia judge with whom his captives corresponded via telephone and email, but was freed by moderate rebels who killed the militants holding him following a five-day gun battle. He fears Turkey is now left dangerously exposed to the Isis threat: “America gave support to the rebels at the start of the Syrian war, but now it has left Turkey on its own.”
In Turkey, a broader ideological debate is taking place among conservative Muslims about the validity of Isis and their worldview. Suleyman Mehmet is an Istanbul-based tailor and a member of the Saadet Party, a conservative political party that unites various orthodox Islamic sects in Turkey, and is considerably further to the right than the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, a recent survey conducted by Metropoll found that only 62.5% of AKP supporters consider Isis a terrorist organisation, compared to 82.1% of Saadet Party supporters, highlighting the sensitivity of the more religious party to ideological differences with Isis.
Mehmet’s tailoring shop is the headquarters of the local community’s cemaat or Islamic business network in downtown Beyoglu, and he says that he and his colleagues were at first appreciative of Isis’ apparent efforts to protect Sunnis from Assad’s regime in Syria, but later changed their minds.
“Isis represented many basic tenets we believe in, we had hope. But now we have heard the news, we know they are murderers. How can they call themselves Muslim? Only Allah can take someone’s life. They call us küfür (infidel) but they are the fakes. Not a single one of them will go to heaven.”
Mehmet is scornful of Isis’ aim to rule entirely by Sharia law, and thinks it could not work in Turkey: “We are a democracy. That can’t happen here. In Turkey, if you say you are Christian, Jewish, Shia, fine. We are [Sunni] Muslim but we accept you. Isis do not accept anyone but themselves – they do not even pray in normal mosques, only private mosques.”
The real objection to Isis, however, seems to be straightforward disgust at their war crimes. Suleyman’s son, Ali, brings the conversation back to beheading: “I can’t even bring myself to slit the throat of a chicken. How can they do that to a human being? Imagine it.” While the views of conservative Sunni Muslims like Suleyman and his son show that Isis ideology is far from mainstream in Turkey, the group is increasingly successful in grooming individuals in deprived areas. While there is a blanket media ban on the Turkish consular hostage situation, stories of Isis indoctrination are slipping into domestic media.
When Sahin Aktan’s story appeared in a local paper, Deniz Sahin decided to get in touch with him. She knew they had similar stories and similar frustrations with the authorities. On the day of the Newsweek interview, she travelled up from Ankara to meet Sahin in Büyükcçekmece to discuss the possibility of forming a support group for other affected families. While the primary aim of their meeting is to make a plan of action, the two bereft parents find solace in the similarities in their stories, such as the increasing spiral of internet dependence by their ex-spouses, and their feelings of gradual alienation.
Deniz has intermittent access to information about her daughter via a distant relative in Raqqa, but she has been sent no news of her son, bar the one photograph of him holding a gun. “I don’t even know if he is still alive… They’ve told me that my daughter cries all the time, that she always asks for me. I know how sensitive she is, and I know that she misses me.”
Deniz cries again as she points at two photographs of her daughter – in one, taken shortly before the kidnap, she is smiling in a vest and shorts. In another, taken on the road to Raqqa, she is already covered by a black chador, despite being only nine years old.
Both Deniz and Sahin are in an agony of indecision. While entirely consumed with finding their children, they are forced to face the reality that a rescue foray into the heartland of Isis territory could become a suicide mission, and they cannot rely on official help from any government. Deniz puts her choice in stark terms: “I must protect my children. But I am an infidel in the eyes of this group – if I go there, they might kill me, or they might not let me leave. What can I do?”