Şahin Aktan keeps a file to help him in his hunt for his ex-wife Svetlana, who took their three-year-old son Destan to live under ISIS rule in Syria’s Raqqa province in July. (Photograph by Fatih Pinar).
Last Friday Newsweek published an article by Alev Scott and I about recruitment by ISIS—the self-styled ‘Islamic State’—in Turkey, which has received substantial attention in the Turkish press.
We weren’t the first to write on this issue, and several other publications have run great stories on it in recent weeks. One of the most notable was Emily Feldman’s excellent article for Mashable, which examined ISIS recruitment in a single neighbourhood of Ankara, and goes into more detail than our own piece, in particular looking at the perception among many that they will enjoy a ‘better life’ under ISIS.
Feldman interviewed a man who has apparently spent time in Syria’s ISIS-controlled Raqqa province and intended to take his family to live there:
One man — a bearded, former alcoholic, who wore a casual T-shirt — bragged that his accommodations in Raqqa were like “a 5-star hotel.” His home in Hacibayram is a crumbling walk-up that he shares with his wife and their two toddlers.
The man said that once his holiday break was over, he would bring his entire family to Syria. Another Turk in his early 30s explained that the radical group in Raqqa provided recruits with free food, Internet access and a small monthly stipend.
In the Turkish media, Sol Gazetesi has also been doing important work, reporting case studies of ISIS recruitment in Dilovası (which our article also focused on) and Gaziantep. This piece in particular (in Turkish) is worth reading.
Some consistent features emerge from these accounts, and from our own reporting, in particular a pattern in which many of those who become radicalized and recruited are former alcoholics and drug addicts; key recruiting grounds seem to be poor Sunni Muslim districts plagued by crime and poverty.
In Dilovası, we were told, a local bakkal (grocery store) acting as a kind of hub for ISIS activity—planning picnics and raising money for the group—was also a centre of the local drugs trade, although obviously such details are hard to confirm.
We were also told that one of the key ISIS organizers in the area was a man who was also the local correspondent for Takva Haber, an ISIS-supporting Turkish news site.
The figures we were given anecdotally suggest that the number of people joining ISIS from Turkey is worryingly high. Deniz Şahin, for example, a mother-of-two from the town of Kazan, near Ankara, told us that 15 members of her extended family had gone to join ISIS, including her ex-husband, who had kidnapped and taken with him their two young children.
She showed us this harrowing photograph of her four-year-old son Halil Ibrahim, which her ex-husband sent her a week after he had picked him and his sister up to ‘take them to the zoo’ for a few hours:
Another family we spoke to said that 19 young men from their neighbourhood had left to join ISIS about two weeks ago, and four others were preparing to join them.
In the Mashable article, which focused on the Ankara neighbourhood of Hacibayram, locals estimated that 100 people have joined ISIS. Meanwhile, Lütfü Türkkan, a deputy for the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) from Kocaeli, estimated that 80 people from the neighbourhood of Karamürsel alone had joined.
These are anecdotal examples that do not even take into account Istanbul, or any of the conservative and impoverished areas of Turkey’s southeast, and it is likely that what we reported is being replicated across other communities. Many figures have been thrown around for the number of Turks joining ISIS, and the one we cited from Milliyet back in June—3,000—seems a reasonable estimate, although the number is surely higher by now.
All the interviewees we spoke to said there are many more people like themselves who are too scared to speak out. In Dilovası, for example, one family whose two sons joined ISIS were threatened by the group for complaining to the police, we were told. The MHP offered to put us in touch with a family in Gebze, where large numbers of people have apparently joined, but then told us they were scared of speaking to the press.
Also striking were the different of political affiliations of the families we spoke to. Deniz Şahin told us that her family were generally MHP supporters, although her ex-husband himself had supported the Justice and Development Party (AKP) before turning to ISIS. Ahmet Beyaztas’ family were generally Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) supporters: the usual paradoxical mix of conservatism and leftist-Kurdish nationalism. Şahin Aktan was very much a ‘secular’ Turk, and carried a Republican People’s Party (CHP)-branded lighter.
The uniting factors behind their family members joining ISIS were not so much political as social. They were to do with desperation, addiction, and loneliness, and they were facilitated by the use of modern technology and the internet. In fact, the stories we heard could have easily been told anywhere in Europe. During the course of researching the article I met with Sol editor Yiğit Günay (Sol’s reporting on ISIS recruitment in Turkey is a must read for anyone interested in this subject). His comments were particularly pertinent.
When you read about ISIS in the Western media, you get the impression that it doesn’t belong to our times. But people should understand that ISIS is a modern phenomenon… It’s not like these people just appeared from nothing. If you don’t think about and understand the conditions that have produced them, and only try to extinguish the flames by fighting them with arms, then you cannot solve the problem at all.
Whatever psychological experiences and transformations these people go through having entered the horrors of Iraq or Syria, those driving them there are familiar and commonplace. It is this that makes the issue of ISIS foreign recruitment so hard to combat: it relates to an array of deep-rooted and intractable social problems, from inequality, to the immigrant experience, to the breakdown of strong social structures. These are problems to which there are no quick fixes.
Inevitably, anger about the situation has turned on the Turkish government and police, who have been loudly and routinely accused by critics of either aiding ISIS or turning a blind eye to it. It’s extremely hard to stop people joining from a militant group however: just think of the PKK. In all the years of the insurgency, and despite its brutal tactics and determination, the Turkish state never stanched the flow of Kurdish recruits “heading to the mountains”, nor did it root out the PKK as an organizing force within Kurdish society.
Of course, the quasi-medievalist interpretation of Islam championed by ISIS has a far more narrow appeal in Turkey than nationalist aspirations do for the country’s Kurds. It was clear from the people we spoke to–many of whom were themselves from very conservatives sections of society–that ISIS was viewed with outrage and abhorrence.
Nonetheless, Ankara has a serious image problem. As Günay put it: ‘Practically everyone in Turkey who is not an AKP supporter believes the government is helping ISIS’. One popular conspiracy theory going around at the moment, which several interviewees mentioned to us, is that Ankara engineered the kidnapping of the Mosul consulate staff so as to give itself a reason to justify inaction against ISIS after the US coalition against it was announced.
Since our story went to press, there have been significant developments in this coalition against ISIS. Turkey has ruled itself out of playing any military role against the group, citing the hostage crisis as a reason. Given that the regional Arab powers have agreed to take part, Turkey’s position will likely encourage those who claim Ankara somehow supports ISIS, or does not view it as an enemy.
When I raised the issue of Ankara’s perceived ‘softness’ on ISIS with a government spokesman, he replied:
Turkey is not “soft” on ISIS, it just avoids unnecessary rhetoric, in particular on the issue of hostages in Mosul. PM Erdogan has repeatedly appealed to the media that a public debate would not help ongoing efforts for their release. With immediate risks in its neighborhood and on its borders, Turkey has no time and need for rhetorical exercise.
What is crucial is to note that Turkey has warned all of her allies since the beginning of Syria crises that it requires an active and positive engagement as otherwise the crisis might create conditions conducive to terrorist organizations’ activities. The repeated warnings made by Turkey were ignored and now the whole region is suffering from such activities…
Turkey has been repeatedly targeted and defined as an “apostate regime” by ISIS, that is “most severely punishable” along with the “infidels”. In March 2014 three ISIS militants murdered three Turkish citizens (a soldier, a police officer and a civilian) in a brutal attack when they were stopped by security officers en route to Istanbul. In addition to such attacks, the political and humanitarian tragedy in Syria and increased presence of radical militants is nothing but a direct serious threat to Turkey’s national security.
I do not think Turkey shares any ideological sympathy whatsoever with ISIS, and I believe the spokesman when he says Turkey regards it as a threat. However, I think that Turkish decision-makers’ ideological framework for viewing the Iraq and Syrian wars predisposes them against concerted military action with the West against Sunni militants of any stripe. However much they hate ISIS, they still hate Assad more. They blame Assad, the Shia government in Iraq, and by extension the United States and ‘the West’ more broadly for the rise of ISIS and the myriad atrocities of these conflicts. In some senses, bombing Sunni Muslim lands may be seen in Ankara as ‘punishing the victim’.
Cengiz Çandar, in al-Monitor, wrote a thought-provoking piece on this point recently, concentrating on some of the reporting and commentating on ISIS in pro-government Yeni Safak. He cited an article by Yeni Safak editor-in-chief İbrahim Karagül, in which the author–whom he describes as a ‘disciple’ of former Foreign Minister, and now Prime Minister Davutoglu–appears to argue that the anti-ISIS coalition is in fact some kind of Western ‘trap’ being laid for Turkey. How far do decision-makers in Ankara share this paranoid, anti-Western mindset? Perhaps an indication is given by the fact that the Prime Ministry press directorate later translated Karagül’s article into English and ran it on its own website.
The deep ideological antipathy that Ankara harbours towards ISIS’ enemies may also explain why it doesn’t use its massive PR and media power to more loudly condemn the group. Turkey’s top cleric came out with some pretty strong rhetoric recently, but given how frequently and aggressively the government demonises people who fall far short of any reasonable definition of ‘terrorists’ (Gezi protesters, for example), its silence on ISIS is deafening.
All this means that the grief and anguish faced by the families we spoke to, and the psychological damage visited on the men, women, and children being delivered to ISIS are not likely to be relieved soon.