Turkish woman tells how brother and son fled to ISIL’s stronghold in Syria
Report: İpek İZCİ Photos: İbrahim YURTBAY Translator: Yasemin GÜLERA 37-year-old housewife, born and raised in the central Anatolian province of Konya... She wants everyone to hear what she has to say, with the condition that we keep her name hidden from the public. First, her brother took his wife and children and left to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in its Syrian stronghold of al-Raqqah. Then, her 18 year old son followed in his uncle’s footsteps…
As the first American drones taking off from Turkey started to pound ISIL targets in al-Raqqah on Aug. 5, the Turkish housewife is terrified that she will lose her youngest son to ISIL as well - as would any mother be.
She was blamed as being an infidel by her son, for whom she recited the Quranic verse of Ayat Al-Kursi every time he left the house, in the hope of keeping him safe from harm. “Their return would be of no use. Their brains have completely frozen over. They don’t accept me or anyone else,” she says.
Who was the first from your family to leave for Syria?
My brother left on the October 11, 2014. We found out about it four days later. He just up and left with his entire family.
How old was your brother?
Were there any signs that he would do something like this?
Of course. He used to go to ISIL gatherings frequently before he left.
Where did they congregate for these gatherings?
In the district of Karatay. There’s a place they all meet up on Saturdays. Some 300 people gather and talk.
It gets so crowded that the shoes form a small hill on the side of the road.
How long did your brother go to these gatherings for?
He began attending meetings there two years ago. He married a like-minded girl and they ran away silently.
Brainwashed by DVDs and online videos
What do you mean when you say “like-minded?”
These people that join ISIL call themselves Muslims; she wouldn’t even visit her own mother because she didn’t think she was a “proper” Muslim. She would only visit her mother-in-law. Because those that aren’t with ISIL are infidels to them. Her first husband died in Syria but she didn’t learn from that. Then she married my brother and went back there.
When you say that they ran away silently, didn’t they even leave a note or something?
They had left a hand-written letter: “We are leaving, to live the way Allah tells us to and to eventually become martyrs.”
Did he have any children?
My sister-in-law has a son from her previous marriage and a 10-year-old son with my brother. She also had another baby there.
Did your brother have any religion-based behavior before attending these gatherings?
No, none at all. They brainwashed him at those meetings.
How did he act towards you during that period?
He would play a DVD every time he came over and make us watch. He would say, “You are infidels,” and he would tell us not to vote.
Did these DVDs have footage of executions?
For example, on one of them, someone would be reading the Quran and a woman would pop up every now and then and say, “Those who play ball become sinners.” They don’t approve of the motto, “I am Turkish, I am true, I am hardworking,” and they scold and talk down at Atatürk. They watch that all day. When my mother went to their house they would have it on all day.
Are you in contact with them at the moment?
They used to call my mom, but since my son has gone there, no one has heard anything from them.
Influenced by luxury homes of ISIL
How old is your son and when did he leave?
He is 18. He left on May 18. Silently, just like his uncle… I was ill, at home. He came home from work at 10. “What happened darling, you’re early,” I said. He was very excited. He told me he had forgotten his work clothes. He took them and left. I looked at him at as he left because I used to recite the Quranic verse of Ayat Al-Kursi after him. Turns out that that was the last time I would see him.
What was he like?
He was a placid young man. Very hygiene obsessed. If I touched my face while cooking, he would tell me to wash my hands. He was a baker. He used to bake local bread that we call “etli ekmek” (bread with meat). He wouldn’t harm anyone. The only thing I didn’t approve of was the smoking; he was a nicotine addict. His uncle had posted some things on the Internet after he had gone to Syria. There were photos of him sitting at his house, drinking tea. They live in looted homes over there. Their homes and clothes are so luxurious and expensive-looking, my son was influenced by them all. He watched ISIL on the Internet for two months straight.
What would you say to him when he was watching them then?
“Darling, don’t look at them,” I would say but he still would. He left, all the while staring at the butchers and barbarians… I tried my best, I took him to elders, to hodjas; I went all the way to the mufti’s office. The mufti would talk to my son but he wouldn’t listen. He became completely brainwashed once he began going to those gatherings. He had been in contact with his uncle in secret; I had no idea. The day he left home, that was the first place I looked for him but it was closed.
What did the police say?
I told them that he must still be here and to find him. “No, he must have already gone,” was the reply I got. “But, he will call me and ask me for my blessing.” Those who go to the border do that, which is why I thought he would call.
Police unable to stop him
Did he call?
He sent one of his friends a voice-message at the border. I told him to tell my son to wait for him and pretend that he wanted to join him in Syria. So we could buy some time and catch him before he crossed the border…
And what did your son say?
“Look, you’re not joking, are you?” he asked his friend. “I can get someone to pick you up from [the southeastern Turkish province of] Gaziantep, I’m in al-Raqqah at the moment.” But he had told me that he was going to his father’s house in the evening.
Where does his father live?
This is my second marriage. His father lives in Konya. Turns out that day he went to Gaziantep. They picked him up from there and took him to al-Raqqah.
My son had given the name and phone number of the man in al-Raqqah to his friend over the phone. We shared this information with anti-terror police but they told us that this wasn’t a crime.
What was the police’s attitude towards this incident like?
They took interest and helped as much as they could but told us that they couldn’t do anything if he had left Turkish borders. “Even if we managed to catch him while he was still on Turkish soil, there wouldn’t be anything we could do. He is 18, he has the freedom to travel,” the police said.
‘Voting is for infidels’
Did you speak with your son after that day?
Just once… The elections were on June 7, and we spoke a week later. “My darling boy, I voted today.
[Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan won again, the constitution will change,” I told him. “Have you become an infidel, mother? Why did you vote, why did you sin? This place is messed up because of him. You are not a Muslim,” he said to me. “A Muslim shouldn’t kill another Muslim, my son,” I said. “Mom, this place isn’t that sort of place; we kill the PKK [the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party].”
Did he tell you about where he was?
His voice kept cutting out. He told me he was working at a baker’s at the time. I told him not to come back unless he changed the way he thought.
And his reply?
“Just because you said that now, I’m going to go to war,” was his reply. And he did. He is waiting guard at a front in a village somewhere. But recently he spoke to one of his friends over the Internet. He told him that he, “regret[s] coming here, [he] can’t smoke.” His friend asked him what the point of going was if he was going to return. He told him that he was afraid of going to jail. He had told me that too.
Do you think he will come back?
Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü [a Turkish Sunni televangelist] says, “There are many that regret what they have done, but how will they return?” And now that he has told his friend that, I’m wondering whether my child will be tracked from the Internet. Because his friend asked him on Facebook what he was talking about and that he hadn’t committed a crime. He hasn’t got a response since.
Why do you think your son went?
For the jihad.
What was his financial situation like while he was here?
He earned well. He had everything and more.
How about a girlfriend? Was there anyone he was interested in?
No, there wasn’t anyone. He went to work and came back home, that was it.
Was there a friend that went with him?
He went alone.
Concerns about younger son
You have another son, don’t you?
Yes, he’s 16. He is a baker too. I’m worried about him as well. His uncle took him to one of the gatherings while he was still here. “All of the men there looked like the Devil to me, mom. I felt suffocated,” he told me.
Hopefully he won’t go. Those that go become suicide bombers and go to war. All these religious communions and gatherings have to be stopped. But the anti-terror police claim, “It’s not a crime. On what grounds can we shut them down?”
What did your ex-husband, the father of your son, do after all this had happened?
What could he do? What could he have done?
Did he used to join these gatherings?
No, he drinks alcohol. That’s why we broke up in the first place.
What would you like to tell your son, if he were to read this interview?
Sometimes I think to myself, “He went on his own, it was his own decision. There’s nothing I can do.” That’s how I console myself. But deep down I know that he had been tricked. My own brother, my flesh and blood, tricked him. He used to sit on this sofa, when he came home from work [She begins crying]. I’m supposed to let you run away with terrorists after raising you, am I?
Their return wouldn’t be a solution either…
My brother has a 10-year-old son. He was glad to hear that my son had arrived in Syria. “Oh, my big brother has become a Muslim too,” he apparently said. A boy at that age… They pick whatever suits them from the Quran and dismiss the rest. Their return will be of no use… Their brains have frozen over. They don’t accept me or you. They’re extremely arrogant. “Son, those who have even a pinch of arrogance in them won’t go to Heaven,” I told him. But they have an answer for everything.