Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

İpek İzci-Burak Kuru-Fevzi Kızılkoyun-Faruk Balıkçı-Arzu Çakır Morin-Deniz Yücel-Savaş Özbey-Selçuk Şamiloğlu-Muhsin Akgün-Mert Gökhan-Murat Şaka Gaziantep - Kocaeli - Ankara - Diyarbakır - Paris - Berlin - Istanbul
Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks GAZİANTEP

Why here?

This southern Turkish city has been one of the focal points of news stories about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It is one of the cities that have seen the largest number of Syrian refugees, and people seem concerned that so many refugees can be seen in the streets. While taking the pulse of residents, Hürriyet’s correspondent in the city even received death threats.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

‘I’ll go to die for Muslims’

Gaziantep resident, identified only as Hasan A., did not want to talk about ISIL at first. His 27-year-old son has gone to Syria to fight for ISIL. Hasan A. has not heard from his son for one-and-a-half months. In the past, his son was quite close to his family, wife and children, but then he joined an Islamic association that had opened a branch in his neighborhood. It was then that he started threatening those who don’t pray regularly, accusing them of not being Muslims. One day, he told his father, “I’ll go to die for Muslims,” and a few days later he had secretly left home. He has not returned since.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

The spoils of war

Dursun Y., another Gaziantep resident, said his 22-year-old son and 34-year-old nephew had both joined ISIL. When he filed a complaint, he says that the police told him, “Everybody goes there, don’t mess with it, don’t get yourself into trouble.” Luckily, both of his sons returned home after six months because of the constraints they faced in the ISIL camp. But Dursun Y. is still concerned that they might go back to ISIL again one day. 

“My son dropped out of school. He started to attend the meetings of an association. They deceive people in these places and recruit them. The managers of the association tell the recruits that they will be allowed to take anything there [in Syria and Iraq] as war booty, and they believe it,” he said.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

How to prove the link

A police officer from Gaziantep, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the number of Islamic associations in the city that encourage young people to wage jihad is rising. “Genç Müslümanlar” (Young Muslims) and the “Furkan group” are the most influential organizations. People apparently go to their meeting to read the Quran; but in reality, these two associations are allegedly recruiting youths for ISIL and serving as grassroots training facilities, according to the police officer. 

“You know that a man is from ISIL, but you can’t prove it easily. For instance, you check his passport and see that he’s from the United Kingdom. He says he is in Antep for touristic purposes. How can you arrest this man? What evidence can you refer to?” he said. 

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

The transit hub: Akçakale, Şanlıurfa

Witnesses say that the hub for the cross-border transfer is the Akçakale district of Şanlıurfa province, which has Syrian towns across the border that are controlled by ISIL.

Threats from an ISIL militant

One man, identified as S.C., admits that he is now an active ISIL militant. “But don’t ask me questions,” he said. “This is a very dangerous issue. Don’t get yourself in trouble. I’m a man of this cause, so do you think I would explain it to you? We have been ordered not to speak [about ISIL]. Never, ever go out and ask others about ISIL. You may end up in the wrong place and be killed in the middle of the street. Another person came here recently to ask about ISIL. Ask the neighboring shops what happened to him.”

How many recruits from Gaziantep?

A grocer in the Çıksorut neighborhood of the city said he heard people saying that up to 4,000 Gaziantep residents had joined ISIL so far. Describing these people as “those who chose a certain path themselves,” the grocer added: “You need to listen to the other side, too. You shouldn’t listen to just one side.”

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Deceiving children with money

H.K, a fruit seller, says that children as young as 11 are using drugs in Gaziantep’s Güzelyurt neighborhood. “It is easy to deceive children. They are poor. ISIL deceived them by giving them money, then taking them to Iraq and Syria. Now they teach them there how to behead people,” he said.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Leaving ID cards behind

Bekir, 15, originally from the Syrian city of Aleppo, is currently living in Gaziantep’s Kurtuluş neighborhood. His family describes him as a silent person. One day, he left the official ID card given to him by Turkish authorities, which has an electronic chip, with his mother. One month ago, he told his mother to look after the card, and two days later he left home to go shopping. Nobody has heard from him since. People suspect that he has joined ISIL.


Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Why here?

A Newsweek article published Sept. 12 reported that Dilovası, an industrial suburb of Kocaeli province near Istanbul, has become a recruiting ground for ISIL. The locals who spoke to Hürriyet agree that the town has become an ISIL recruitment ground, but the numbers they give vary. 
“Around seven people went to join ISIL, as far as we know. One or two returned, including one man who was working as a scrap dealer,” real estate agent Abdurrahman Aslan said. Another local said the number is “no more than 10,” though coffee shop owner Ali Akpınar estimates that “it’s a thousand.” 

Singling out a small town

Some locals, like Enes Malkoç, are angry that their town has been singled out. “Let’s presume that 19 people from Dilovası have joined ISIL. They also say there are 3,000 Turks who have high-level positions in ISIL. It means that an average of 10-20 people from each Turkish province joined ISIL. So why is only Dilovası being spoken about?” he said.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

A family’s anti-ISIL guard

One man joined ISIL. Two of his brothers wanted to follow him there, but they were both caught in the province of Konya. One of them was caught and sent back home, but he is now still trying to join ISIL. The family members take turns as a guard to stop him. Interestingly, both of their brides also wanted to join their husbands on their way to ISIL.

Drug addicts who don’t even pray

One man said most Turks who join ISIL are poor people who are also ostracized by their families, and referred to a particular ISIL recruit. “He was a drug addict,” Kocabay says, “He doesn’t even pray. Isn’t there any criteria to join ISIL?”

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

First, education; then, migration

But how exactly do these people join the jihadists? First of all, they receive religious education through meetings that they are invited to. Then, they are invited to join the “Hijra,” an Islamic term for migration that one has to perform as a pillar of the Islamic faith. If they accept, they go to Syria through Gaziantep or Hatay. A man named Abdülkadir Polat was referred to by several locals as a key recruiter. “His oratory skills are very powerful,” many said.

‘ISIL invites you to this week’s prayer’

Shopkeepers confirm that ISIL propagates in Dilovası. Its sympathizers sometimes visit shops. They ask who attends the mosque for Friday prayers, and after they learn this, they focus on those who don’t and invite them to come to the mosque with them. They encourage all people to join religious education classes and discussions.

Kurdish locals from northern Syria

Around 46,000 people live in the industrial area of Dilovası. Many are from the eastern provinces, and there are around 18,000 who originally came from the remote eastern province of Ağrı. There are also many people from the Black Sea provinces. 
But the number of Syrian Arabs is low. “People here are mostly Kurds. They came from Rojava [northern Syria],” a local named Nihat Aba said.


Why here? 

The New York Times reported last week that some 100 people have joined ISIL from the Hacıbayram neighborhood of Ankara, in a story that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then publicly slammed.

The rumors that “ISIL is organizing bus trips from Hacıbayram” led Turkish anti-terror police units, as well as intelligence officials, to focus on the neighborhood. It was said that 30 locals went to fight for ISIL, but the official figure is just three.  

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Local injured while fighting in Syria

A 14-year-old resident of Hacıbayram, identified as T.Y., was injured in Syria while fighting for ISIL. One of his relatives said ISIL had recruited him through the Internet. “T.Y. stayed in Syria for two months. He was brought back to Turkey after he was injured in a clash. His treatment is complete and now he’s back with his family. His father doesn’t let him go out, even for school, out of fear of a possible kidnapping by ISIL. All of the locals are afraid that their children may join ISIL,” the man said.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

‘Hurting the town’s spiritualism’

Samet Köksal, a shopkeeper in Hacıbayram, said he cannot call ISIL “radical Islamists” because “it is annoying to mention these murderers with Islam.” “They don’t know about toilet etiquette. They use drugs, make their children and wives be beggars, but are still able to hang around in Hacıbayram, calling themselves ISIL jihadists. It hurts the spiritual nature of this place [which is named after an Islamic saint],” Köksal said.

‘More pressing problems’

However, Arif Akbaş, the neighborhood’s muhtar (local administrator) claims that only two people from Hacıbayram have gone to fight in Syria so far, including T.Y. “The other person is said to have been captured [by ISIL’s foes in Syria]. Our neighborhood has more pressing problems like unemployment and urban transformation projects, and there is not even a school here,” Akbaş said.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Drug addicts, unemployed men

O.N., another local, stresses the neighborhood was previously known to have drug-related issues. “Hacıbayram is a poor neighborhood. The houses that were emptied due to the urban transformation projects became home to drug dealers, first, and now they are home to Syrian refugees. Now we are busy with this ISIL trouble. The addicts who can’t find the money for drugs are being deceived with ISIL’s promises that they will have a good salary. Addicts therefore search for a way to join ISIL,” O.N. said.


Why here?

ISIL is currently fighting the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia in Syria, as well as the Peshmerga, the security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. Even in this predominantly Kurdish city of Turkey, however, there are people who join ISIL.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Facebook and dervish lodges

ISIL’s main platforms for its organizational activities are Facebook, dervish lodges (dergah) and bookstores. The militants have tried to create a center of attractions by opening dervish lodges and bookstores in eastern and southeastern provinces like Bingöl, Van, Muş, Adıyaman, Gaziantep, Diyarbakır, Urfa and Mardin. Those who decide to join the group generally travel to the city center of Şanlıurfa before being escorted by militants to the border for crossing.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Families refrain from talking

Due to the political structure and the rising anger in Diyarbakır, families whose children have joined ISIL are reluctant to talk openly. One person, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he met ISIL through Islamic bookstores, joined the group, but then left. “I understood it after I saw its true face. Humans are being used like robots there. They don’t think of anything other than killing or being killed,” he said.


Vitry Sur Seine, which was the first town that the French police raided late last year, is a southern suburb of Paris. There are young and middle aged men on its streets, even during the day time, amid its council houses. Men smoke on balconies; burqa-clad women shop from halal butcher shops; young men either sleep in cafes and solidarity clubs or stand in line in front of job recruitment agencies. Some 930 French citizens are fighting in Iraq and Syria as jihadists, according to France’s Interior Ministry.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks


Germany’s interior intelligence agency estimates that some 400 German citizens have gone to Syria as jihadists so far. One third of them are thought to be of Turkish heritage. 

One, a 20-year-old identified as A.C, while living with his family in Ennepetal, a small town in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, met a group of Salafists last year who convinced him to wage jihad for ISIL. He then flew to Turkey in June, followed by his father who was trying to stop his dangerous journey. His father was unable to find him, and A.C.’s cellphone signal was intercepted in the southern Turkish province of Hatay before he vanished completely. 

In Iraq, where he took on the jihadist codename “Al-Almani” (The German), he was killed in a suicide attack at an Iraqi army checkpoint near Baghdad on July 19. Many schoolchildren were among the 54 people who died in the attack. 
“That’s how I will become the hero of the Caliphate,” A.C. said in a pre-recorded “martyrdom” video.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks


Europe’s largest city is also home to ISIL recruits. Living in the poor Sultanbeyli neighborhood on the edge of the Asian side of Istanbul, Hüseyin (not his real name) was one of two sons of a single mother originally from the Black Sea province of Rize. Coming from a moderately conservative family, he says “he was not living like a Muslim in the past,” but now that past is gone, and so is his clean-shaven face. 

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

- How did you go to Syria?
I went to Aleppo from Hatay. This route has been used in the past. Then the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of it and they started to stop the mujahedeen (jihadists) from using it.

- How did you cross the border?
Like ordinary smugglers. I jumped the fence and ran.

- Were you alone?
If there are people on the way that are bound in the same destination, you see yourself running together with the others. Otherwise, you are alone.

- Who did you find after you went to Syria?
Every group has their houses. This front or that front... They have their flags, so you choose which one you will go to.

- Which one did you choose?
I went to the al-Nusra Front.

- But then the al-Nusra Front members clashed with the ISIL...
Before, the al-Nusra Front was not like it is today. It was good. But then, useless men from the FSA joined the al-Nusra Front, and that’s when it was broken. The FSA has all kinds of people, including thieves, rapists and corrupt people. This is one of the reasons why the Islamic State [ISIL] attacks them - because of the oppression, the pillaging that they do. They say they are dedicated to the cause of Islam; they have beards; they exclaim “God is great”; they say they are in jihad. But they don’t even pray and they smoke. They took over a bakery and then increased the price of bread.

- How many times have you crossed into Syria?
Five times. First, they call you and teach you in Islamic classes. Then they check out who you are and if you might be an agent. After all, there are agents everywhere.

- Which nation has the greatest number of its citizens in Syria?
There are people from everywhere. Even Chinese Muslims. Of course, Arabs are the majority.

- How did the war between the al-Nusra Front and ISIL start?
They raped the wives of three mujahedeen.

- Did fighters take their wives with them?
Some of them do. British and Dutch ones... Muslims abroad come with their wives, because their wives are also Muslims. How can they look after them in a Christian country?
The truth is not like people see from here [Turkey]. They say the mujaheeden are so tough, slaughtering everyone, but this is not true.

- Are the beheading films fabricated?
Those who don’t commit crimes, those who are not agents, those who don’t do what God forbids, are not punished. But if you do these things, then you are punished, even if you are a mujahedeen commander. For instance, one commander had a fight with a local citizen and he was not right. The citizen went to the qadi [religious-based judge] and complained. The commander was whipped 80 times as punishment.

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

- Many of them spent some 20 years while fighting in Afghanistan, Caucasia, Bosnia, Libya and Syria. Are you sure that they are not “tough”?
Their toughness is not their character; it’s a result of Islamic rules. He can be tough, but if the way of his toughness is forbidden by Islam, then he is jailed. They say to him: “Either abandon these ways or leave.”

- How do these people live? What do they eat and drink? Is it true that they receive $150 as payment per day?
Only their arms and food expenses have been covered. No cash is being paid. The men leave their jobs here and go to fight there. They are not there to do business in the war zone. You fight in the war zone.

- You were arrested. How?
We were bringing aid to the camps. Our cars were stolen. Somebody sold us those cars with fake IDs. I was released in the first trial session.

- Have you ever heard of Abu Hanzala, the preacher whose sermons are popular on Facebook?
He is a student of Islamic learning. He is in jail. He is a Turk. Everyone knows him. He has been in and out of jail for years. He has his own congregation and organizes religious sermons. 

- He has made many calls for Turks to “join the Islamic State...”
No, he has not. He was in jail when all of these things started. 

- What do you think about the future of Syria?
God knows, but God helps Muslims.

- Would you go to another Muslim country if something similar happens there one day?
It is a religious obligation, just like jihad or daily prayers. Those who don’t go will have troubles, not those who go. If a Muslim is hurt in the Arctic, we would go there too.

- How many of your acquaintances have been killed while fighting?
Six or seven people. One of them had my name, a childhood friend. I knew his parents very well. He is one of the martyrs now. He was buried in Syria.


Meanwhile, there are many ISIL sympathizers in Turkey who see no problem with sharing pro-ISIL photos on their Facebook accounts. 

Mehmet Dülger, a self-proclaimed mujahid, posted a photo showing himself with a gun in Raqqa, ISIL’s stronghold in Syria. (photo below)

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Cihad Aslan, another Facebook user, notes his profession on Facebook as “working for God,” while a video showing Turkish jihadists in Raqqa celebrating the declaration of “the Caliphate” with gunfire can also be found online. 

Looking for ISIL: How jihadists operate among Turks

Elements of popular culture have also been adopted by jihadists. One young man, for instance, posted on Facebook to challenge his friends with an ice bucket shower, to donate money “to a mujahid brother’s family.”

The ISIL dictionary

Turkish jihadists have a terminology that they use while communicating with each other, and there are four key words in particular that are used:

Tağut: It comes from the Arabic word taghut, which means to “cross the limits, overstep boundaries,” or “to rebel.” Those who cross the limits put by God and the Prophet Muhammad deserve to be punished, jihadists say.

Ahi: This is how they address each other. It means “brother,” and refers to a guild established by Anatolian Sufis in the 13th century.

Gavs: It means “to help.” As a Sufi term, it connotes to the greatest wise man of the age.

Ebu: Turkish jihadists choose nicknames that start with “Ebu.” In Arabic, this means “the father of.” For instance, “Ebu Hanife” means “the father of Hanife [a girl’s name].”