By now, it's a well-established fact that foreign fighters looking to join extremist groups -- most worryingly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself -- fighting the Assad regime in Syria have been using Turkey as a gateway to that country.
But more recently concerns have been rising about ISIS's activity inside Turkish cities, particularly with regards to the recruitment of vulnerable Turkish young men in poor neighborhoods. In a deeply reported piece in Newsweek, reporters Alexander Christie-Miller and Alev Scott take a look at ISIS's activity in Istanbul, telling the story of Deniz Sahin, a 28-year-old woman whose estranged husband recently went off to join the extremist group in Syria, taking their two children along. From the Newsweek piece:
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.
A story in the New York Times, written by Ceylan Yeginsu, tracks a similar story, only this time in Ankara, where ISIS has been able to successfully recruit in some of the capital city's poorer areas. From Yeginsu's story:
Hacibayram, a ramshackle neighborhood in the heart of Ankara’s tourist district, has morphed into an ISIS recruitment hub over the past year. Locals say up to 100 residents have gone to fight for the group in Syria.
“It began when a stranger with a long, coarse beard started showing up in the neighborhood,” recalled Arif Akbas, the neighborhood’s elected headman of 30 years, who oversees local affairs. “The next thing we knew, all the drug addicts started going to the mosque.”
One of the first men to join ISIS from the neighborhood was Ozguzhan Gozlemcioglu, known to his ISIS counterparts as Muhammad Salef. In three years, he has risen to the status of a regional commander in Raqqa, and locals say he frequently travels in and out of Ankara, each time making sure to take back new recruits with him.
Mehmet Arabaci, a Hacibayram resident who assists with distributing government aid to the poor, said younger members of the local community found online pictures of Mr. Gozlemcioglu with weapons on the field and immediately took interest. Children have started to spend more time online since the municipality knocked down the only school in the area last year as part of an aggressive urban renewal project.
Turkish officials have either dismissed the claims of ISIS recruiting activity inside their country or have explained them away by saying the number who have gone to fight for the group in Syria is too small to be significant.
But combined with Ankara's hesitance to support the Washington-led effort to fight ISIS's growing regional influence, the militant group's ability to recruit inside Turkey could further fuel the perception -- both in the Middle East and the west -- that, as Turkish analyst Cengiz Candar recently put it: "If the recent discourse of [Turkey's] decision-makers is scrutinized closely, one may reach the conclusion that the ruling Islamist government of Turkey is more distanced from its NATO allies than from IS.”