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Part-time jihadists of Turkey are still enroute to Raqqa

ISIS fighters in Ankara continue living double lives in troubled Hacibayram as they travel in and out Syria, whilst the government turns a blind eye to propaganda in broad daylight

By Dogu Eroglu – Jan 23 2015

During his 2-day Ankara visit in December 2014, UK Prime Minister David Cameron underlined Turkey and UK’s “shared view” against terrorism, despite diplomatic circles in the Turkish capital suggested otherwise. Cameron in fact was frustrated and furious at Turkey for swapping 180 ISIS fighters –in which there were 2 British jihadists amongst– in return for 59 Turkish diplomats captured at ISIS’ raid to Turkish Embassy in Mosul in June 11.

At the joint press conference held after that meeting, former minister of foreign affairs, now PM Davutoglu enunciated bold claims: “Our stance against international terrorism, regardless of its location, is clear. We are unanimous with PM Cameron on many matters.” Yet, it appears that providing logistic support to armed groups is not amongst the issues they share the same opinion on, considering ceaseless and abiding rumors Turkey supplying arms and ammunition, and have been providing shelter and medical care for Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, factions of the Islamic Front, and ISIS, in chronological order.

Photo distributed by the PM Cameron's office. Photo credit: Arron Hoare.

Photo distributed by the PM Cameron’s office. Photo credit: Arron Hoare.

When it comes to turning a blind eye to ISIS activities in Turkey, the infamous recruitment spot Hacibayram in Ankara is no exception. After a series of publications across national newspapers raised alarms over religious extremism in the capital of Turkey, government criticized and snubbed the reports, until NYT (The New York Times) decided to visit the neighborhood, looking for material evidence supporting the rumors. Though the field research hardly provided indisputable evidence but testimonies from ordinary community dwellers and ISIS sympathizers, seeing the piece appeared on NYT was more than enough for Turkey President Erdogan to lose his temper.

The story was first published online with a photo, showing President Erdogan and PM Davutoglu leaving the Hacibayram Mosque, which the famous ISIS recruitment neighborhood had also been called after. Nevertheless, the widely criticized –even unethical for some– preference of NYT editorial board allowed Erdogan to manipulate the public. Despite NYT has admitted that particular photo, reverberated across the world, “was published in error,” the debate continued on a more personal level after Erdogan slammed the report, and denounced the reporter as “shameless.” Eventually, another typical discussion sprung up. Once again, another crisis regarding press freedom standards in Turkey unveiled, while ISIS involvement in Turkish capital seemed to be forgotten.

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Being the tranquil battlefield of religions and ideologies is not a new feature to old town of Ankara. Following the long reigns of Hittite, Phrygian and Galatian civilizations, Ankara thrived, especially in commerce, during the Roman era. Conquered by Augustus in 25 BC, then called Ancyra became one of the administrative centers of Roman outpost Anatolia. The Temple of Augustus or Monumentum Ancyranum, the most significant artefact of contemporary old town, was also built at the same time. The Temple was there to stand in solitude for 14 centuries to come, until a local Islamist sect decided to build a mosque next to it.

hacibayrami veli - source unkown

A depiction of Haci Bayram-i Veli

The building depicted on the photo which induced the crisis between NYT and Erdogan, Hacibayram Mosque, was named after Ankara born and raised Haci Bayram-i Veli, the founder of Bayrami sect. Haci Bayram-i Veli had not only managed to reconcile Anatolian Islam with practical life and commerce, but he also gave the young Ottoman State an opportunity to take sides between different sorts of Islam.[1] Statesmen preferred Haci Bayram-i Veli’s version of Islam over Anatolian Sufism which disowned earthly pleasures while embracing austerity and transcendence; the state even acknowledged tax exemption for Bayrami villagers, tradesmen and artisans. As Bayrami ideology became intertwined with dominant Sunni Islam, as a sign of Islamist conquest ideology, first a shrine, then Hacibayram Mosque itself was built next to Augustus Temple’s exterior walls in late 1420s. Today, the recently renovated mosque and the temple still share the same ground, only few centimeters setting two houses of worship apart.[2]

The Temple of Augustus (left), and the renovated Hacibayram Mosque. Photo credit: Mehmet Akinci

The Temple of Augustus (left), and the renovated Hacibayram Mosque. Photo credit: Mehmet Akinci

While neo-Islamist AKP government treasured and tried to resurrect the symbolism of once predominant Sunni-Islam alloyed Bayrami belief –alongside with Islamist conquest ideology– they certainly did not see the new wave of Islamic radicalization (fueled by urban renewal projects) coming in the historic center of Turkish capital, coherent with al-Qaeda’s altered grassroots recruitment campaign and steady expansion agenda. On November 15, 2003, the first known attack by al-Qaeda in Turkey borders was carried out in Istanbul, and the targets were two synagogues. The synagogue bombings which claimed 27 lives and left more than 300 wounded, has been followed by another series of car bomb attacks. During the most destructive act ascribed to al-Qaeda in Turkey, HSBC Headquarters and the British Consulate in Istanbul were bombed simultaneously on November 20, 2013, by lone-wolf attackers. The toll from bombings at Istanbul’s commercial center Levent, and downtown Beyoglu was 30-dead and at least 448 wounded. Another suicide bombing hit Istanbul Masonic Lodge in March 2004 (2 people were killed), and the latest al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist act in Turkey targeted US Consulate in Istanbul in July 2008 (3 police officers and 3 terrorists were killed).

The HSBC Headquarters in Istanbul, after the blast. Sources of both photos are unknown.

The HSBC Headquarters in Istanbul, after the blast. Sources of both photos are unknown.

Yet, the assault to US diplomatic compound marked the last armed attack in Turkey exercised by any al-Qaeda affiliated group in years to come; it appears al-Qaeda –or Salafist jihadism in more general terms– started to regard Turkey as a wellspring of jihadists (foot soldiers), rather than a target, judging from ceased bombings after 2004 –US Consulate attack is the only exception– and grassroots recruitment efforts run by mysterious Salafi men arrived to particular neighborhoods dating to circa 2003.[3]

According to the police sources and locals of Hacibayram, the radicalization that gave way to recent ISIS recruitment trend has started with early 2000s. Bearded men in long cassocks and taqiyahs –rounded caps worn by Muslims for religious purposes– started to appear on the streets, later it turned out that they were of Salafi belief. And before long, the divergence between Hacibayram inhabitants and the families who got in touch with Salafis became apparent. In 2004, escalating number of visits of Salafis to the neighborhood came to anti-terror police’s attention. Nevertheless, Istanbul NATO Summit 2004 scheduled on June 28 to 29, forced authorities into taking action without possessing significant evidence. The operation undertaken in Ankara provided no ties with Salafi groups on the ground to the al-Qaeda militants affiliated with the 2003 Istanbul bombings. Soon enough, 12 detained men were set free in matter of days, since the only evidence found at police raids were limited to religious CDs and books explaining Salafi belief.

Following 2004’s raids, Salafis increased their efforts to gain reputation among and control over families of “Pasha” ethic-religious origin in Hacibayram, who are estimated to be consisted of three different family lineages, and nearly 300 individuals. Though etymologically it means “elder brother,” the honorary title pasha have been usually given to military officers, governors, or dignitaries, indicating a higher rank among Ottoman society. The term pasha however, had lost its original meaning within time and have become characterized with Shiite Alawite groups living in inlands Northern Black Sea Region of Turkey, notably in an ordinary Anatolian town Cankiri. In there, as well as Ankara, pashas have been known as peddlers. In 19th century onwards they used to go from village to village by their carts, providing all kinds of services such as cotton fluffing, and selling tapestries, carpets, clothing and so forth. Apart from the alleged financial gains from ISIS, those families still hold on to their traditional source of income, as vans replaced horse carts nowadays. Among ISIS circles in Syria, members of those families who happen to be jihadists now, are still known as pashas.

Consistent with the Salafi belief that paying taxes to government, enrolling one’s child to a public school, and temporarily joining the ranks of the army for compulsory military service are considered as illicit or haraam, families in Hacibayram ceased all of those at short notice. Local sources suggest, the number of people affiliated with Salafis increased substantially after 2009, yet, police or intelligence showed rather little if any attention, for the lack of radical-Islam involved armed conflict in Syria, or in the rest of the region. But not before long, the crosshair of radical Islamism came closer.

As Erdogan’s outburst turned the nation’s attention once again to the recruitment spot, national intelligence agency MIT and anti-terror police at last decided to pay a visit to the neighborhood for the first time in 10 years. Officers asked about 8 men and children who were claimed to be fighting among ISIS ranks but they received a reply they did not expect. Hacibayram inhabitants snubbed them, telling at least 50 are rumored to be affiliated with ISIS, and gave the police a 17-man list, with their noteworthy activities in Ankara and Syria attached.

The list contains 17 names and expanding. Adil, Bayram and Cemalettin T., Eyup G., Tuncay and Erdal D. and Haydar D. are the names who travel to Syria from time to time, and also recruit for ISIS in Ankara. Halil Ibrahim G. who died during fighting among ISIS ranks; Oguzhan G. who also goes by the name Muhammad Salafi (allegedly one of the administrative authorities in ISIS controlled Syria); and Yusuf D. AKA the Skull (Supposedly a high-ranked military officer of ISIS) are some of the ISIS fighters of Hacibayram origin.

Oguzhan G 2
Soldaki yusuf d, sagdaki halil ibrahim g
Witnesses tell, additional to Mustafa U., Yunus K., and the one known by his nickname Hamza Baba, another young man called Erkan –In ISIS circles, he was known as Saifullah al-Turki, and killed himself during a suicide attack according to a pro-ISIS news site– had been detected among Salafi supporters in the neighborhood, before the Syrian Civil War picked up.

erkan
Mustafa Ü
Yunus K
Hamza Baba
By the look of things, the same administration that stalled the access of Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga forces into ISIS-besieged Kobane through Turkish land for weeks, continues maintaining or shutting its eye[4] to the corridor established for ISIS jihadists’ disposal, and security forces even allow jihadists to have double lives. It is reported that another fighter Dursun G. returned from Syria to the neighborhood in November, rested for a brief period, and disappeared again.

Arda G
He is believed to be in Syria as of now. Dursun’s son Arda G. has fought for ISIS as well. Rumor is Arda has left Syria for good and now working in Ankara as a cab driver, but locals point cautiously that they wouldn’t be surprised if he does another round trip to jihad in the future.

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Ibrahim D. is yet another part-time jihadists of Hacibayram. Even though he is not known to the intelligence or the police so to say, readers follow ISIS recruitment closely are in fact familiar to his views. Quoted by an American online, Mashable.com, as saying that his accommodations in Raqqa “were like a 5-star hotel,” Ibrahim D. added he would take his family to Syria at the earliest opportunity. Though reporter of that story, Emily Feldman, did not know his name by then, the picture taken during that brief chat, combined with a photograph from Raqqa, allowed Hacibayram residents to identify Ibrahim D.

engAnkara-ISIS-04

The last but definitely not least member of the list is none other than the local recruitment officer who goes by the name Murat Ibrahim. With his long charcoal black beard and hair, and ankle length cassocks and taqiyahs –both black too– he is easily distinguishable; his striking figure just might appear on the streets of Hacibayram any other day, if you happen to visit the neighborhood (One local tells a creeping story; he claims he has seen Ibrahim showing an ISIS beheading video to youngsters on his smartphone to encourage them going to Syria, on the street in broad daylight).

Locals think currently a total of 25 to 30 jihadists from Hacibayram are still in Syria; the figure might exceed 50 when outskirts of Ankara is taken under consideration, if further intelligence regarding recruitments coming from other districts of the city are proven to be right.

Even though families affiliated with ISIS started to refuse all interview requests from media following Erdogan’s outburst, locals who have an acquaintance with these families reveal the actual motivations lure Hacibayram children and men into Syria swamp. According to those familiar to ISIS sympathizers in Hacibayram, uninterrupted propaganda of religious extremism starting on 2003, converted children above all, who used to be distant to Sunni Islam, to would-be jihadists only in years.

For locals, the affection for knives and fire arms has also been a known feature of pashas. One particular community dweller recalls the events of 2004, and points out pasha families’ interest towards weaponry was acknowledged long since: “They already had guns and rifles back then, yet during the raids in 2004 police managed to find only some books and pamphlets. There was no trace of even a single pistol. All guns were probably hidden elsewhere.” There is of course the thrill of war, particularly felt among the children and young men. However, the most purported cause for men to join ISIS is said to be the spoils of war. According to the locals, the evident proof of enrichment of particular families through spoils of war is increased numbers of brand new vans in their doorsteps. Some of the family members continue their abovementioned traditional way of living as salespersons, whereas rest of the men maintain their double lives as part-time jihadists; ISIS militias in Syria, salesmen in Turkey.

The mess that sloppy urban renewal project has left behind in the neighborhood, also came handy for Salafi-lead groups in Hacibayram, by means of increasing their pool of resources. ISIS sympathizers forcefully seized the houses abandoned by their previous owners in order to be demolished by the municipality. The war combined with the urban renewal project, pro-ISIS families now have another source of income by renting those houses they seized. Tragically, most of their tenants are Syrian refugees who escaped from the civil war.

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“The youth of once drug-ridden neighborhood, became easy targets for Salafi recruiters once the local elementary school was demolished,” says one of the elders. 90s and early 2000s were also tough times for Hacibayram, prominent members of the local community devoted themselves to halt the traffic and use of drugs, as they noticed even youngsters under the age of ten were taking drugs. By doing that, they were offering children a decent future through quitting drugs and taking basic education more seriously instead. But local government-run urban renewal project was in the way: As the bulldozers tear down the perfectly functional Yahya Galip Kargi Elementary School in Hacibayram district due to alleged “earthquake risk”, not only drugs but jihadist propaganda reached a greater influence upon children. Following the demolishment, City Educational Board transferred the children to another school located few kilometers away from the neighborhood, but forgot providing public transportation for the students. Consequently, dropouts soared as parents unable to afford private transportation stopped sending their children to school. Now, every time a teenager child decides to travel to Syria for a better living, to feel the excitement of war, or simply because the God orders him to do so, locals remember Ankara Municipality’s decision of tearing the school down.

On several occasions, it has been reported that young boys from Hacibayram are taken to training and propaganda headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, for several months. At their first visit, youngsters are usually accommodated at places Ibrahim D. talks so highly of, so the viral propaganda begins upon their return to Hacibayram. The word of riches and spoils spreads among teenagers. The rumors leave too little to do for recruitment officers; the children long to be in the promised lands so much that they don’t refrain waving the Black Banner and jihadist flags[5] midday in the streets of Hacibayram.

IMG-20141117-WA0008 (2)

Youngsters waving the Black Banner and jihadist flags in Hacibayram, Ankara. First appeared on Daily BirGun on November 20, 2014

IMG-20141117-WA0007

The same group moves on towards the neighborhood. First appeared on Daily BirGun on November 20, 2014

Atilla Kart, Konya MP for the main opposition party CHP, told the public time and again that there were other recruitment spots in Adapazari, Konya, Istanbul, and other provinces as well, insisted there was no easy way overcoming ISIS recruitments by simply looking away. “What have the authorities been up to?” Kart asks, “Why no one has intervened to their activities so far?” Unfolding a 90-men list each aligned with either Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, or other Islamic organizations based around Aleppo, Kart underscores this was not the outcome of self-radicalization, –he implies, the popular and widely acknowledged “disenfranchisement of young people on the margins of society” rhetoric falls short of crystallizing the phenomenon of outflow of Turkish jihadists to Syria– but rather the first globally mobilized jihadist generation of many to come, due to the long-lasting inaction strategy of the AKP government. For many, it is not a coincidence that milieus of former Turkish jihadists to Chechnya are among the first ones to mobilize.

On one occasion, a minor from Hacibayram aged 15 ran away with one of the part-time jihadists of the neighborhood, to go Syria. Father of the young boy noticed the authorities, and their car got stopped by police in Aksaray, a province with the proximity of 225 kilometers to Ankara. The underage boy was escorted back to his family in Ankara, whereas the police allowed the elder one to leave without any prosecution, it has been told that despite the intelligence that he was headed to Syria to fight among ISIS ranks, they rejected to apprehend him “because they were not entitled to violate his right to travel.” Goes without saying, law enforcement agencies in Aksaray declined to react specifically to that story.

Given the robustness of action taken –despite the lack of conclusive evidence– when old or new rivals of the government were on target,[6] the whole opposition criticize AKP government for embracing a different approach when it comes to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other religious extremists. For one reason or another, not only did the government abstained from taking action when kids wave jihadist flags but also preferred not to halt religious extremists’ deafening propaganda. Perhaps that decision will be recalled if steady streams of jihadists from Turkey start travelling all over the world to next jihads for decades to come.

 

Footnotes

[1] Statist position of the Bayrami sect is best described by its own Fuat Bayramoglu, identifying the fundamental pillars of Bayrami belief as Sunni Islam, indigenousness, and the continuity of the state. As his surname suggests, Bayramoglu is a descendant of Haci Bayram-i Veli, and his bureaucratic career –Bayramoglu served as ambassador of Turkey in 6 different nations, and secretary-general to the president– gives further hints on Bayrami sect’s position in modern Turkey.

[2] Renowned novelist and poet Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar tells about Haci Bayram-i Veli in his influential piece Five Cities (tr. Beş Şehir). “What was the secret coincidence that drove Haci Bayram to set his cilehane [The place where dervishes deprive themselves of earthly pleasures, and search transcendence] at this marble nest [Augustus Temple] of Roman Eagle?” he added, “…[Haci Bayram-i Veli] had taken a truly constructive role on structuration of Turkish society. Bayrami is the sect of artisans and tradesmen, and farmers. Thereby, the peasant movement started in Anatolia initiated by Baba Ilyas of Horasan, gathered around the ahi-guild [Turkish-Islamic artisan and trade guild]. The Bayrami movement tremendously expanded even during the day of Haci Bayram-i Veli, so that Murad II [Ottoman ruler of that day] became concerned of his [Haci Bayram-i Veli] spiritual sovereignty over society, and ordered him to be taken to Edirne [Ottoman capital] from Ankara. And allowed him to leave, only after he felt certain about his good intentions. Yet, that prudence was in deed uncalled-for. Haci Bayram was in fact building the internal order of the Empire.”

[3] On his piece on attack to French weekly Charlie Hebdo, Juan Cole notes that the strategy behind the massacre was most likely to further antagonize French Muslims and the rest of the society, so that odds in favor of radicalization would increase: “Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.” Similarly, the grassroots recruitment campaign of al-Qaeda affiliated groups –following the devastating attacks in Istanbul– might be perceived as the second phase of a long-term plan.

[4] Names and alleged activities of jihadists in Hacibayram has been mentioned in two separate news stories, both published on Turkish Daily BirGun. Despite the evidence of ISIS propaganda received widespread public attention, no government agency attempted to halt neither the recruitment of would-be jihadists nor the stream of fighters in both directions.

[5] Even though the Black Banner goes much further, jihadist black flag is much more popular among current jihadist circles. Muslim armies during Muhammad era used the Black Banner, yet contemporary jihadist organizations prefer to use a black flag with the shahada inscribed in white, since it was first waved by Taliban in 1990s.

[6] Massive investigations or trials, politically supported by AKP governments, such as Ergenekon, KCK, Balyoz (Sledgehammer), and Devrimci Karargâh (Revolutionary Headquarters), and the most recent investigations and raids to Gulenists, drew the ire for lacking of concrete evidence.

 

Explanations and photo credits to the slider images

Slider 1: The image of President Erdogan and PM Davutoglu leaving Hacibayram Mosque. Photo credit: Adem Altan – AFP – Getty Images

Slider 2: Image of two different news stories published on Daily BirGun

Slider 3: Image of a pile of legal notice written to the parents of students used to attend Yahya Galip Kargi Elementary School. All letters contain warnings that due to excessive absence, their children are about to be expelled from the school. Those documents are salvaged from the ruins of the school. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

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