Driving an immaculate minivan to Akcakale in southeastern Turkey, Abu Walid bemoans his bad luck at the Islamic State’s defeat last week.
Just across the border, in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, the bright banners of Kurdish and Syrian factions have replaced the monochrome flag of the self-declared Islamic State (IS).
While many celebrated the jihadists’ unexpected defeat, Abu Walid was decidedly in mourning. Syria-bound foreign fighters were his highest value clients.
“We would split the profit with the (Turkish) border guards 50-50,” says the stocky, graying Syrian, who owns a big building in Akcakale, the border town at the heart of his business. “Every day I used to bring at least 25 per day. We had as many as 40 foreign fighters entering with their wives on a single day. The last batch we took was right before the Kurdish offensive. Thirty-eight people.”
For nearly two years, Tel Abyad was a major stop on the jihadist highway, the main gateway for foreign fighters and supplies bound for IS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. Its capture by a Kurdish-led coalition last week severed a vital supply route to Raqqa, capital of the IS “caliphate.” But analysts and smugglers warn it will take more than the fall of Tel Abyad to halt the flow of Arab and Western jihadists.
The enterprising smuggler, who requested that his work name – like “Abu Walid,” a pseudonym – not be used, is now stuck with a fleet of four large vehicles and a small army of minors who earned a living guiding his VIP clients over the railway tracks demarcating the border with Syria. The teens – Syrians and Turks – would cut a path across the barbed wire rolls while gendarmes were paid to turn a blind eye.
Saudis paid well
Syrians seeking to come in and out of their home country, most of them lacking formal documents, will undoubtedly remain an important client base, but foreign fighters were the real cash cows.
“No less than $1,000 from the Saudis and Kuwaitis,” he boasts. “Sometimes they would be so happy to have reached the gates of the caliphate that they would turn over all the money they had left, taking only a couple of hundred with them to complete the journey.”
Foreign women and girls often used the formal border crossing, using forged identity cards to pass themselves off as Syrians.
“If they had no identity cards, I would vouch for them, but if they were turned back, we would drive to the next village and send them off by foot. No one ever got caught,” he says, adding that many travelers left their valuables, including passports, at his house for safe-keeping.
Jihadists evacuated families
In the last few weeks it became clear that the tide was turning in the turf battles across the border. Conscious that a Kurdish-led offensive was closing in on Tel Abyad, long a major IS bastion in northeast Syria, many foreign fighters shepherded their wives and children out of IS territory. “They knew there would be clashes in Tel Abyad so they brought out their families,” he says. “Out came French, Tunisians, Danes, Algerians, Germans.”
Most of the foreign fighters going in the last two years, however, were Turks, he says.
IS continues to control the Syrian side of two border crossings – Alraee and Jarablus – which open up to the provinces of Gaziantep and Kilis in Turkey, according to the latest data of the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Smugglers using unofficial routes near those two points say they’ve already seen a spike in traffic since the fall of Tel Abyad.
“IS does not only have one back door for supplies and foreign fighters on the border with Turkey,” notes Jasmine Opperman, a senior analyst for Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, a digital collection of experts focused on political violence, adding that it likely already shifted to other areas. “Crippling ISIS by cutting supply lines is important, but is going to take much more than the victory at Tel Abyad.”
Increased IS-affiliated messages and references on Twitter, Ms. Opperman adds, show the group is aware of the increased risk of its recruits being apprehended but also shows the network is able to adjust and communicate hints on how to minimize the risk of exposure. While it is still possible for IS fighters to go to Syria using alternative routes, many of those require crossing territory held by Kurds and other factions.
“Since the fall of Tel Abyad we have about 35 to 40 foreign fighters going in per day from this area,” whereas before it was just six to seven, says a smuggler in Qarqamish.
Another smuggler using the routes near Al-Raee tells The Christian Science Monitor: “We had an average of 20 per day going through before the fall of Tel Abyad, now there are as many as 50.”
But all concur that Tel Abyad, in comparison, used to be a walk in the park.
Abu Walid says he sent 21 foreign would-be fighters to Gaziantep last Tuesday. The men had traveled to Turkey with the intention of crossing at Tel Abyad, before the Kurds had taken control of the border. His young apprentice, a motherless Syrian boy using the moniker Musa, says the Kurds are a tougher crowd, catching him and turning him back four times since they took over.
“Before (the Kurds) took over, I would go back and forth several times during the night. Now its next to impossible,” he says, quickly turning around to reassure a prospective Syrian customer that tonight he will find the way. The young boy earns but a small fraction of what Abu Walid makes.
No remorse for aiding IS
Musa is unabashedly pro-IS after having completed their short course on Islamic Law and is reluctant to disclose any sensitive information.
“I wanted to join them, all my friends in Syria are IS,” he explains. “I would love to be fighting with them, but my father prevented me. He is worried my little brothers would follow me if I did.”
Neither the young nor old smuggler – who was once a small-timer bringing tea and cigarettes across the border – show any sense of remorse for their actions.
“I never pictured I would be a human trafficker,” admits Abu Walid, who considers many in IS as friends. “But I never regretted bringing them in. The only thing that filled me with regret was the beheadings. No Muslim should kill another.”