Islamic State recruiters a source of anguish in conservative Kurdish town

The suspects in two recent bombings in Turkey came from Adiyaman, where Islamic State recruiters had been active. Relatives of the suspects complain that police had failed to heed their warnings about the militants' tactics. 

Dominique Soguel
Complaints from neighbors led police to shut down an IS recruitment center in the southeastern town of Adiyaman. It is now a paint shop but the group's dark banner still decorates the store front in Adiyaman, Turkey, August 8, 2015.

White-on-black Islamic calligraphy still adorns the establishment that the Islamic State used to recruit fighters and bombers in this town in southeast Turkey. 

Known as the Islamic Tea House, it was a hub for bearded men in tunics, who lured young men for explosives training in Syria before complaints from the community led police to shut it down. 

“It wasn’t exactly a tea house, but they did drink tea among themselves,” says Mahmoud Tunc, a chatty boy with a whisper of a mustache who works at a tiny tea shop across the street. “They were a carbon copy of the IS guys you see on social media. Even if you put a Quran in front of them, they wouldn’t read it. They would just parrot their stupid ideology. They were not harmful to us but they were very harmful to Adiyaman and Islam.”

Adiyaman is still reeling from the notoriety accrued by two of its sons. One was Orhan Gonder, the suspect in twin bombings that killed four people at a June 5 election rally in Diyarbakir, unofficial capital of Turkey’s Kurdish region. The other was the suicide bomber behind the July 20 attack in Suruc, a way-station for anti-IS Kurdish activists. That blast claimed the lives of 32 young activists and sent Turkey into a bellicose tailspin against both IS and Kurdish militants. 

Conservative Muslim Kurds are in the majority here. In contrast to Diyarbakir, the town supports Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And the two incidents have sparked a mix of soul-searching and finger-pointing at a time of spiraling unrest in Turkey. 

Warnings from parents

Mr. Gonder reportedly has protested his innocence from behind bars. His uncle says the extroverted young man who cracked jokes at weddings is a victim of manipulation. He and others say these attacks were entirely preventable, if only authorities had heeded the warnings of parents whose radicalized sons had traveled to Syria, presumably for explosives training.

“Before this action happened, all the families were one hand, constantly approaching the authorities, and going to the border,” says the boy’s uncle Ercan Gonder. “At the time we didn’t know where he was, but we...discovered that he was in Syria.”

By the time Gonder disappeared, back in October 2014, his family already knew something was amiss. The young man had grown a beard and began to pray five times a day, a tradition normal for Sunni Muslims but not his parents who are Alevis, a sect of Shiite Islam.

The family was uneasy about the time he spent hanging out at the Islamic Tea House and thumbing books extolling Afghan and Chechen warriors. They became even more alarmed when they learned fifteen of his friends had traveled to Syria and decided to inform the police. 

Before he disappeared, a police officer did meet with Gonder, but only took his statement. The uncle describes the family’s appeal to authorities and search efforts as largely futile.

A diverse community

“We think he was brainwashed,” says the middle-aged uncle. “We think IS was involved, but we don’t believe there is just one hand at play.” Many here suspect that Turkish intelligence is complicit in Islamist militant activity, including the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. 

In 2012-14, Adiyaman was a recruitment and fund-raising center for Syrian rebels, primarily via a stand near the municipality bearing the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Over this period, moderate rebels gave way to hard-line groups like Al Qaeda and IS, fueling suspicions that the FSA was a screen for militants. 

Adiyaman residents have long prided themselves on their peaceful nature and religious diversity; Syriac Christians, Armenians, and Alevis live alongside Muslims. While there is disagreement over whether conservative mores created a fertile environment for radicals, everyone agrees that bleak prospects for youth are acutely felt.

Adiyaman, cut off by the Ataturk Dam from more vibrant regional hubs, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. While much of the older generation worked in the tobacco industry, urbanization has left the new generation at a loss for jobs.

IS recruitment under-reported

“There is nothing for young people in the city – no pubs, no clubs, no entertainment. Only cafes where you can play tawula (Turkish backgammon)," says Ozgur Sever, an English-speaking young native of Adiyaman who moved to Istanbul to study. "Since they have no entertainment or cultural activities, they are open to ideological radicalization.”

Indeed, this summer, the only cinema in town closed its doors.

Hidayet Aktoprak, a conservative Muslim who runs the local branch of Mazlumder, a rights organization, is not convinced that IS recruitment represents a widespread phenomenon among the youth. Still, he acknowledges there may be some parallels in the worldview of conservative elements of the community and IS. The fact that there are Kurds in the ranks of IS in Syria battling Kurds backed by a US-led coalition also creates tension.

Efforts to conduct an assessment on the links between Adiyaman and Syria were shelved out of fear of retaliation from IS, he adds. By his calculation, a minimum of 127 Adiyaman natives have traveled to Syria, in all likelihood to join IS. “The (real) number is estimated to be 400 because many went to Syria as a family, leaving no one behind to report them missing,” he says.

Adiyaman-based Osman Suzen of Insan Haklari Dernegi, another rights association, believes that IS recruitment is under-reported. “Most of the families are scared and hide it. Some think that no measures will be taken. Others are satisfied as they received money,” he says, adding that the large presence of religious sects and associations in the city helps radical groups to screen and recruit militants.

Personal touch is more effective

Many here claim that IS recruits get $5,000 upon joining and a stipend of $2,000 thereafter.

Analysts say that IS recruitment efforts in Turkey often have a “personal touch.” Unlike in the West, where social media is influential, friendships and face-to-face relationships play a crucial role. The rise of religious societies, congregations, mosques with radical imams and “civil society” organizations with salafist agendas provide points of access for IS.

Ayise Gul, co-chairwoman of the pro-Kurdish and leftist teachers union Egitim Sen, pins the blame on government policies that favor religious education over more secular schooling. While cultural and sports centers are a rarity in Adiyaman, religious schools, foundations, charities and Quranic study centers abound.

“The situation is very dangerous,” she says. “Most families in Adiyaman are conservative and want their children to have a religious education. They see it as an opportunity, but in reality it leaves their children vulnerable to IS and other radical ideologies.”

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