Turkey’s Izmir emerges as unlikely Isis recruiting ground
In this liberal city the anti-terror police have broken up at least four cells in recent months
A cell of three families linked to the Reina nightclub attacker, who killed 39 people on New Year’s Eve in Istanbul, hid out in Izmir. Photographs: The Irish Times
At Izmir’s Konak Pier, an 1800s-era dock-turned-shopping mall, clusters of teenagers saunter through a Brooks Brothers store and queue to watch the latest cinema releases. Outside along the seafront corniche, cyclists, joggers and fishermen together make up a scene a world away from Turkey’s security troubles.
But Izmir’s reputation as Turkey’s most progressive city is under threat. An age-old bastion of Turkish secularism, Izmir has been rocked by a string of Islamic State-linked arrests and close calls.
Anti-terror police have broken up at least four cells in recent months, the latest two weeks ago, when six men, including two Syrians, who were plotting an attack on the May 1st celebrations, were detained.
A cell of three families linked to the Reina nightclub attacker, who killed 39 people on New Year’s Eve in Istanbul, hid out in Izmir before security forces apprehended the group in January. Fake passports and weapons were found at their homes, and authorities believe the nightclub attacker, Abdulkadir Masharipov, may have planned to flee to Greece before his eventual arrest in Istanbul.
Nine jihadists, including a Syrian, suspected of planning an attack in the city were detained in February. Bomb-detecting police have been deployed to city car parks. The Atlantic Council, a Washington DC-based think tank, reports that Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group formerly linked to al-Qaeda now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, have set up recruitment campaigns in the city.
Turkey says it has detained 1,700 “home-grown” extremists and deported almost 3,300 more to a total of 95 countries.
As Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir is known to attract Turks from poorer regions in the east in search of jobs. In the working-class neighbourhood of Cilgi, a nondescript district in the northern suburbs from where an Isis extremist was detained in November, Kurdish graffiti covers the walls of tiny, informal homes. No one here would speak about the local presence or otherwise of extremists.
Poor young men make easy fodder for jihadist groups, and a Turkish national known as Sari Murat has recruited Kurds for Isis in Izmir, where in “classrooms [that] doubled as prayer rooms” he “held discussions about religion with recruits for up to four months before the recruit was sent to Syria”, according to the Atlantic Council report.
In a city with a refugee population that ebbs and flows, though is thought to be in the tens of thousands in summer, the possible link between extremists and refugees fleeing to Europe can no longer be ignored.
Dozens of jihadists who crossed the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands have been detained in Europe having impersonated refugees fleeing Syria. With fake Syrian passports in hand, four men involved in the November 2015 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, entered Europe through the island of Leros to Izmir’s south.
None were Syrian nationals, although the men, from Iraq, Algeria and Pakistan, were reported by the Washington Post to have lived in Isis-controlled territory in Syria before entering Greece through Turkey. Isis has vowed to send jihadists disguised as refugees to Europe to carry out attacks.
Esat Kadayifci works at a watch store in Cesme, a holiday town 100km west of Izmir, and thinks that about “15-20 per cent” of migrants he sees moving through Cesme are single men. He says police have upped their presence in the area.
“Recently I was riding on my scooter, wearing rain gear, when the police stopped me at a checkpoint. They said they were looking for someone who looked like me,” he said. “Here it is difficult for terrorists because there is no way back [to Izmir] for them if something goes wrong when they try to cross.”
Since 2014 thousands of migrants and refugees have used Cesme to launch their crossing to Chios, and while their numbers have fallen considerably this year and last, police continue to detain hundreds of suspects: 78 people in a convoy of seven cars were detained on a road close to Cesme in April.
According to the Hurriyet Daily News, more than 70 boats and 23 coastguard security teams are patrolling waters between Turkey and Greece.
Since the Syrian uprising morphed into a full-blown war five years ago, claims have persisted that Turkey’s monitoring of the Syrian border and arrest of extremists was slack, as evidenced by a series of attacks by foreign Isis members in Istanbul last year, including on the main airport.
When seven Isis suspects were acquitted in March 2016 of charges of ferrying foreigners into Isis-held Syria, the public were up in arms. One of them, a Syrian, claimed he occasionally escorted foreigners for tourism reasons. Now, however, such charges are heard less often, with Ankara currently building barrier walls for hundreds of kilometres along its frontier with Syria.
For Kadayifci, there is an obvious solution to the threat Europe faces, but one that would require direct political intervention. “If the [Turkish] government wants, it could stop terrorists moving to the EU. In one day.”