ANKARA, Turkey — In Ankara’s Hacibayram neighborhood, young men clad in long gray robes stand out among the locals in the streets. They are sympathizers and former fighters of the Islamic State (IS) who, a couple of years ago, had made Hacibayram one of its main recruitment grounds in Turkey. According to a security official speaking to Al-Monitor, the number of recruits joining IS from or via Turkey has declined over the past year, and militants believed to be defectors from the group — both Turks and foreigners — have been increasingly sneaking in from Syria.
In Hacibayram, 70 of the estimated 150 young men who had joined IS have returned home, along with seven of the 10 families that had moved to the “caliphate,” a local official in close contact with residents told Al-Monitor. Observers, however, warn that the decline in recruitment does not mean that IS has lost its popular appeal.
The robe-clad men in Hacibayram refused to answer questions, wary of speaking to the media after police raids in the neighborhood last year. The detainees were eventually released due to lack of evidence, but they remain reticent to speak out of security concerns. According to local residents, however, in private conversations former IS members grumble about the group’s tough internal rules, the harsh living conditions in Syria and the decline in the economic benefits they had been promised.
The returnees have been applying for new identity cards because “IS used to confiscate the IDs of recruits,” the local official told Al-Monitor. Such applications have increased over the past eight months, he said.
According to residents, it all started in 2011 after strangers moved to the neighborhood and began indoctrinating locals. Alevi youngsters, they say, were particularly targeted and “brainwashed” that their faith was not true Islam and that they should “fight for Allah to see paradise.” The local official believes some youngsters joined IS to escape trials or convictions for crimes such as drug peddling, theft and armed assaults, while others were tempted by the material benefits the organization promised.
A frequently mentioned name is Oguzhan Gozlemecioglu, described as an active figure in the recruitment effort in 2012. He is said to have become a military outpost commander in Raqqa, going by the name Mohammed Selef. Gozlemecioglu’s father has spent six months behind bars and remains on trial for aiding IS recruitment.
Al-Monitor paid a visit to the home of Gozlemecioglus, where the father, Eyup, bluntly refused to answer questions because “the journalists keep smearing IS.” But then his daughter Ozlem intervened and persuaded him to speak, arguing that media interviews might help the family find their younger son, who has gone missing after going to Syria.
Large pictures of the two brothers in Syria were displayed prominently in the family’s living room. The oldest of five siblings, Oguzhan, 36, joined IS in 2012, leaving a wife and four children behind. Halil Ibrahim, 29, married with three children, soon followed suit. The family has been told that Halil Ibrahim was taken captive by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units after being wounded in clashes in Resulain in May 2014. According to the father, a senior Kurdish commander relayed his capture to the IS commander in the region. Since then, however, the family has received no news of their son. And what about Oguzhan? Is he really a military outpost commander in Raqqa? “I don’t know,” the father replied, “I guess he was dismissed from that post.”
Eyup Gozlemecioglu is a jobless man. Together with his children, he used to deal in secondhand home appliances, but he stopped working after his two sons joined IS, a decision he described as “Allah’s commandment” and sought to justify with verses from the Quran. In the meantime, his wife, Erik, returned home after a working day in the streets, where she sells tissues to help keep the household afloat. Unlike her husband, Erik was averse to her sons’ jihadi ambitions. According to her, Oguzhan and Halil Ibrahim had no radical religious views and even enjoyed alcohol before being “brainwashed” to join IS.
She said she communicated with Raqqa-based Oguzhan via WhatsApp but worried about the fate of Halil Ibrahim. To find her missing son, she has sought help from the Foreign Ministry and Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party but to no avail. “I so wish they come back even if they have to spend the rest of their lives in jail. If nothing else, I’d be able to see them in prison,” she said.
Hacibayram is an impoverished, squalid area without even a school. Local children go to school more than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away after the neighborhood’s two schools were demolished under the pretext of “urban transformation.” For many families, educating their children is already a luxury that they cannot afford. The neighborhood is heavily populated with Syrian refugees, attracted by the low rents of derelict shanty houses. As Al-Monitor bid farewell to the Gozlemecioglu family late in the evening, Hacibayram’s steep, narrow streets were alive with unusual car traffic, which the local official linked to people coming to buy drugs, including heroin, after dark.
In remarks to Al-Monitor, Serhat Erkmen, a researcher of radical Islamist movements at Ahi Evran University, said the defections from IS stemmed mainly from the significant losses of territory and power the group had suffered since last year and the deteriorating living conditions in IS-held areas under bombardment. Recruitment, meanwhile, has declined due to tightened border security and increased control of communication means and social media, in addition to the deterring impact of police operations against suspected IS militants. “Yet the decrease in the number of people joining IS does not mean that sympathy for the group has completely vanished,” he said.
The scholar also noted the returns were not in large numbers yet. “Those who have returned do not make even a third [of those who joined IS], and this is true for all countries,” he said. According to Erkmen, leaving the group is not easy, stressing that the defectors have to pay hefty sums to human smugglers at the border.
The returns have been brought up in the Turkish Parliament as well. In a written question to the interior minister in late June, main opposition deputy Senal Sarihan stressed that Turkey faced an additional security threat from returnees crossing back from Syria and asked how many of them had sought help with their embassies to return home.
The Turkish and foreign defectors sneak into Turkey from the border regions in the Gaziantep and Kilis provinces. According to the Turkish security official who spoke to Al-Monitor, about 40 militants of various nationalities have been caught in the past 30 days alone while attempting to sneak in clandestinely.