MESOP NEWS : The Smugglers Who Get People Into Syria for Islamic State

By Constanze Letsch – The Guardian – 2015-03-12 21:16 GMT – On an obscure rural road not far from the Syrian border, the minibus finally gives up the ghost. “It’s broken down,” the driver shrugs. “I will call someone else to get you to Syria.”A friend arrives 15 minutes later in a small private car. Peeking into the minibus, he asks: “All of you to the wire?”

The “wire” is the 500-mile Turkish-Syrian frontier that is meant to be closed off by the Turkish authorities to stop smugglers taking people and money to the jihadis of Islamic State on the other side. Under mounting US pressure Turkey has cracked down on border security, but not everywhere.

“It’s easy to cross all along the border” in this region, says a second minibus driver who has conveyed a busload of passengers from the Turkish town of Gaziantep down to the border. “But you need to take the side roads, it’s safer.”

On small dirt tracks, several minibuses and cars are waiting, each of them going to different points on the border, but all accessing Isis-controlled territory. Little by little, the minibus empties, and when it arrives in a nearby border town, which the Guardian is not naming to protect those quoted in this piece, only two passengers are left.

At the bus station, two teenage boys immediately approach, offering to take the remaining two passengers to the wire.”Only 10 [Turkish] lira [£2.60],” offers Ahmed*, a boy in ill-fitting, mud-stained trousers, his bare feet barely filling his worn-out shoes. Syrian smugglers such as Ali and his friend Ahmed take both goods and people across into Isis territory. They witness horror, routinely, and shrug it off.

“Just yesterday Isis beheaded three FSA [Free Syrian Army] fighters,” Ahmed says, laughing. He drops to his knees and bows his head, re-enacting the scene he says he witnessed, making a gesture imitating a sword coming down on his neck with one hand. “They chopped their heads off like this!”

Another Syrian Turkomen who had just crossed back into Turkey nods. “We saw a crucified man on the way to the border. You have no idea what we see in Syria every day now. Our lives are like a horror movie.”

Ali says he has helped to carry the luggage of countless foreigners crossing the border to reach the self-declared Islamic State. “There were French men who took their entire families with them to Syria,” he recalls. “Once I carried a bag full of dollar notes across. The guy I helped was going to give it to Isis.” Hundreds of foreigners are believed to have used crossing points like this, though the most high-profile recent cases — the three British schoolgirls who absconded to Syria last month — are thought to have crossed farther east. Business is thriving, the smugglers say. “We carry weapons and ammunition across as well,” says Ali. “The drivers [of the minibuses] get 500 lira per bag.”

Neither of them are Isis supporters. “No, I don’t like them. But what can I do?” asks Ahmed, grinning. “It’s a job, and I need the money.”

His family are in Syria; he is the only one working in Turkey. “Daesh [Isis] caught me twice doing things I was not supposed to and wanted to execute me,” he says with a certain pride “My uncle helped me both times, and now I carry an official paper they gave me.”

For a long time, foreigners had no trouble crossing the border while the authorities turned a blind eye. But the smugglers all say controls have increased all along the border. The lifeline to Isis here, however, functions smoothly.

“At a certain time at night they do their business here,” one Turkish man says. “The locals know it, and the gendarmerie knows it, too. At that time nobody goes to that spot, because Isis is there. The army looks away.”

Ali nods. “It’s the same time every night.”

It’s not just would-be Isis fighters who cross here. Two Kurdish men in jogging suits, both in their mid-20s, want to visit their families in Manbij, an Isis-controlled town east of Aleppo and about 30 minutes from the Turkish border. But one of them is taking a big risk going into Isis-controlled territory. He fought alongside the FSA opposition force before fleeing for Turkey. His Syrian ID card states his place of residence as Ayn al-Arab, or Kobani, the Syrian-Kurdish city where Isis recently suffered a defeat at the hands of the Kurdish People’s Defence Units. The smuggler, a Syrian teenager, frowns. “I don’t know why it says ‘Ayn al-Arab’ on the card,” the Kurdish man says unhappily. “I am from Manbij.”

“Maybe he could hide the card?” another smuggler asks. “He could say that it was lost in a bombing.””But what if they search him?” the teenager counters. “They do that a lot. If they find his card after he said that he lost it, they will kill him for sure.”

“Don’t go at all,” another Syrian man advises. “You’re Kurdish, you fought for the FSA, and your ID card says you are from Kobani. Just one of these things is reason enough for Daesh to kill you at a checkpoint.”

But the Kurd explains that his father is unwell, and insists that he needs to cross the border to see his family. The debate deepens. The men discuss alternative crossing points 20 miles away. One smuggler points out that this would mean crossing the frontline between Isis and their opposition rivals, an option that would be likely to entail a higher number of checkpoints and more rigorous searches at each.

“A sure way to get killed,” one of them says drily. The two Kurds, increasingly desperate, say they have spent their last money on the bus journey from Gaziantep.

In the end the teenager Ali agrees to take them across and around Isis checkpoints, for no fee. My mother is Kurdish,” he says. “I’ll help you.” One of the Syrian men at the bus station hands him 10 lira to hire a car or motorbike to Manbij from the Syrian side of the border. A tired-looking family, all covered in mud, climb aboard the small bus that will take them back to Gaziantep. On the return journey, the tired passengers exchange smuggling anecdotes and safety tips. Increased controls both by Isis and the Turkish army in many places along the border have made it harder for ordinary Syrians to cross.

The seats of the waiting minibuses are lined with plastic sheets. “When they come crawling in from under the [border fence], they are all muddy,” the driver says. “I don’t want to have to wash the seats every day.”An elderly woman from Manbij, her arm around her grandson, watches a group of Syrian women picnicking in the Gaziantep suburbs, crowded around several pots of food.

“I miss that,” she says, to no one in particular. “I miss sitting outside with my neighbours. Since Isis came to our city, women are not allowed to sit outside like that anymore. Women are not allowed to show themselves there.”

To illustrate her point, she angrily covers her face with her headscarf, imitating a niqab, the full face veil only sparing the eyes that women are forced to wear in Isis-controlled cities. “Some caliphate,” she scoffs. “What nonsense.”When the minibus swerves into the Gaziantep bus station, a group of people, all clutching plastic bags and battered suitcases are already waiting. Ahmed waves at them.

“To the wire?” The driver asks. The waiting Syrians nod. “To the wire.”


* Some names have been changed.