Ankara – The Turkish border city of Gaziantep fell under the spotlight for being at close proximity to areas that were controlled by ISIS in northern Syria, mainly Jarablus and Azaz, before Turkey’s operation “Euphrates Shield” that eradicated their presence in the area.
From Qaeda to ISIS
Gaziantep, the sixth largest city in Turkey, is seen by experts as the logistics base for ISIS in the country. The terrorist group recruited militants in the city and ran training camps in its suburbs.
In 2005, security forces arrested in Gaziantep sever al-Qaeda members who were receiving military training in the woods. Among them was Yunus Durmaz, who later became the leader of ISIS in the city.
According to prosecutors, Durmaz had coordinated the October 2015 bombing at the Ankara Central railway station that left 101 people dead.
That same year, three terrorist attacks took place in Turkey. They were all planned in Gaziantep and executed by ISIS.
The Radikal newspaper described Gaziantep in 2014 as the logistics and strategic base for ISIS in Jarablus and Azaz.
Local and foreign militants headed to Syria from the city, it said, adding that families came to Gaziantep in search for relatives who had joined ISIS after travelling to Turkey.
The ISIS Strategy
ISIS’ strategy to mobilize militants in the Turkish city was based on religious sermons, mainly targeting drug addicts or youth who had no hope of finding jobs in the future.
According to a 25-year-old ISIS member, who has been recently arrested by the Turkish authorities, the terrorist group used to send envoys to Gaziantep’s impoverished neighborhoods to organize classes to recite the Quran.
ISIS also used to collect funds under the cover of humanitarian aid to send them to Syria. Such a method was used by the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria three years ago, said the ISIS member.
The militant also said that he used to recruit fighters by promising them jobs and wives as soon as they reach areas that fall under ISIS’ control in Syria.
Hundreds of terrorists have headed to the ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa from Gaziantep, he said.
On the other side, Syrians who have escaped from the Turkish city said they had been eager to move to Turkey where they believed they would have a blissful life. But they were surprised by the situation they were in.
Some of them had to rent shops where up to 20 people were crammed to sleep the night as a result of high rental rates for apartments. Some Syrian women were also sexually harassed.
As a result of their tough conditions, a lot of Syrian families began to leave the city.
The Ankara general prosecutor’s 500-page indictment of al-Qaeda and its link to ISIS, says that ISIS had planned to control Gaziantep and transform it into its emirate in Turkey.
The prosecutor’s accusations are based on a message that Durmaz had sent to Ilhami Bali, identified by prosecutors as the most senior ISIS figure in Turkey.
Durmaz told Bali that he would recruit around 50 Arab militants by alleging they are laborers and place them at a factory from where they would carry out plots.
Safe Haven for Militants
According to the Turkish military, Gaziantep has the highest rate of arrests of ISIS militants in Turkey.
Following the heavy defeats of ISIS in several Syrian areas near the Turkish border, the terrorist group’s members have taken refuge in Gaziantep and the nearby town of Kilis.
A member of the Turkish parliament from the opposition “Republican People’s” party Aran Ardam has said that ISIS had around 200 networks in Turkey and that there were active cells in Istanbul.
He called for reviewing the lists of passengers travelling from Istanbul and Gaziantep since 2013 to understand the dangers that ISIS pose to Turkey.
Ardam claimed that at least 20 percent of those travelers were ISIS members; saying more than 600 terrorists had entered Gaziantep through internal flights.
An expert at the Center for Middle East Studies in Turkey expected ISIS to carry out more operations in the country in the future.
He said the terrorist group aims at pressuring the authorities in Ankara to stop coalition airplanes from using the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey because the air strikes have inflicted heavy damages on the organization and limited the size of the territory where it intends to establish its emirate.