Middle East

Turks leave for ‘family friendly’ Raqqa under ISIS

Mohammed Abu Abdullah, a jihadist gunman, plays with his children at a park in the northern Syrian city of Raqa on September 17, 2014.AFP PHOTO/Raqa Media Center/STR

ISTANBUL: Asiya Ummi Abdullah doesn’t share the view that the militant group ISIS rules over a terrorist dystopia and she isn’t scared by the American bombs falling on Raqqa, its power center in Syria.

As far as she’s concerned, it’s the ideal place to raise a family.

In interviews with the Associated Press, the 24-year-old Muslim convert explained her decision to move with her toddler to the territory controlled by the Al-Qaeda splinter group, saying it offers them protection from the sex, drugs and alcohol that she sees as rampant in largely secular Turkey.

“The children of that country see all this and become either murderers or delinquents or homosexuals or thieves,” Ummi Abdullah wrote in one of several Facebook messages. Living under Shariah means that her 3-year-old boy’s spiritual life is secure, she said.

“He will know God and live under His rules,” she said.

Ummi Abdullah’s experience illustrates the pull of ISIS, the self-styled caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria. It also shows how, even in modern Turkey, entire families are dropping everything to find salvation.

While ISIS promotes itself as a family friendly place, it in fact has uprooted hundreds of thousands of “enemy families” and massacred hundreds of soldiers and civilians defending their homes in a wave of executions that include crucifixions and beheadings.

Ummi Abdullah, originally from Kyrgyzstan, reached the militant group only last month, and her disappearance became front-page news in Turkey after her ex-husband, a 44-year-old car salesman named Sahin Aktan, went to the media.

Legions of others in Turkey have carted away family to ISIS-ruled areas under less public scrutiny and in greater numbers. Earlier this month, more than 50 families slipped across the border to live under ISIS rule, according to opposition legislator Atilla Kart.

Kart’s figure appears high, but his account is backed by a villager from Cumra, in central Turkey, who told AP that his son and his daughter-in-law are among the group. The villager spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he fears reprisals.

The movement of foreign fighters to ISIS has been covered extensively since the group tore across Iraq in June. The arrival of entire families, many but not all of them Turkish, has received less attention.

“It’s about fundamentalism,” said Ahmet Kasim Han, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “It kind of becomes a false heaven.”

Like many, Ummi Abdullah’s journey to radical Islam was born out of loneliness. Born Svetlana Hasanova, she converted to Islam after marrying Aktan six years ago. The pair met in Turkey when Hasanova, still a teenager, came to Istanbul with her mother to buy textiles.

Aktan said the relationship worked at first.

“Before we were married we were swimming in the sea, in the pool, and in the evening we would sit down and eat fish and drink wine,” he said.

Aktan said his wife became increasingly devout after the birth of their son, covering her hair and praying frequently. In her messages to the AP, Ummi Abdullah accused her husband of treating her “like a slave.”

“I was constantly belittled by him and his family,” she said. “I was nobody in their eyes.”

Ummi Abdullah found the companionship she yearned for online, chatting with jihadists and filling her Facebook page with religious exhortations. In June, she and Aktan divorced. The next month, she took their child to a Turkish town near the Syrian border, before leaving for ISIS. Aktan says he hasn’t seen his son since.

ISIS appears eager to advertise the areas it controls as family friendly. One promotional video shows a montage of Muslim fighters from around the world holding their children in Raqqa against the backdrop of an amusement park.

A man, identified in the footage as an American named Abu Abdurahman al-Trinidadi, holds an infant who has a toy machine gun strapped to his back.

“Look at all the little children,” Trinidadi says. “They’re having fun.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 25, 2014, on page 9.

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