AKCAKALE, Turkey: As the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, taken by Kurds from ISIS militants this week, looms in the distance, one question troubles the Turkish residents on the other side. What happened to the defeated militants? Many locals on the Turkish side of the border fear some of the beaten Islamists may have shaven their beards, slipped across, and now be quietly living among them.
“Don’t film me smoking,” pleads Mustafa, a barber in the Turkish border town of Akcakale.
“It’s Ramadan. ISIS might see it and cut my fingers,” he said.
Turkey has always vehemently denied accusations it has allowed the militants to use the border as a transit point. It has given no indication that large numbers of militants could have joined Syrian refugees crossing the border.
The governor of the Sanliurfa province, Izzettin Kucuk, said just two unarmed ISIS members gave themselves up at the border when thousands of refugees streamed across at the weekend.
Other reports said five suspected ISIS militants were captured as they attempted to cross into Turkey together with refugees through the barbed wire fence that once sealed the border.
Kurdish forces took the strategic town earlier this week after several days of intense fighting, which sparked an exodus of more than 23,000 refugees into neighboring Turkey. Some have started to return home but residents fear ISIS fighters in disguise were among the thousands of refugees who stayed in Akcakale or in nearby camps.
“When ISIS first took over Tal Abyad, I bought a Kalashnikov. But now that they might be among us, I’m planning on buying something heavier,” said Ihsan Kurt, 50, a grocery owner. “Our town is a ticking bomb,” he said.
The fears have been amplified by extraordinary scenes at the weekend – just before the town was taken by the Kurds – when ISIS fighters appeared right at the border fence and appeared to grin at the Turkish guards on the other side.
“Because so many refugees crossed the border, the jihadis had a good chance of remaining unnoticed in the crowds. They shave their beard and cross over. It’s that simple,” said Ismail Yilmaz, a local official from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
“Once they cross the border, they go to bigger towns or refugee camps where they can hide more easily,” he said. “I’ve seen them praying at our mosques, I’ve seen them in our hospitals, I’ve seen them getting arrested, I’ve seen them being freed.”
The Human Rights Association (IHD) of Turkey NGO said in a recent report on Akcakale that at least 50 ISIS fighters crossed over from Tal Abyad to Turkey after Kurdish militiamen and their Syrian rebel allies drove out the militants.
It denounced the Turkish authorities for “not following up the arrival of any of these militants.”
“We do not know who is walking our streets anymore. We are helping our brothers and sisters coming from Syria because they are in need of help, but we may well be helping the jihadis unknowingly,” said Mustafa, the barber.
But Salih Kerpeten, a farmer, said he was not particularly bothered by an ISIS presence in town because any newcomers were “not hard-liners like foreign fighters.”
“I heard that some ISIS fighters fled to Turkey out of fear. They fled from ISIS,” he said.
“We still can’t trust them. There are good and bad among them, but how can you differentiate?” he said.
“In any case we have nothing to be afraid of. We are the citizens of Turkey. They should be afraid of us,” he said.
In recent months, there have been growing signs that Turkey is responding to Western criticism that it is not doing enough to halt foreign fighters.
The Turkish army said Wednesday it captured “four terrorists” from ISIS in the southern border province of Kilis as they were trying to cross into Turkey from Syria.