Online ‘auctions’ of Yazidi captives speak to ongoing Islamic State activity in Turkey

Six years after its gruesome assault on the Yazidi minority in Iraq, the Islamic State (IS) continues to sell Yazidi captives online on what is known as the “deep web” of criminal activity. A number of these sales took place in Turkey, indicating that IS militants can still find refuge in the country.

More recently, a 7-year-old Yazidi girl was rescued by police posing as shoppers. According to Turkish journalist Hale Gonultas, who closely follows the fate of IS captives, police took action after an advertisement in Kurdish and Arabic, along with the girl’s photo, appeared online February 23. Posing as parents of the child, the police made the highest bid and were able to detect the address of the advertiser. The next day, they raided a house in Kecioren district of Ankara and rescued the girl.

According to the official account of the incident, police and intelligence agencies have established that a suspect, who was a senior member of ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, traveled to Ankara, bringing with him a child Yazidi as “spoils of war”. The man, identified only as SO, was arrested along with an alleged accomplice.

After these online “auctions”, the captives are usually delivered via “trusted intermediaries” who are usually criminals involved in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings. The rescued girl remains in state care in Ankara as Iraqi commissions for missing Yazidis work to find her family.

In July 2020, a 24-year-old Yazidi woman, held captive in the Sincan district of Ankara, was rescued by relatives in Australia who “bought” her from an online sale. According to Gonultas, the Yazidi woman’s abductor – a Turkmen ISIS member from Mosul – bought her from an online slave market in 2018. The man, who moved frequently between Iraq and Turkey, had a house in Sincan with his two wives, four children. and the Yazidi woman.

Another Yazidi woman was rescued in Ankara in October 2019. She was being held by an Iraqi Turkmen ISIS member, who had the audacity to rent an apartment near a police station in Kecioren. The young woman, abducted at the age of 14 in 2014, lived with the IS militant’s family and had a baby following a rape. The man, who had served as ISIS emir in Tal Afar, Iraq, traveled to Iraq frequently, which allowed the woman’s brother to track him down in Ankara. The brother managed to snap a picture of his sister and her abductor, capturing a rare moment when the man pulled the woman out and surrendered to the police. Eventually the woman was rescued. The authorities, however, took no legal action against her abductor as she did not press charges against him, although they had enough findings to bring a criminal case for kidnapping and rape.

Another rescue saga unfolded in Kirsehir, a town not far from Ankara, in 2017, when an Iraqi Turkmen unsuccessfully tried to register two children as his own at a refugee police station. The two siblings were taken into care by the state, while their photos were sent to Iraqi centers dealing with missing Yazidis. This eventually brought their adult sister to Kirsehir – a woman who had herself been held captive by ISIS before relatives bailed her out. Her parents, her husband, her son and a brother were also missing. The woman faced legal hurdles to claim her siblings in Kirsehir, including having to provide DNA tests and proof that their parents were dead. Eventually the two children, aged 9 and 11, were handed over to the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani during his visit to Ankara in September.

Turkish police press releases describe a fierce fight against IS, with dozens of suspects arrested each month. Yet these efforts have failed to stop IS militants from taking refuge, transferring money and selling people into Turkey. The bitter reality is that ISIS’s presence in Turkey is much more entrenched than it appears. Police primarily target foreign members of the group, while locals are not hit unless they stick their necks out or are the subject of complaints.

Turkish nationals from various parts of the country have responded to IS’ call for Muslims to join its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Those who returned home became aides to Iraqi and Syrian members who sought refuge after the “caliphate” began to crumble.

IS members have found convenient accommodation in Ankara and Kirsehir, according to two sources familiar with the matter. About 200 Iraqi nationals, all Turkmen from Tal Afar, traveled to Kirsehir in 2016 when IS began to disintegrate. Others, including ISIS’s deputy emir of Tal Afar, came in the years that followed.

Kirsehir had his own recruits. A former member of a militant Turkish Islamist group lured locals to IS, including his own son. In 2015, however, he reported his own daughter and grandchildren to the police to prevent them from traveling to Syria, paving the way for the first court case against ISIS in the city. His son and six other Kirsehir natives were killed in Syria in 2016. Yasar Kocadan, another recruiter from the region, was sentenced to seven years in 2018 following complaints from recruit families.

Anti-ISIS operations in Kirsehir resulted in the detention of 12 suspects in 2017, seven in 2018, 16 in 2019 and 57 in 2020. Seven suspected relatives of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were among the mostly Iraqi suspects . One was jailed, pending trial, in February 2020, while the other six were sent to deportation authorities.

In Ankara, a group of traders financed recruitment in the Sincan district, known as one of the capital’s Islamist strongholds. Abdulkadir Ercan, a former al-Qaeda suspect, stood out in the recruiting effort. He was arrested in a 2011 police raid on a house full of explosive materials, but was released six months later, along with 13 other suspects. Ercan arranged for dozens of unemployed or struggling young men to travel to Syria, including 21 parents. Later, foreign ISIS members took refuge in Sincan, including widows of slain militants who received financial support through local ISIS networks.

Kecioren was another neighborhood in Ankara under the spotlight. Its outlying slums were teeming with Syrian refugees, which made it easier for IS to gain a foothold for recruitment. The promise of economic benefits has also attracted young people with unlikely profiles such as drinkers, drug addicts and nightclub bouncers. The Hacibayram district was also an important recruiting ground.

Gonultas told Al-Monitor that poor neighborhoods plagued by drug and arms trafficking were IS’ main recruiting grounds in Ankara and that recruits were mainly attracted by “the promise of many money and many women”. She singled out Oguzhan Gozlemecioglu as a figurehead, noting that he had no Islamist background but would “change ideologically” to become emir in Raqqa. “He was killed, while his brother Halil Ibrahim was captured by [Kurdish forces]. Their father served six months in prison for recruiting for ISIS,” she said.

“Buses ran from Sincan to Raqqa in 2016 and 2017. People were even going [to Syria] see their children,” she says. A clan known as the “Tatlibal group,” which was involved in recruiting fighters, erected a building in Ankara that houses mostly Syrian and Afghan tenants, Gonultas said. “People who have been with IS also reside there,” she said.

Atilla Kart, a former lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party who closely monitored ISIS recruitment at the time, blames the government. According to him, the insufficient efforts against ISIS are linked to the climate created by the government and the institutional erosion of the country.

Kart told Al-Monitor that the police have become reluctant to tackle Islamist groups unless they receive explicit orders from Ankara. He recalled an incident in 2015, when a family, trying to trace a son who had joined ISIS, failed to call police into action even after providing the address of a cell in Gaziantep near the Syrian border. Kart contacted a local police chief to help the family. “He said to me, ‘You’re right. The parents want us to raid, but we can’t do it without instructions from Ankara. All the information was there – how many people stayed in the house and from which provinces they came. This is how Turkey got to the current point,” Kart said.

ISIS militants in Turkey also continue to transfer money through jewelers and money changers, using the “hawala” method. The detentions are just the tip of the iceberg, with an ISIS network much larger than is generally imagined.