STEVE SWEENEY reports from ‘the most dangerous town in Turkey’ – known as a notorious recruitment centre for jihadists from across the globe
“WE didn’t have any issues when Isis were in control.”
This was the astonishing claim made by an official from Turkey’s governing AK Parti during an interview which took place on the Syrian border.
He was referring to the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, a former Isis stronghold, liberated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in 2015 as part of the offensive to retake the province of Raqqa.
It lies just across the border from Akcakale, branded “the most dangerous town in Turkey,” where we were granted an exclusive interview with council leader Abdulhakim Ayhan.
Akcakale is a border town created when the Sykes-Picot line arbitrarily divided the Middle East in the imperialist carve up just over 100 years ago.
The town is an AK Parti stronghold and returned a 95.2 per cent Yes vote in the recent referendum, the third-highest in the country.
We could see the yellow and green flag of the largely Kurdish YPG fluttering in the breeze beyond the barbed wire border fence that separates the two countries.
It is a flag that represents hope and liberation for many. But it was a flag that made Ayhan shiver.
The Akcakale council leader led a stunning attack on the liberating forces, claiming a “terror state” was being built in northern Syria.
His disdain for Kurds was clear and he pinned the blame squarely on “British and American intelligence,” which he claimed created the PYD, YPG and PKK and “still control them.”
For all his talk of terrorism, Ayhan failed to mention Isis in the same category. The terrorists, as far as he was concerned, were those who were fighting to liberate Syria from the jihadists.
“First the Free Syrian Army goes in, then America lets Isis in and the last step is that the PYD takes over. We don’t want a terror state on our border,” the former pharmacist tells me as he explains how Isis handed over Tel Abyad to the YPG without a fight.
“They are building a terror state across the border. We can’t allow that to happen.
“We never had problems when Isis was in control of Tel Abyad,” he repeats as he insists that border relations were not an issue with the jihadists occupying the town.
Driven by its fear of Kurdish influence, Turkey has long been forced to deny allegations of support for Isis, whether by indirectly funding, supplying weapons or “turning a blind eye” to their activities.
Just over a week before our arrival in Akcakale, Turkish air strikes in Syria and Iraq had targeted Kurdish YPG forces, killing dozens and destroying a media centre.
Turkey has consistently demanded the removal of the YPG from the coalition of forces fighting Isis in Syria, claiming they and the PYD are terrorists linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
We made the journey to Akcakale from the city of Urfa, against the advice the of local journalists who warned that I would be a prime target for kidnapping by Isis.
It was a warning that I took seriously. These were hardened and experienced reporters who had a knowledge of the area that was second to none.
Before Tel Abyad was liberated, Akcakale’s border with Syria was so fluid that Isis fighters were freely walking the streets, using the cafes and staying in local hotels. It was known to be a notorious recruitment centre for jihadists from across the globe.
But it was for exactly this reason that I was drawn to the town. I had insisted that we visit when planning the itinerary for our travels as I wanted to see whether things had changed.
With the liberation of Raqqa imminent and Isis being driven out of towns and cities across the province, I was eager to find out where they were fleeing to.
The journey from Urfa took us on a road known as the “jihadi highway,” along which Turkish tanks and other military vehicles had thundered the previous day and were now standing opposite the YPG forces in Tel Abyad.
We passed a refugee camp on the edge of town where Ayhan tells me: “115,000 Syrian guests live,” outnumbering local people, bringing the population up to 220,000.
“Our public knows how it feels when one is stateless and without a flag after seeing these migrants. That’s why they voted Yes in the referendum,” he says.
The interview takes place in a garden area inside a border compound. Ayhan has an entourage with him and we find ourselves at a table surrounded by a host of officials, advisers and the chief of police.
They eye us anxiously, with suspicion and it becomes clear that the interview is being used as a propaganda exercise.
The interview is filmed by the Andalou state news agency, which also happens to run Akcakale council’s press and media department.
They keep their camera pointed inches away from our faces and focus on us rather than those being interviewed in what seems an attempt at intimidation.
Ayhan’s aggressive tones attack Europe and the West as he demands that his statements are translated to me.
He claims to be surprised that the referendum did not return a 100 per cent Yes vote in Akcakale “after the way Europe treated Turkey.”
The Netherlands and Germany had banned Turkish politicians from holding rallies during the referendum campaign, leading president Erdogan to label them as “fascists,” with no apparent sense of irony.
Ayhan comes across a someone with little political depth but he clearly feels uncomfortable when challenged, particularly when discussing Isis.
He boasts how Turkey is building new homes in Syria’s Idlib province as part of the Soci agreement.
But he soon becomes irritated by our questions and it becomes apparent that our presence is no longer welcome.
We are surrounded by snipers who demanded our passports and press cards. This was seemingly strange request to make after the interview has ended.
“Why?” I ask as I explain that my documents are in the car. They claim it is “routine.”
As we make our way to retrieve my passport, a car creeps up slowly behind us. They speak in Turkish as they drive past. I find out that they had threatened to run us over.
The snipers took our details and told us they were being sent to the prime minister’s office.
“Expect a call tomorrow,” we were told, however it felt more like a warning.
The call never came but it gave an indication of how journalists are treated in Turkey and how news is manipulated and controlled.
They took pleasure in telling us how two Italian journalists had been arrested in a nearby village where they had been speaking to locals, just as we had been hours earlier.
On this occasion we weren’t to be detained. But we were to find out just how dangerous life can be reporting news in Turkey later in our trip.