Turks leave for 'family-friendly' IS group
ISTANBUL (AP) - Asiya Ummi Abdullah doesn't share the view that the Islamic State group 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 militant group, saying it offers them protection from the sex, crime, 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," Umi Abdullah wrote in one of several Facebook messages exchanged in recent days. She said that living under Shariah, the Islamic legal code, means that her 3-year-old boy's spiritual life is secure.
"He will know God and live under his rules," she said. As for the American bombs being dropped on the Islamic State group, she said: "I only fear God."
Ummi Abdullah's experience - the outlines of which were confirmed by her ex-husband, Turkish authorities, and friends - illustrates the pull of the Islamic State group, the self-styled caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria that has sent shockwaves around the world with its brutal campaign. It also shows how, even in Turkey - one of the most modern and prosperous of the Muslim countries - entire families are dropping everything to find salvation in what Turkish academic Ahmet Kasim Han describes as a "false heaven."
While the Islamic State organization 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 killings that include crucifixions and beheadings.
Ummi Abdullah, originally from Kyrgyzstan, reached the Islamic State 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 press in an effort to find their child.
Many others in Turkey have carted away family to the Islamic State group under far less public scrutiny and in much greater numbers. In one incident earlier this month, more than 50 families from various parts of Turkey slipped across the border to live under Islamic State, 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 massive group. The villager spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he is terrified of reprisals.
The movement of foreign fighters to the Islamic State group - largely consisting of alienated, angry or simply war-hungry young Muslims - has been covered extensively since the group tore across Iraq in June, capturing Mosul, threatening Baghdad and massacring prisoners. The arrival of entire families, many but not all of them Turkish, has received less attention.
"It's about fundamentalism," said Han, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. The Islamic State group's uncompromising interpretation of Islam promises parents the opportunity to raise their children free from any secular influence.
"It's a confined and trustable environment for living out your religion," Han said. "It kind of becomes a false heaven."
Ummi Abdullah's journey to radical Islam was born of loneliness and resentment. 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, speaking from his lawyer's office in Istanbul, 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. That's how it was," he said, holding a photograph of the two of them, both looking radiant in a well-manicured garden. "But after the kid was born, little by little she started interpreting Islam in her own way."
Aktan said his wife became increasingly devout, covering her hair and praying frequently, often needling him to join in. He refused.
"Thank God, I'm a Muslim," he said. "But I'm not the kind of person who can pray five times a day."
Asked why she became engrossed in religion, Aktan acknowledged that his wife was lonely. But in Facebook messages to the AP, many typed out on a smartphone, Ummi Abdullah accused her husband of treating her "like a slave."
She alleged that Aktan pressured her to abort their child and said she felt isolated in Istanbul. "I had no friends," she said. "I was constantly belittled by him and his family. I was nobody in their eyes."
Aktan acknowledged initially asking his wife to terminate her pregnancy, saying she was too young to have children. But when she insisted on carrying the pregnancy to term, Aktan said he accepted her decision and loved the child.
Meanwhile Aktan's wife was finding the companionship she yearned for online, chatting with jihadists and filling her Facebook page with religious exhortations and attacks on gays. In June, she and Aktan divorced. The next month, a day before her ex-husband was due to pick up their son for vacation, she left with the boy for Gaziantep, a Turkish town near the Syrian border. Aktan, who had been eavesdropping on her social media activity, alerted the authorities, but the pair managed to slip across.
Aktan says he hasn't seen his son since.
It isn't clear how many families have followed Umi Abdullah's path, although anecdotal evidence suggests a powerful flow from Turkey into Syria. In Dilovasi, a heavily industrial town of 42,000 about halfway between Istanbul and the port city of Izmit, at least four people - including a pair of brothers - recently left for Syria, three local officials told AP. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to the media, said that dozens of people from surrounding towns were believed to have left as well.
Aktan says he is in touch with other families in similar circumstances. He cited one case in the Turkish capital, Ankara, where 15 members of the same extended family had left for Syria "as if they're going on vacation."
One Islamic State group 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," al-Trinidadi says. "They're having fun."
Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.
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