AKÇAKALE, Turkey — Mohammed Abu Mustafa spends most of his days puffing sweet-smelling tobacco smoke out of a traditional hookah, or waterpipe, in his small café in the Turkish border town of Akçakale.
Sitting at one of the worn-down tables messily assembled outside, Abu Mustafa fixes his eyes on the nearby six-foot-tall chain link fence separating Turkey and Syria. On the other side of this fence is Tel Abyad, a Syrian border town controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The militant group’s ominous black flag flies high on the Syrian side, easily visible to the residents of Akçakale.
While Abu Mustafa’s days at his café are what most would call ordinary, his nights are anything but.
“I am an honest man”
Abu Mustafa doesn’t mind his ISIS neighbors at all. He himself is an ISIS member, he says, and ISIS fighters frequent his café. Abu Mustafa knows many of them well – after all, he was the person who smuggled them into Syria, avoiding Turkish border guards, and into the hands of the ISIS government on the other side – a government he proudly and openly works with and supports.
“I am an honest man,” Abu Mustafa told MintPress News as he smoked from the hookah filled with apple-flavored tobacco by his side.
“There are illegal people who go in and out from the two sides. And I’m the person who brings the people to the Islamic State [ISIS] on the Syria side and takes them out of Syria to here [Turkey]. We decide who is to go in and who is to go out,” Abu Mustafa said as he pointed to the men who had begun to gather around him.
The coffee shop is dingy, serving as a sharp contrast to the well-suited, clean-shaven and polished appearance of Abu Mustafa, whose ironed slacks and tailored suit jacket look out of place among his friends and colleagues. He sits back casually and confidently in his chair, his presence commanding as he swings a small string of prayer beads around his fingers with practiced motion and sips on hot chi (tea).
Men wander in and out of the shop, speaking amongst themselves, listening in on the conversation, before exiting onto the streets of the Turkish border town. The friends who come and go, along with those who lounge around the coffee shop for hours on end, are mostly associates who work under Abu Mustafa in the smuggling business, “and they’re all part of the Islamic State [ISIS], like me,” he confirmed to MintPress.
The coffee shop isn’t a moneymaker, Abu Mustafa admits with a smile, but it’s a good meeting place. Yet, with such a rich vein of business in smuggling people across the Turkey-Syria border, Abu Mustafa doesn’t need to rely on hookah and coffee sales to make a living.
“There are a lot of people from ISIS in this town,” Abu Mustafa said. “Everybody comes here to go there illegally, it’s good business. And of course someone will not announce they are ISIS, they will just come, do what they need to do and then leave. No people here are really against ISIS, there are many people here and in Turkey who support ISIS, who are with them and believe in what they are doing.”
“We can go now”
It costs $150 to hire his services – but that’s only on the way into ISIS-controlled Tel Abyad. If one wishes to leave and return back to Turkey, the price is doubled. Abu Mustafa says he crosses several times a week. The Turkish border guards are seemingly oblivious – or uncaring – about his illicit profession.
“And if you want to go and join ISIS,” Abu Mustafa said as he appeared to shift into business mode, “then we can go now.”
However, Abu Mustafa will not smuggle just anyone into the ISIS controlled town. Prospective clients – and subsequently, prospective ISIS recruits – must be vetted by him and an ISIS commander before they are given the green light to negotiate their way into civil war-torn Syria.
The smuggling business is secretive, but Abu Mustafa says he’s easy to track down in Akçakale – if someone is determined enough. Abu Mustafa stressed that both men and women come to Akçakale to join the Sunni militant organization on the other side.
“It is not just fighters who we smuggle in,” he said while briefly putting down the hookah, a rarity for the self-confessed chainsmoker. “Girls come to this town to join ISIS as well – to be with the fighters. Yesterday a Kurdish family came looking for four girls from their family that went to join ISIS, they found me and came and asked me about them, asked where they were.”
Europeans and Americans have also been smuggled in under his direction, Abu Mustafa told MintPress. But he says he only helps get people into ISIS-controlled Tel Abyad if he truly believes they will benefit the jihadists – whom he supports wholeheartedly.
“But I didn’t smuggle these Kurdish girls in,” Abu Mustafa continued. “I don’t know where they are, if they are in Tel Abyad or not. If they approached me to get in, I might have helped them in, I don’t know. I would have to speak to them, and see whether they would be able to help ISIS or not. For me, not everything is about making money.”
For the clients who are given the go-ahead – by Abu Mustafa and ISIS commanders in Tel Abyad – to make the crossing, the $150 fee gets them smuggled over the border, where they are then taken to an ISIS-controlled recruitment house. “If you were just left on the street on the other side you would be killed,” Abu Mustafa said as he took another puff on the hookah.
Abu Mustafa’s involvement ends when the clients arrive at the recruitment house. The smuggled individuals are handed to ISIS officials who then put the new recruits through a month-long training program to determine their loyalty to the militants. If ISIS officials trust a new recruit after that month, he is given a gun and allowed to fight, Abu Mustafa explained. If the recruit is not trusted, he will be killed on the spot.
Business is good and will continue to be for some time, Abu Mustafa says confidently while taking another long drag from the hookah at his side.
“Before the war, I smuggled cigarettes. Now I smuggle people,” Abu Mustafa said, shrugging casually. “As long as there is a border here, people will need things and I can help them.”
Additional reporting by Abed al-Qaisi.