Heavy smoke rises following an airstrike by the US-led coalition aircraft in Kobane, Syria Photo: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images
October 19, 2014 by Ruth Sherlock, Yilmaz Ibrahim Pasha in Urfa and Magdy Samaan
A top Syrian rebel commander was shot and wounded in an apparent kidnapping attempt by the Islamic State in a Turkish city, raising questions about Ankara’s readiness to stop jihadists operating on its soil.
Abu Issa, the leader of Thuwar Raqqa, a Syrian rebel group who has been fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in the town of Kobane, was ambushed by Isil extremists in Urfa in neighbouring Turkey.
Ankara has adopted tighter national security measures in recent months in an attempt to stem the flow of foreign fighters who have used its long border with Syria as a conduit to jihad.
But the flagrant kidnapping attempt in the southeastern town of Urfa, shows how Isil can still operate inside this Nato country with relative impunity.
The rebel commander and his son, Ammar, 20, were snatched from the car on Friday afternoon whilst returning home after meeting with Turkish officials in Urfa city centre, his aides told the Telegraph.
“Isil cars blocked the road ahead of them, and four armed men grabbed them from the vehicle,” said Ahmed Abdul Khader, a spokesman for Thuwar Raqqa. “It was 6.30pm.”
A matching account of the kidnapping was separately given to the Telegraph by Abo Ayham, another military commander in the group.
Abu Issa’s closest advisor, who was driving, had been in on the Isil plot, Mr Khader said, detouring to the quiet back road where the attack happened: “When the Isil cars blocked the road ahead, Abu Issa told the driver to turn around, but he just switched the engine off, and let the kidnappers take them from the car,” he said.
Abu Issa recognised two of the attackers, who had not covered their faces, as Isil members.
The kidnappers drove Abu Issa and his son at top speed towards the border and were intending to smuggle them to Syria.
Increased Turkish military presence there made it too difficult to cross, and the kidnap attempt was ultimately failed when one of the smugglers working with the Isil jihadists bailed on the plot.
The smuggler left Abu Issa, who was reportedly shot through the side during the kidnap attempt, at a hospital in Urfa early on Saturday morning.
The Telegraph was unable to reach the rebel commander but Abu Issa has long been a top target for Isil.
His death would be a massive blow for Thuwar Raqqa, whose men have been selected to receive military training in Turkey in the renewed, US-led push to defeat Isil in Syria.
The jihadist kidnappers, and Abu Issa’s advisor, who was reported to have been paid by the jihadists for his betrayal have since been arrested by the Turkish police, However, they are one of several cells that are said to be openly operating in Urfa and other Turkish border towns.
One Syrian in Turkey, who asked not to be named, used to be friends with four men who have since joined Isil: “I see them living a comfortable life in Urfa; they eat in the restaurants and spend time in cafes,” he said. “Nobody bothers them.”
Mr Khader said he had reported several Isil members in Turkey to the MIT, the country’s intelligence services: “They say: “Don’t worry, we are watching them.” But they don’t arrest them.”
Western governments have accused Turkey of not doing enough to stop Isil using its soil as a route for bringing fighters and supplies into Syria.
Last year the Telegraph reported how hundreds of extremist recruits were being kept in safe houses in Turkey before being smuggled to fight in the conflict next door.
Turkish officials vehemently deny that they have tolerated the presence of Isil extremists in the country.
They argue that the countries that the jihadists are coming from, including Britain, have a responsibility to stop these men and women from travelling to Turkey.
One senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “If we are warned in advance, we can stop them at the airport,” said the official. “But we need to have a legal basis. We can’t just refuse someone entry because they have a long beard.”
The official said this cooperation between states was improving, and that Turkey has turned back “6000 jihadists” who tried to enter the country.
Turkish security officials have also tracked down, arrested and in some cases deported “1000” Isil members in recent months, he said: “But it is much harder to do than stopping them from entering.”
Analysts have noted that Turkey is treading carefully because it fears that, in attacking Isil, either on its home turf, or as part of an international coalition in Syria and Iraq, could spark a wave of suicide and car bomb attacks by Isil inside Turkey.
The effect for Turkey, whose economy relies in large part on tourism, would be devastating.