Local 'guides' endanger journalists in areas under IS control

Local 'guides' endanger journalists in areas under IS control

KILIS, Turkey - Some local "guides" who offer to act as mediators, helping foreign journalists gather information in areas controlled by the Islamic State, actually help the militant group abduct them.

In areas close to the border between Turkey and Syria, which serves as a gateway to the areas under Islamic State control, there are local residents and anti-Syrian government activists who attempt to lure foreign journalists and others wanting to enter those areas by saying they can work as guides.

Some have extensive knowledge of the Islamic State, but others abduct or help abduct foreigners as a business.

Chaos is rife in Kilis, a Turkish city near the border that the Turkish government cannot sufficiently control or monitor. Amid a cloud of sand on Saturday afternoon, more than 200 refugees from Syria carrying bulky luggage were milling about at a border checkpoint in the city.

A 27-year-old member of the Islamic Front, an antigovernment insurgent group in Syria, stood in the crowd as if hiding from other people's eyes.

"My comrades are coming to pick me up. I don't have a passport, but it's easy to go in or out if I pay 50 lira (S$28)," he said.

At the border checkpoint in Kilis, people holding passports are allowed to enter or exit even if they do not have visas issued by either country. Many people without passports walk through the checkpoint without police officers noticing, just after the gate opens.

Baggage inspections are not strict. A 21-year-old man said laughing, "A year ago, I transported seven Kalashnikov automatic rifles."

Kilis is close to Aleppo, the scene of fierce fighting in Syria. Most of the foreign journalists who were taken hostage, including Kenji Goto, entered Syria via Kilis.

Foreign journalists rely on local mediators who work as guides in Syria.

Most of the mediators are former insurgent soldiers or antigovernment activists who know the geography well or have personal connections with members of the Islamic State.

The guides are said to receive at least US$100 a day in most cases. The monthly income of Syrian people during the civil war is said to be only about S$130 (S$174).

Some mediators have extensive knowledge and information about the Islamic State and work as interpreters or guides for foreign journalists. But others seek to sell such journalists to the Islamic State in exchange for large sums of money.

The Islamic State has demanded ransoms for abducted foreign nationals or used them for its propaganda activities.

Steven Sotloff, 31, an American journalist who was beheaded by the Islamic State in September last year, was captured by Islamic State fighters after entering Syria.

A Syrian who accompanied Sotloff at the time told The Yomiuri Shimbun: "Our car was ambushed. Someone informed on us."

An American colleague of Sotloff told CNN that someone sold information on Sotloff's movements for between US$25,000 and US$50,000.

Goto headed for Raqqa, northern Syria, after entering the country. A Syrian friend of his said that Goto told him, "I can probably find a guide in areas ruled by the Islamic State."

"Withouta relationship of trust with mediators, journalists are in danger," a 31-year-old mediator said.

A 46-year-old French magazine reporter said, "News-gathering activities in Syria are impossible without mediators, but it's difficult to find mediators who are trustworthy."

Measures limited

Syria shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Areas along the border with Lebanon and Jordan are controlled by the administration of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Immigration controls are strict in these areas, so the flow of people is concentrated in areas near the border with Turkey, because the Assad administration's controls do not reach there.

Since autumn last year, Turkey has reinforced its border controls in tandem with air raids against the Islamic State, mainly by US and European military forces. Of its 13 border checkpoints, Turkey has closed eight.

Turkey further toughened border controls after it was found that a female suspect connected to the Paris terrorism incidents earlier this month had entered Syria via Turkey.

However, Kilis contains Syrian refugee camps and has been crowded by refugees coming in and going out. There are therefore physical limits on the Turkish government's attempts to implement thorough immigration controls.

There are also loophole routes such as farm roads around Kilis.

Local people have said it is easy to smuggle weapons and other goods, and hard to stop people who want to be fighters for the Islamic State from passing through.

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