ANKARA, TURKEY — A Syrian former army lieutenant who defected from the military three years ago has become the central figure in a tale of intrigue that ended last month in the flight to the Islamic State of three British schoolgirls.
Everyone agrees that Muhammad el Rashed arranged to smuggle the girls to Syria after they’d arrived in Turkey, some of the hundreds of Britons thought to have joined the Islamic State in recent years.
What’s less clear is how Rashed came to be in a position to help smuggle them. The Turkish government charges that he was a paid agent of Canadian intelligence, and officials imply that’s proof that Canada, as well as the United Kingdom, is helping to finance the Islamic State.
For its part, the Canadian government hasn’t commented on Rashed’s statement to police that he was working as an intelligence operative. A representative of Canadian Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney declined to comment about the reports when asked about them last week in the House of Commons.
The Canadian government also hasn’t commented on Turkish claims that payments wired to Rashed were immediately transferred to Islamic State operatives in Syria. The amount he allegedly received remains unknown.
Turkey has been under pressure from its European neighbors to stop the flow of recruits to the Islamic State, most of whom pass through the country. In the best-known recent case, Hayat Boumeddiene, the common-law wife of an Islamic State sympathizer who killed four Jews in a grocery in Paris during the Charlie Hebdo violence in January, slipped across a border crossing about 300 yards from the office of the district governor, even though Turkish authorities had spotted her as suspicious on her arrival in the country.
Turkey has said there’s little it can do to stop people who arrive in the country legally, and it’s blamed European nations for not notifying it fast enough when possible recruits leave their home countries. The Turkish allegations raise the question of whether officials are highlighting Rashed’s alleged Canada connection to deflect attention from claims that Turkey has been at best lukewarm in its opposition to the presence of radical Islamists in Syria.
The story began last month in Great Britain, when the three girls, Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, disappeared from Bethnal Green Academy in London. Their families alerted British authorities and told them they thought the three had caught a flight from London to Istanbul on Feb. 17. Closed-circuit video later released by Scotland Yard showed the girls at London’s Gatwick Airport.
Turkish surveillance video caught the girls waiting for 18 hours on Feb. 18 at a bus station in Istanbul. A subsequent video made public last week by the Turkish TV channel A Haber showed Rashed interacting with the girls in Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey. The video, apparently taken via a hidden camera by Rashed himself, shows him urging the girls to hurry. “You will be there in one hour,” he says at one point, apparently referring to Syria.
Since Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed last week that a man had been arrested in the smuggling of the girls to Syria, Turkish newspapers have published what they said were transcripts of Rashed’s confession to Turkish authorities.
According to those purported transcripts, Rashed said he’d helped 35 Europeans cross from Turkey to Syria, that his Islamic State contact was a British jihadi who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Kaka and that he’d laundered the payments he received from Canada through a jewelry store owned by a relative in the southern Turkish city of Sanliurfa, which then passed them to the Islamic State via Rashed’s brother, who lives in Raqqa, Syria.
According to the news accounts, Rashed told Turkish interrogators that Abu Kaka would contact him via the Internet chat service WhatsApp with the names of people who wanted to join the Islamic State. Rashed would then arrange their delivery to the border.
In the case of the three British teenagers, Rashed reportedly said he’d met the girls at a bus station in Istanbul, bought them bus tickets and accompanied them to Gaziantep, where he’d delivered them to a man he identified as Ilahmai Bali, who used the nom de guerre Abu Bakr.
Bali was responsible for arranging private transportation for people wanting to enter Syria, Rashed was quoted as saying.
During his interrogation, according to the purported transcripts, Rashed said he’d been working for Canadian intelligence since 2013.
According to the Turkish accounts, Rashed joined the Syrian military in 2010, before the war there broke out, and defected two years later in Homs, which by then had become the focus of fighting between rebels and the government of President Bashar Assad.
“While seeking asylum, I got in contact with Canada in 2013,” Rashed allegedly told his interrogators in Sanliurfa, adding, “They told me they would give me citizenship if I would gather information about the Islamic State and share it with them.”
The Canadians, he said, provided him with a laptop and a cellphone. He said the Canadian Embassy in Amman, Jordan, had paid for plane tickets for him to travel to Amman. Turkish authorities said migration records showed that Rashed had used his Syrian passport to enter and exit Turkey 33 times since 2013, primarily through Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
Over the next years, he said, he worked as a dentist in Raqqa – a city the Islamic State captured in March 2013 –and sent the Canadian Embassy in Amman details of who was being treated at the hospital. He identified his Canadian contact as Matt, whom he described as about 35 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall and about 200 pounds.
When he moved from Raqqa to Turkey to take up smuggling people isn’t stated in the published transcripts. According to the accounts, Rashed said most of the people he’d helped reach the Islamic State bought their own bus tickets. Most were from English-speaking countries, primarily Britain, but also South Africa, Indonesia, Australia and Nigeria.
Turkish police surmised from records on his laptop that he may have played a role in the smuggling of 150 people to Syria. Among the photos they found, according to reports, were those of the three missing schoolgirls.
Guvenc is a McClatchy special correspondent.
BY DUYGU GUVENC
McClatchy Foreign StaffMarch 17, 2015