Journey to Isis: from astrophysics student to shell-shocked Islamist fighter

The night Rasid Tugral vanished from his home in the Turkish capital of Ankara, the 26-year-old packed no suitcase, stuffed less than €100 of cash into his pockets and left his treasured DSLR camera to gather dust on the bedroom floor.

For three months, it seemed the astrophysics student had simply disappeared from Turkey's elite Middle East Technical University, where he was known as a raffish extrovert with a love for astrophotography and the works of cosmologist Carl Sagan. But in March this year Rasid posted to his Facebook a sprawling, 14-page diary chronicling life among militants of the self-declared Islamic State, or Isis. The diary provides a unique glimpse into the everyday miseries of life in Isis-held Syria and the psychological toll of air strikes on new recruits.

The diary also highlights Ankara's continued silence over the growing number of Turkish citizens joining Isis. A month and a half after the diary's posting, scant media attention has been levelled at Rasid's transition from student at "Turkey's Harvard" to a village near Homs in Syria, or to the alarming freedom enjoyed by the Turkish-language jihadi websites that helped lure him there.

The Nato member recently approved the use of an airbase in southern Turkey for US drone missions in Syria and will host a US-sponsored train-and-equip programme for anti-Isis rebels. Beginning in early 2014, "Ankara has also switched its efforts to detain and deport foreigners travelling to Syria through Turkey into hyperdrive", says Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Still, 1,500 Turkish citizens are fighting in jihadi movements in Syria, says Stein, far above Ankara's official estimate of 700. Even Turkish citizens at home who "tout their allegiance to Isis on Twitter and Facebook are able to escape detection, while Ankara focuses on the larger tide of foreign jihadis using Turkey as an entry point", Stein says.

Like countless other college-age Turks, Rasid became an active Twitter user when he joined anti-government street protests in 2013. According to his former classmates, Rasid's childhood in a deeply religious, affluent Ankara household did not soften his scepticism of Turkey's Islamist-rooted ruling party, nor did it prevent him from declaring physicist Richard Feynman, an avowed atheist, to be his favourite intellectual.

But in 2014, as Turkey's student activists floundered under government pressure, Rasid turned increasingly toward his faith for meaning. He joined a Koran study group organised by three close friends, "and began to read the Koran like one of his science textbooks, accepting the text as the literal truth", says a close relative, speaking to Newsweek on condition of anonymity.

By the spring of 2014, one member of Rasid's Koranic study circle had joined Isis, and began to share jihadi videos with Rasid online. Rasid began to share similar content on his own Twitter account in July.

Ankara heavily polices social media, sentencing a student to a one-year prison term in April for retweeting a satirical comment about a ruling party official. Though Rasid's activist past made him a prime target for government surveillance, he would post a lengthy stream of pro-Isis videos on Facebook and Twitter over seven months without any consequence.

Featuring videos from YouTube accounts like "Talha Musa", which over the past year has shared scores of Turkish-subtitled Isis sermons without being blocked, Rasid's Twitter activity illustrates how "pro-Isis Turkish language social media accounts aren't normally suspended if they don't also stray into English or French", says Omer Behram Ozdemir, a researcher at Sakarya University who focuses on jihadi recruitment in Turkey. Though Turkey blocks an estimated 78,000 websites, Ozdemir points out that Ankara only recently blocked Takva Haber, a leading news portal for Turkish jihadis. When it was blocked in late March, its creators promptly changed the site's domain from ".com" to ".net", and announced a sister site, Enfal Haber. The new sites remain uncensored.

Rasid stepped up his postings in September 2014. In that month, he entered a master's programme at the rural Finnish university of Jyväskylä, where his posts about jihad mixed uneasily with stunning long-exposure shots of Finland's Northern Lights he shared on Facebook. At a local mosque, he began an unsuccessful attempt to recruit locals to join Isis. "We debated against his false theology every day," Mohamed Ahmed Haji Omar, a Somali-born resident of Jyväskylä, tells Newsweek. "Time and again, he tried to show the youth here videos about Isis."

While Finnish police seemed unaware of Rasid's activities at the mosque, they became alarmed by his Facebook posts and questioned him in November 2014. Two weeks later Rasid returned to Turkey, disappearing into Syria on 10 January.

If Rasid's story shows the ease with which Turkish citizens can access and share pro-Isis propaganda, his diary of life in Syria may prove a useful tool against it. His description of the self-declared caliphate challenges the myth of "five-star jihad" propagated by Isis recruiters.

Rasid and other recruits spend weeks in a cramped, filthy cave while his overseers dither over how to integrate them into Isis. Assigned to a house near the battered city of Homs, Rasid calls his quarters "a kind of prison" where recruits sleep two to a mattress, cough down miserable fare and face air strikes so harrowing that he and his companions decide to flee the city. Caught on the road by a band of Isis fighters, Raid's group is promised better conditions, but is instead driven to "some kind of cattle shed. It had no door or place to sleep, so we curled up in the fetal position" against the February cold, he writes. When Rasid finally joins Isis fighters in a battle for a hilltop near Homs, he huddles in a ditch wondering if the shivering recruit next to him might die of hypothermia.

A repackaging of those misadventures could help counter Isis propaganda, though it alone won't begin to dissuade Turkish recruits, says Ozdemir. Ankara needs to crack down on pro-jihadi pundits and their unrestrained social media extensions, and should block the Facebook accounts of fighters like Rasid, he believes.

Without that, Turkey is counteracting its own success in limiting the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, says Ozdemir. "These steps could go a long way. After all, Turkey will always be on the front line against Isis."

From Rasid's diary

'A situation like that totally breaks down your nerves'

"The jets strike close enough that you can watch the individual bombs fall through the sky ... You're in the middle of breakfast and suddenly a helicopter is prowling above, and everybody goes running outside to the trenches for cover. A situation like that totally breaks down
your nerves."

"Finally our conditions had pushed us to flee," writes Rasid of his fellow recruits, who abandon their camp after weeks of air strikes and worsening living conditions. Caught on the road by a band of militants, they're promised better conditions, but are soon driven to "some kind of cattle shed. It had no door or place to sleep, so we curled up in the fetal position". An algae-choked water tank their only source of hydration, "it was amazing we didn't contract dysentery", he notes.

"We were behind the hill and tracer fire flashed above us. It was the first time I'd heard gunfire so close ... I was also freezing. The wind and rain were horrendous, and we were worried the kid next to me would freeze because he didn't have a coat ... Already two [militants] had died here the day before."