Are There ISIS Sleeper Cells In Kobani?

The massacres in Kobani and Tunisia raised the question of ISIS' reach far from the battlefield

Jul 01, 2015 at 11:03 AM ET

Some Kurdish residents of Kobani, a Syrian town on Turkey’s border, woke last week to the sound of chants in the streets: “Long live Kobani, long live the YPG!” uniformed fighters shouted in praise of the town and the Kurdish forces defending it.

Except the marchers weren’t members of the YPG. They were ISIS fighters in disguise. Moments later, they commited a massacre.

The attack on Kobani came just a day before local ISIS supporters killed dozens in Tunisia and Kuwait, raising fears about sleeper cells and the extent of ISIS’ reach.

Idris Nassan, a senior official in Kobani, said authorities were investigating the identities of the attackers and how they were able to infiltrate the town, which was under Kurdish control. “We have to check everything to be sure that there are no sleeper cells in Kobani,” he said. “They are more dangerous than fighters.”

One man, Kasimlo Kobani, a 55-year-old shop owner, claimed that some of the men chanting in the streets last week knocked on his neighbor’s door and asked to come in before the attack. “We’re your friends,” they said. When his neighbor opened the door, the shop owner said the fighters revealed their true identities and attacked them, leaving a thick trail of blood behind. Nine people in that house were killed, he claimed.

Another resident, a 50-year-old laborer, said he saw ISIS fighters walking through the streets in YPG uniforms. From his rooftop, he watched them knock on doors asking for water. When the doors opened, the disguised ISIS fighters opened fire. “What can we do?” said the man, who requested anonymity due to security concerns. “If you are Kurdish and knock on my door and ask me in Kurdish for water, I’m going to let you in,” he said.

The following day, ISIS was in the headlines again after the group claimed responsibility for the murder of more than 30 people on a beach in Tunisia and the bombing of mosque in Kuwait. Both attacks were carried out by ISIS supporters from the region, which has raised alarm about ISIS’ threat beyond Syria and Iraq. The attacks were particularly troubling to Turkey, which shares a border with the so-called Islamic State and is also home to 2 million Syrian refugees.

The movement of refugees in and out of Turkey alone makes the country particularly vulnerable to attacks, said Haldun Yalcinkaya, a security studies coordinator at Turkey’s Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies. “Just imagine if just 10 out of 1 million refugees were supporting ISIS,” he said. “It means there are 20 ISIS terrorists inside Turkey. Statistically it would be negligible but in reality it can’t be negligible.”

He noted that Muslim countries in the region are much more susceptible to ISIS attacks than countries in the West: Whereas al-Qaeda’s primary enemy is the United States, ISIS’ strategy is to focus first on “apostate” countries in the region. “We are infidels for these extremists groups,” he said.

Earlier this year, Turkey’s national police leaked a report raising an “urgent” alarm about the threat ISIS poses to the country. It said more than 3,000 people with direct links to the radical group were living inside the country’s border cities as well as in Ankara and Istanbul.

ISIS militants are people from the region, said Ahmet Han, a professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul and a board member at Turkey’s Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. “Yeah, there are foreign fighters in ISIS,” he said, but many more of the fighters in Iraq and Syria are locals, making it hard to imagine them going away.

In order to guard against future ISIS assaults, Kobani’s defense minister Ismet Hassan said the YPG will go house-to-house to count and question residents, and search for foreigners.

Still, there are no guarantees. “We can’t say for sure that an attack like this won’t happen again,” Hassan said.