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isis handbook

Advice for women traveling through Turkey

An entire chapter is dedicated to the trip, or the hijrah, to Syria undertaken by women, here referred to as “sisters”. The author of the booklet's opening remarks claims that he will not get into the theological argument of whether women are allowed to travel to Turkey without a “mahran”, a male member of the family. This is not an issue for the sisters wishing to join the ISIS.

The instructions start off from the airport of arrival in Turkey, usually Istanbul's Ataturk, although the Turkish capital has two airports. A woman traveling alone and with hand luggage is discouraged from taking a bus across the country for security reasons. The suggestion is to hop on a plane, thus avoiding going out of the airport, taking a taxi, a subway or roaming around Istanbul looking for a ticket.

If the candidate has already been in touch with the Office of Borders of the Al Dawla, aka the caliphate, or, as quoted in the booklet, the Madrasat al Huda, i.e. the koranic school for the right path, she could already have a telephone number to call upon landing. There are a series of recommendations to follow on where to conceal this number. If you save it on your phone, the ironical author of the manual states, don't put it under Osama bin Laden's name. The suggestion for the sisters is also to learn a number of phrases in Turkish, from how to ask for a taxi, to specifying she is not traveling alone, or how to purchase a SIM card.

The mobile phone is an essential element of the trip. The incipit to the handbook is pretty clear: don't attempt the hijrah if your parents have confiscated your mobile phone. The Islamic State prefers Android operated smart-phones, suggests purchasing a SIM card at the airport – not just any SIM card, but one from Turkish mobile phone operator Turkcell – and enough credit on your phone to call and access the internet. One gigabyte of data traffic will suffice. If you're traveling in a group, each sister will have to buy her own SIM card.

At this point, the sister will have to call the number she was provided with, specify that she has landed in Istanbul and that she is trying to reach Syria. She will hence receive the instructions on what to do next. If a group of women reaches the same destination, it is recommended to avoid being in a group and to communicate via internet with the freshly purchased SIM card. The advice is to move in groups of twos, three people at the most, even when you're buying the tickets for your next destination. Tickets should be purchased separately, no group tickets.

Once the new destination has been reached, don't talk to the police, you're just a tourist. Call the number you have been provided with, confirm you've landed and wait for further instructions. Generally, they will tell you to go in a hotel. Take a taxi and make sure it's an official one, not an illegal cab. If you land at night and there are no taxis around, call the Syrian number and ask for someone to come and pick you up.

There could be people at the airport that will try to harass you. They have no evidence that you're on your hijrah. They've seen dozens of people take the same trip. If someone offers you a ride to the border, refuse it and ignore him without attracting attention. Just go to your hotel and wait for instructions. If they tell you to wait for a phone call, then wait for a call. The bottom line is, as the document states, “hear and obey”.

If you're told you have to wait for one or two days, don't be impatient and always keep your mobile phone charged and by your side. If you realize you were not picked up, or if you find a missed call on you phone, don't worry, they will call you back. If the person coming to collect you smokes or doesn't wear a beard, worry not. It is better not to leave your hotel, unless it's strictly necessary and, if you really have to, notify the people in Syria. A piece of advice is repeated several times: stick to instructions, no paranoia even if there are delays.

The cost of the taxi that will take you to the border is roughly 50 dollars and will take the sisters on dirt and possibly dark roads and up to a safe house where one of the ISIS's sympathizers will host them. Once there, there will be rooms for women and food and beverages will be provided until the crossing of the border. Inside the safe house, the sister will also be granted the possibility of being alone in her room.

From there on, new instructions will be provided on how to cross the border. This will generally happen at night or at dawn. The sister will be told just a few minutes before hand, although delays could be caused by the transit of Turkish police border patrols. The luggage will be left in the safe house and the volunteer will have to take along all of her valuables. This is because the unattended luggage could be searched by the owners of the house that, the manual underlines, are not Islamic fighters, but mere sympathizers. The bottom line is: the ISIS doesn't steal.

When the right time comes, the crossing of the border will take place. Usually it will be running (wear comfortable shoes and clothes) and if there are children along someone will help them out. The suggestion is to bring along another dress, called “Abaya” in Arabic, because during the border crossing the sister might have to crawl under the barbed wire and one will have to cover her “awrah”. The term refers to the intimate parts in Islam, their exact definition is a matter of debate among muslim scholars.

Once the Al Dawla has finally been reached, the handbook suggests you take a breath of fresh air: “That's how the Shariah feels like”.

On the other side of the border the sisters will be taken to a “madhafah”, a guest house for women. If the candidate is married and her husband is training with the ISIS, she will stay in the home until her spouse comes to pick her up. If the sister is not married, instead, she will be transferred to a house for single women in Raqqa together with other wannabe jihadists. If the candidate wants to marry, she will have to apply for a husband. If she wants to stay single, she is free to do so.

Finally, there are some bureaucratic instructions. The luggage might be taken to a male madhafah and, if not requested, it could be transferred to the Border Office in Raqqa.

raqqa map

Other general provisions

The handbook shows what a Visa granted at a Turkish airport looks like. It underlines once more how the scope of the trip should be “tourism” and not, although it appears on the form, “Commit Jihad in Syria”. If the volunteer were to mark the latter he would probably end up in jail. Overall, the instructions are so basic that the average candidate is presumably not very educated nor smart. The low level of the candidates implies the need for such repeated and basic suggestions on how to behave and on what to take along.

For example, the booklet stresses once more not to look nervous at the airport. No shaking hands, no rapid breathing, cold sweats and lack of eye contact. All of these signals could be detected by trained security officials.

Success stories

The booklet also contains a number of success stories of those who actually made it to Syria.

There is the case of a British convert that skipped bail in the United Kingdom and fled with his family and four children via France and Turkey and ended up in Raqqa before his passport was impounded by authorities.

Then there is the story of a group of Saudis that fled to Yemen, from Yemen they hopped on a boat to Sudan, from Sudan to Egypt, from Egypt to Libya, and from Libya by boat to Turkey and finally in Syria. This epic journey is told in great detail, from the prices paid, to the corruption of border guards and militias etc. and is available on Twitter.

There are several success stories that end with a happy ending, of course. Each of them bears a teaching: the religious call, the determination to find the funds for the trip, the help from friends, the motivations, the hardships that were overcome in crossing the border (sometimes thanks to the corruption or the indifference from Turkish soldiers), the diffidence in relying on people you don't know, the existence of spies and undercover policemen, the ridiculous amounts of money asked by middle-men or smugglers.

A success story told by a sister tells about a woman getting arrested by Turkish police, receiving an expulsion order, then getting bailed out by a lawyer paid by the ISIS and finally crossing the border at a checkpoint manned by the Free Syrian Army. Her ordeal was not over, as the sister was forced back into Turkey and eventually made it back into Syria at a border crossing controlled by the ISIS.

The handbook ends with a final account, that of a “shaheed”, a martyr, a US citizen. The man blew himself up and killed 30 Syrian soldiers, “apostates”. The last message the booklet sends out is that “he was true to true to Allah and Allah was true to him”.

isis selfie


The provisions and the recommendations that are given on how to behave outline what a wannabe Islamic volunteer has to do to reach Syria. The fact that most of them require continuous basic suggestions is a signal of their inadequacy. Between the lines there are also a number of other facts that emerge from the text: there are electricity shortages in the caliphate, there is the corruption and, above all, the silent complicity of Turkish authorities, there is a network of contacts and safe houses operated by the ISIS and used to channel the volunteers into Syria. Visually speaking, the candidate will not look like a religious fanatic as he gets closer to the border.

The booklet also highlights the strained relationship between the Free Syrian Army and the ISIS and the ongoing competition with Jabhat al Nusra. The ISIS also tends to distinguish itself from Al Qaeda, as if being associated with Osama bin Laden's former group had a negative connotation to it. The key advice for the volunteers is not to look suspicious, nervous, not to panic. By doing so he will be able to avoid embarrassing questions.

Overall, the idea of using the cover story of being a tourist close to the Syrian border when you're carrying inside your backpack binoculars, equipment to face the winter cold or war boots doesn't seem like a great idea. This implies that, if they wanted to, the Turkish Security Services could easily identify, stop or reject the volunteers for the jihad. Probably it is Turkish policy to turn a blind eye. A reason for this could be, as the handbook suggests, the fear of terrorist attacks on their soil.

But the most important point is: if Turkey were to block the human, financial and logistical traffic along the Syrian border, the ISIS would be in great difficulty.

Finally, there is the issue of how internet is used and how communications are exchanged between jihadist candidates and their recruiters. Europol has recently decided to create a special unit tasked with identifying the networks and the online contacts of the ISIS. There are presently an estimated 50.000 active accounts (and 90.000 Twitter profiles) on which 100.000 messages are exchanged on a daily basis. This confirms that one of greatest successes of the ISIS has been the capability using modern social media to convey an archaic and historically primitive vision of Islamic society.

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