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ISTANBUL—In Turkey, it’s never easy to arrange interviews. This is especially true in Istanbul, where life is saddled by traffic and the near-constant movement of the city’s roughly 18 million inhabitants. Still, tracking down the owner of a shop selling branded merchandise celebrating the world’s most currently infamous terrorist group proved to be a particularly tall order.
In the sleepy working-class neighborhood of Bagcilar, nestled just a kilometer away from Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, life moves at a slower pace than in the heart of Istanbul. The central tram line of Istanbul’s European side—the T1—ends in Bagcilar after taking nearly two hours to snake past the city’s grand attractions, such as the Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque. Few passengers were left on the tram by the last stop when I visited few weeks ago.
It was a particularly humid summer day at the height of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Large tents were set up, where vendors waited patiently for dusk and for thousands of hungry and pious people to break the day’s fast. The tents prominently featured logos of the Turkish aid organization Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the group behind the infamous Mavi Marmara aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip that was stormed by Israeli commandos who killed 10 Turkish activists in 2010. The group has recently been accused of having links to al-Qaida but operates openly in Turkey and maintains high-level support from several senior politicians, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A few blocks from the square, past several nondescript electronics stores and dozens of kebab stalls, is a modest, one-room shop called Islami Giyim, or Islamic Clothing. At first, the store appears to be nothing more than a depot of a neglected wholesaler: a bare room sparsely populated with a smattering of mannequins featuring niqabs, the black, full-length face and body coverings worn by pious Muslim women. In the center of the room, a well-worn work desk stands buried under a pile of papers, rulers, tape measures, and swatches of fabric.
The shop would barely perk the interest of an unconcerned passerby if it weren’t for a prominent rack of men’s clothing ranging from T-shirts to sweatshirts to cargo pants placed directly in front of a main display window featuring the logo of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The Sunni extremist group has captured the world’s attention in the past two months thanks to its rapid territorial gains in Iraq and the brutal brand of Shariah law it enforces in towns it has captured.
The goods on offer target young males with active lifestyles and a tendency toward Islamist insurgency. While the cargo pants, made of a dense Carhartt-esque cotton fabric, appeared ready for action in the craggy hills of northern Syria, many of the T-shirts felt like the cheap promotional clothing thrown around during political campaigns in this part of the world. There were green bandannas of the type often seen around the heads of jihadi fighters on suicide missions. I spotted at least five different bandanna designs.
The first time I visited the shop, all the lights were on but the owner was nowhere to be found. “He comes and goes a lot,” the kiosk owner next door told me about the shopkeeper. “I think that he has a large family and that takes time away from time in the shop. Most of his customers arrange visits in advance.”
After two weeks of trying, I was finally able to get hold of the owner of this shop by phone. He was dismissive, clearly agitated by the waves of Turkish journalists eager to visit Istanbul’s only known purveyor of ISIS merchandise. Given the growing number of Turkish nationals volunteering to fight for the ISIS, as well as the Turkish government’s recent classification of the group as a terrorist organization, his reticence was not surprising.
Partly due to its far-flung location, Islami Giyim managed to sell ISIS clothing for months without raising the suspicions of local or foreign journalists. All that changed after ISIS’s summer takeover of the Iraqi city of Mosul. Now journalists are lining up to interview the ISIS clothing salesman in order to demonstrate how entrenched the militant movement’s foothold is in Turkey. The Turkish media stories generally cast the shop as an example of ISIS’s growing reach beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria.
“I am not an ISIS member, nor have I ever been one,” the owner of the shop said through a translator. Refusing to give his name, he expressed surprise at the surge in media attention that his shop has stirred up in the past few months. “I am responding to a market demand. This is Islamic clothing. What else can I say?”