A Turkish anti-terror cop turned professor came to the U.S. in 2015 to escape the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Now his 19-year-old son is in prison because his father criticized his former country’s handling of ISIS and its arrest of thousands after a failed July coup.
“I never thought they would arrest him because of me,” Dr. Ahmet Yayla told The Daily Beast.
Yayla used to hunt the Islamic State as the counterterrorist chief in his small city, Sanliurfa, bordering Syria, and he taught U.S. law enforcement and intelligence to do the same.
Then his work filming ISIS defectors landed him on an ISIS hit list. He fled for the U.S. in late 2015 and started a new career as a professor.
He’d dodged ISIS but landed in the target sights of the Turkish government when he co-wrote a book called ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate, in which former ISIS fighters claimed that the Turkish government provided them with arms, explosives, and weapons, and allowed them free passage over the border in 2014 and 2015 before Turkey finally turned on ISIS as demanded by the Obama administration.
Though the professor wasn’t personally making those claims, the implied criticism of the Turkish government apparently landed Yayla on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “enemies list.”
“Erdogan has resorted to increasingly repressive measures against domestic opposition groups and placed extreme limitations on free media, both steps that have eroded the foundations of democracy in Turkey,” he wrote in the July 19 article. “Erdogan’s policies regarding the Syrian conflict have also worsened Turkey’s isolation… This seclusion from the world, combined with instability in the country and the region, have caused enormous economic stress.”
The article added fuel to the Turkish administration’s ire against him, already stoked by other articles critical of the regime’s handling of ISIS. Yayla said Turkish media friendly to the regime linked him to alleged coup mastermind Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish politician-in-exile who is also in the U.S., and the government revoked his passport.
On July 22, less than a week after the article was published, Yayla’s 19-year-old-son, a college student named Yavuz Selim Yayla, was pulled off a bus and arrested as he was trying to leave the country for a vacation.
It was just one week after the coup attempt, and he was apparently swept up in the mass arrests across the country of anyone perceived as a critic of the regime. His crime? The 19-year-old was charged with the offense of having a U.S. dollar in his backpack.
“There is a story that Gulen sent his supporters dollar bills so they can communicate through the serial numbers. But we don’t have any connection to Gulen,” the father said.
“They searched my father-in-law’s house where my son was staying, in Izmir, and couldn’t find anything to tie us to Gulen,” whereas his supporters usually have his books, and the surprise raid meant they wouldn’t have had any time to get rid of such offensive material, Yayla said.
“He stayed home during the coup and hasn’t done anything related to the coup,” Yayla added.
Yayla’s son argued successfully before a judge that the dollar came from tourist tips he received for playing his guitar on the street to earn some extra cash. That judge ruled in his favor, and Yayla’s son walked free, and disappeared.
It took another day, and hiring a lawyer to track him down.
The lawyer discovered that he was back in prison. He’d been re-arrested just outside the prison gates, moments after he was released for his crime of possessing a single American dollar. This time, a different judge reviewed his case and decided that he was indeed a terrorist coup plotter because his passport had been revoked.
“The Turkish government revoked the passports of anyone they tied to the coup, and I am among that group and he is connected to me,” Yayla said, so by association, the son’s passport had also been revoked.
Yayla hasn’t communicated with his son since his re-arrest, and the lawyer he hired to represent his son got a visit from Turkish intelligence, who threatened her if she continued to represent the boy.
“They told her if she keeps working with us, it’s not going to be good for her,” he said.
“They scared her off by saying, ‘We are going to deal with you.’”
And as several other lawyers were arrested for taking similar cases, she returned her fee, telling the Yayla family, “I cannot keep working with you, I am sorry.”
Now he can’t find anyone to take the case.
Yayla testified about the coup and the fate of his son before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. But his bold testimony alleging that the coup may have been staged by Erdogan supporters probably hasn’t improved his son’s prospects.
Yayla pointed out that Erdogan himself called the coup “a gift from God.”
“It provided the rationale for solving his many troubles and most importantly, the perfect opportunity to completely wipe out his growing opposition as he quickly grabbed authoritarian rule at a level he never would be able to attain through democratic means,” Yayla said in his testimony.
Yayla pointed out that previous Turkish military coups have happened at 3 or 4 a.m., when the country is asleep, not 10 p.m., and that the coup plotters failed to cut off the country’s communications—signaling an amateurish attempt, if it was a serious attempt at all.
He also told the lawmakers of his son’s detention.
“My son was arrested after I wrote an article… because my passport was canceled,” he said.
“We will keep your son in mind, and I hope whoever is reading this testimony in Turkey understands that we know who your son is,” said California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs’ Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee. “It will not escape our attention if he… continues in captivity.”
Lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comment on how they intended to follow up on that statement. The Turkish Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment either.
“While we cannot speak to the specific details of this case, we have repeatedly emphasized the importance of respecting democratic institutions and the rule of law,” a State Department spokesperson emailed Monday about the case.
Yayla is hoping the country he has helped to battle ISIS will help him free his son from its ally.
Updated 4:58 p.m. 9/19/16 to include comment from State Department spokesperson.