Published by The New York Times,
AKCAKALE, Turkey — The laborers work all day, piling bags of fertilizer onto carts and wheeling them through the crossing that connects this southern border town to Syria.
The Syrian town next door is firmly controlled by the extremists of the Islamic State, as is clear from the black flag flying over downtown. And while the fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, is widely used for agriculture, it has also been used by terrorists around the world — including the Islamic State — to build powerful explosives.
Few here think the fertilizer is meant to help Syrian farmers.
“It is not for farming. It is for bombs,” said Mehmet Ayhan, an opposition politician from Akcakale who is running for Parliament. But he did not oppose the deliveries, saying they created jobs in his impoverished town.
“As long as the Turkish people benefit from this — regardless of where it goes on the other side — it is a good thing,” Mr. Ayhan said.
But the open transport of ammonium nitrate into Islamic State territory points to lingering questions about Turkey’s commitment to isolating its jihadist neighbors. Yet for the people here, the cross-border trade offers some relief in an economy that has been battered by the war in Syria.
Analysts said Turkey had recently made efforts to secure its border and to halt the flow of foreign fighters. But the country still allows cross-border trade that gives the Islamic State access to goods from energy drinks to fertilizer.
“Trade continues to go into the north, not just to ISIS, but ISIS is a tangential beneficiary of the trade policy,” said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who studies Turkey.
Cross-border connections have long defined Akcakale, which is home to 90,000 Turks and directly across the border from the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. The towns share so many family and trade ties that residents said they used to be like one town.
But the war has split them. Fleeing Syrians now outnumber the Turks in Akcakale; they have opened restaurants, and they work for lower wages. Smugglers who once moved sugar, tea and cement now move items like foreign jihadists.
One Turkish smuggler used to help Syrian rebels transfer goods and people across the border. Then the Islamic State offered him $35 a head to get its fighters into Syria, he said. He moved 25 in, nearly all of them foreigners, before quitting because he worried that the Islamic State would threaten Turkey.
“I worked for them for two months, and I still regret that I let all those people in,” he said, withholding his name for fear of the jihadists.
Outside the border gate on a recent day, scores of Syrians lined up to return home. Nearby, traders sold sandwiches, drinks and cigarettes, an indulgence banned under the Islamic State. Also for sale were black gowns for women needing to meet the jihadists’ dress code.
In line, Nasser al-Ali, 30, lifted a cigarette to his mouth with a tattooed arm. The jihadists also oppose tattoos.
“I can throw this away and cover this,” he said with a shrug, pointing to his cigarette and his tattoo.
There was little work in Raqqa, he said, but life under the jihadists was not bad.
“No one bothers you if you don’t bother anyone,” he said. When asked if the Islamic State would last, he smiled and said, “God willing.”
Four times on two recent days, reporters for The New York Times saw large wooden carts loaded with fertilizer enter the crossing and come back empty a short time later. The workers then refilled their carts from a pile of sacks as large as a semi-truck in a nearby lot.
Red letters on the sacks identified their contents as ammonium nitrate.
When the reporters arrived at the crossing, the carts stopped moving. When asked what they contained, a City Hall employee who was escorting the reporters replied, “Flour.”
Residents said the shipments began a few months earlier between traders on each side. Some residents said the fertilizer was for agriculture, noting that it is sold legally in Turkey and widely used for farming.
But ammonium nitrate has also been a vital ingredient in some of the world’s most notorious terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and the bombings of the United States Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
It has also been widely used by militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the Islamic State.
Turkey, too, has been a victim; bombs made with ammonium nitrate struck Istanbul in 2003, killing scores of people.
Shown pictures of the sacks, John Goodpaster, a forensic chemist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said they were clearly marked as ammonium nitrate.
Mixed with fuel oil, the compound forms an explosive that can be 85 percent as powerful as TNT, he said. Twenty pounds of the mix can fill a suicide vest, while 200 pounds can make a car bomb.
A bomb filled with about 45,000 pounds could damage 16 city blocks, Dr. Goodpaster said, adding that there appeared to be at least 55,000 pounds in the pile of sacks waiting to enter the crossing.
“That is a definite concern,” he said.
Turkish officials failed to explain why the substance was allowed to cross.
A spokesman for the Akcakale’s mayor’s office, Mustafa Guçlu, first denied that any fertilizer was crossing, then said that if there was any, it would be for agriculture.
An official in the governor’s office for Sanliurfa Province, which includes Akcakale, said fertilizer was not allowed to cross.
Another official, reached by phone at the crossing, said that about 500 Syrians returned home every few days and that each was allowed 30 or 40 bags of low-nitrate fertilizer, which is less explosive.
“There is no way high-ration nitrate fertilizer can go through, because we have ISIS on the other side,” the official said. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the news media.
Around town, the fertilizer shipments were common knowledge.
“Of course they use it to make bombs,” said Mustafa Kurt, a cafe owner.
Like many, he said he suspected that Islamic State fighters regularly passed through town, facing little interference from the authorities. “How can we tell the difference if they dress normal and aren’t carrying guns?” he said.
But he did not worry that they would launch attacks in Turkey, because that could hurt them in Syria. “They need us,” Mr. Kurt said. “Because if they hurt us, we can close the gate.”