Dispatch: Turkey’s mysterious case of the bearded men

ANTAKYA — It is a journalist's greatest challenge in the field: How to tell rumor from fact.

Consider the Case of the Four Long Beards.

A colleague and I were in the shade of a market stall in this city a 30-minute drive from the Syrian border, chatting with a merchant about the talk of the town — fear. In broad parts of Syria and Iraq, the fanatical Sunnis of the Islamic State militant group were raining down a horrific vengeance. Zealots from North Africa, Syria and Europe — the kind secular Antakyans like to call "the men with long beards" — were traversing Turkey en route to their jihads. The Antakya home of a prominent and progressive Alawite scholar had been attacked. Three weeks earlier, a car packed with explosives was seized not far from here.

Were Syria and Iraq's sectarian tensions coming to Turkey?

[Read the full story: In Turkey, a late crackdown on Islamist fighters]

A friend of the merchant passed on a lead that seemed to punctuate the fear and tension. In the nearby city of Samandag, a secular stronghold where Turkish women eschewed Muslim veils and wore tight designer jeans, a group of townies had taken matters into their own hands. A day earlier, he told us, four strangers dressed in religious garb and donning long beards were seen walking through town. A mob of locals questioned them. When the men could offer no valid reason for their presence, the mob attacked, running them out of town.

Intrigued, I asked our shopkeeper — Murat — whether he knew anyone in Samandag he could call to find out more. As luck would have it, he did.

A few minutes later, he got off the phone, turned to us and said: "Yeah, it really happened, my friend wasn't there but he heard about it. Apparently four of these bearded guys were walking around the souk and looked strange and suspicious."

"Did your friend see any of this?" my colleague and I asked.

Murat answered: "No, he only heard about it, but I'm sure if you go to the city, everybody will know."

So off we went to Samandag.

Our first stop was the mayor's office. Recently reelected, Mayor Mithat Nehir delayed a council meeting to receive us and railed for nearly an hour about the Islamist threat to secular Turkey.

Yes. Yes. It's all very terrible. But what about the guys with the four beards? The mob? What actually happened?

"I heard something happened," the mayor said. "But I cannot say what."

As the meeting ended, we asked one of his top aides whether he could be more specific. "Let's go downstairs," the aide said conspiratorially. "I'll tell you everything."

But downstairs led to another dead end. A lunch invitation (declined) and another vague reference was all the aide had to offer: "Yes, something happened, but I don't know the full details."

After consulting the original tipster, we found our way to a friend of his who owned a paint store in the Samandag neighborhood where the incident allegedly occurred.

"People have been calling me from everywhere about this," complained the harried paint store owner. "But it did not happen in this part of town. I have a friend who knows more."

Twenty minutes later, a twin of the warden from "Midnight Express" lumbered into the store. We engaged this hairy, beefy character in a few minutes of chitchat before he finally spilled the beans.

"Yes, yes, it happened on Sunday," he said. "These bearded guys went to a restaurant by the beach. They ate and then refused to pay the bill and took off in their car. So Samir, the restaurant owner, and some folks from here went after them. They finally stopped them in the souk and beat the s--- out of them and then these religious guys took off."

"Just go to the restaurant," the man said, "the Dalyan by the water, and ask for Samir. He is the owner. He can tell you the whole story from A to Z."

Right.

With our doubts bested by a sense of "we've-come-this-far," roughly 15 minutes later, we landed on the doorstep of Samir and his world-famous beachside fish shack.

Clearly, The Washington Post does not get to Samandag much, and Samir's eyes went wide after introductions and an explanation of our purpose.

"What? Here? What are you talking about?" he said "No such thing took place."

He stood up and pointed to his pack of 21 German shepherd guard dogs outside. "If anybody would come and try to attack me or run away without paying the bill, all I have to shout is, 'Get the bastards,' and you'll see these dogs go after them."

By then, we had ordered the spicy tomato salad and a couple of kebabs. Note to self: Don't forget to pay the bill, with tip.

Then Samir, leaning in and looking around the empty restaurant as if spies abounded, said, "But, hey, did you see the coffee shop at the corner next to the mosque?"

Um, yes.

"Well, not long ago, there was this strange guy with a long beard who turned out to be Chechen and the police found in his bag a weapon and white cloth [used in burials]. Word is he was on his way to join the Islamic Front" in Syria.

The obvious questions follow.

Did you see it?

Were you there?

"No," Samir said, "but I heard about it."

Throughout this reporting trip, we would find many witnesses, officials and security experts who testified to the very real incidents happening across this increasingly nervous corner of Turkey. But the Case of the Long Beards will always be the one that got away.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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