ISTANBUL -- A missing 19-year-old Russian student whose father said earlier this week may have been recruited by the Islamic State has now been found -- just before crossing into Syria.
Turkish counterterrorism forces caught Varvara Karaulova in the knick of time on Thursday as she attempted to cross from the Turkish border town of Kilis.
“I was relieved at first,” her exhausted father, Pavel Karaulov, told The WorldPost as he sat in a bustling Istanbul Starbucks, waiting for news of his daughter. “But now, I have so many emotions. It’s such a shock.”
It's been over a week since he last heard from Varvara, a bright second-year philosophy student at Moscow State University, before she boarded a one-way flight to Istanbul. What ensued was an international manhunt led by her father, a stoic CFO at a company in Moscow.
As he sat and waited, ignoring the giddy passersby and calls for latte orders, he tried to process this past week: the frantic calls to police and government officials, desperate searches around Istanbul for clues of his daughter’s next steps, the hellish waiting by the phone.
“She's always home studying," he said with confusion, trying to piece together why the teen, raised in the United States for much of her young life, might want to join a brutal extremist group known for its violent interpretation of Islam. "She's so trustworthy,” he said. “But somehow she got twisted into this."
Pavel said he had noticed his daughter growing more distant recently, but he didn’t know why.
When he and his ex-wife received a goodbye email and a text message asking them to take care of Varvara's beloved dog, Freki, they immediately reached out to Russian authorities and Varvara's friends in search of answers.
The student's friends told Pavel that Varvara had been changing into a hijab and long, conservative clothing at her university since October, around the time she began Arabic language lessons. Then, a week before she left, Pavel noticed she wasn’t wearing her cross necklace.
“She said the chain broke,” he said.
Varvara had always been interested in other languages, cultures and religions, but Pavel said he was dumbfounded as to why she would want to join a group like the Islamic State. If joining the group was her goal, the teen be among many young men and women lured into the Islamic State with promises of wealth, community and a life with meaning. But once they cross into Syria, many recruits find themselves virtual prisoners, unable to leave.
A source close to Varvara, who asked to remain anonymous out of respect for her family, said it was “shocking” that the student left Moscow without telling her family. The two had been excitedly discussing summer plans in Russia just three weeks ago.
While Varvara’s family can breathe a sigh of relief, for now, her dramatic capture is far from the norm. Most Islamic State recruits and fighters make the trip to Turkey and across the border into Syria with absolute ease.
Turkey has faced increasing international pressure over its porous border, known as the “jihadi highway,” though there have been recent efforts to limit smuggling.
However, a Syrian doctor who crossed from Kilis into Syria Friday told The WorldPost that getting smuggled across the border -- especially as a woman wearing a niqab -- is still easy. Once across, hopeful Islamic State recruits can meet cells from the group anywhere in northern Syria, the doctor said.
Talk of a possible Islamic State cell in Kayesehir, a neighborhood in Istanbul where Russian intelligence tracked Varvara before she left for the border, is frequent conversation among locals there. Numerous people working and living in Kayesehir pointed to a steady stream of could-be jihadists using the area as a “logistical center,” as one man, Moustafa, put it.
Russian-speaking women are often seen with “wealthy” men in the neighborhood, said one woman working for a political party in Kayesehir, who asked to remain anonymous.
“[The women] wear a niqab and gloves,” she added, speaking of conservative Islamic attire. “They camouflage themselves, but we hear them speaking Russian.”
The woman said she was recently at a hair salon where a Russian-speaking woman in a niqab could not communicate with the hairdresser because she could not speak Turkish.
Another woman, Berfin, said she had witnessed groups of people, including possible fighters, boarding busses together from Kayesehir.
“They all go somewhere together,” she said. “They’re really well-organized.”
When Russian intelligence told Pavel last week that his daughter had likely been recruited by an extremist group, and that she had changed her name from Varvara to Nour, meaning “light” in Arabic, he had no idea what to do. When he sought help from the authorities to track Varvara down and bring her home, Pavel said he ran into a bureaucratic nightmare.
Those responsible for investigating her case told him to file paperwork and “wait three working days,” he recalled, laughing angrily. The only way he got through to Russian and Turkish authorities, he said, was to call high-powered friends.
“There are millions of people who wouldn’t be able to do that,” he said, trying to mask his fury.
Pavel turned, in part, to social media to help find his daughter. One of his Facebook posts was shared nearly 21,000 times. People all over the world reached out to offer advice, information and condolences.
He said he's now heard story after story of young people like Varvara being recruited by the Islamic State. Now, he hopes his daughter's close call will be the voice of reason for others thinking of crossing into Syria to join the hardline fighters of the Islamic State, many of whom are not Syrian.
Varvara will be deported on Monday back to Russia, her father said. It remains to be seen whether she will face serious consequences for her actions.
Pavel hopes for the best. When asked what he will do once they return to Moscow and try to rebuild their lives, he had no answer. He hasn't thought that far ahead yet.
"I just had no idea," he said, shaking his head, not yet able to process that his own daughter likely tried to join an extremist group. "This should be a lesson for all of us."
Burak Sayin in Istanbul and Hiba Dlewati in Gaziantep contributed reporting.