It was when I saw the tattoo that the penny dropped. The man seated two rows behind me on my Ankara-London flight last month, flanked by two plainclothes officers, had the letters AINE running vertically down his left arm.
It’s Aine Davis, I thought. I’m sharing my Sun Express flight with a suspected member of an Isis jihadist cell known as the “Beatles”.
My suspicions were first raised when my husband saw a man in handcuffs being led onto the plane as we waited to board. When we sat down, I discovered that we were two rows in front of the inmate: a bald, bearded man in his thirties who was wearing a white Puma T-shirt.
After takeoff, I walked past it several times on the pretext of entertaining my 17 month old daughter. I asked the cabin crew for information.
My husband rolled his eyes and wished I would sit down. Then I saw the tattoo.
Davis is suspected of having been a member of an Islamic State cell that captured and killed Western hostages in Syria. The Beatles nickname was given to them by captives: a reference to the dark humor with the British accents of men, and a way to differentiate them.
Davis, 38, had been held in Ankara prison – I knew he was to be deported to the UK.
Still, I wanted to be sure, so I asked him. He confirmed his identity and said his detention, part of it in solitary confinement, had been “very harsh”.
Davis, who had acquired excellent Turkishness and a muscular physique during his seven-and-a-half-year prison term, said he “just wanted to live a normal life” in the UK.
When I asked if he expected to be arrested, he replied, “I have no idea, after the things they wrote about me in the media.
Until then, the Turkish guards who accompanied Davis had paid little attention to me. Seeing the stained “human high chair” look I wear when traveling with a toddler, they must have assumed I was harmless.
After finding out I was a reporter, they freaked out and kicked me out before I had a chance to ask Davis anything more.
But for the rest of the flight, I had the strange experience of playing with my daughter within touching distance of a man charged with terrorism offences. Our traveling companions were completely oblivious.
In a way, it was the last chapter of a story that started ten years ago. After the 2011 Syrian uprising, it was common to see young men flying from Britain to Turkey, intending to cross the war-torn country. Some had really good intentions. Others less so, especially after Daesh captured large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
The porosity of the Turkish-Syrian border at this time is still a bone of contention between Turkey and the West. It was definitely an every man for himself. But the revelation that Shamima Begum – the British schoolgirl who joined Isis in 2015 – was smuggled across the border by a man who also worked for Canadian intelligence shows how murky this whole period was.
The sensitivities involved in repatriating people like Davis are one of the reasons the UK is keen to maintain good relations with the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkey has expelled 9,000 suspected foreign terrorist fighters since 2011, the Interior Ministry has confirmed. Although the pace of deportations has slowed in recent years, 20 people were returned to EU countries in the first seven months of 2022.
An estimated 360 Britons who joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq were “still somewhere in the region”, according to a UK government estimate in 2019.
Britain subsequently stripped some of them of their citizenship to prevent their return. But Ankara has rightly said it will not serve as a “hotel” for foreign terror suspects. Davis was to be sent home.
After our plane landed in Luton, my family and I descended the steps to the tarmac and walked through the airport to be warmly greeted by my in-laws. Davis’ welcome party consisted of three British police officers.