Akçakale used to be a quaint, unremarkable Turkish border town nestled against the Syrian border.

Yet in the three-year span of the brutal Syrian civil war, the town has dramatically changed, reaching a level of infamy as the most dangerous town in Turkey.

Akçakale forms a divided border town with Tal Abyad on the Syrian side, separated by little more than a six-feet wire fence and a few Turkish soldiers. Today, however, Tal Abyad is an Islamic State (IS) stronghold, having been seized from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) a year ago. The border between the two towns has now become so fluid that IS fighters can be seen roaming the streets of the Turkish town - turning previously quiet Akçakale into a sordid underground of illicit and dangerous activity.

Abdullah Khalil, an elderly Kurdish man from Tal Abyad, fled to Akçakale when the IS took over the town, seeking refuge on the other side of the border. The move gave him a level of safety not available in Tal Abyad, but hasn't offered complete refuge from IS fighters.

"No-one trusts anyone here anymore, everyone is wary. People don't even want to leave their homes at night. I thought I was getting away from them," Khalil told the Sunday Herald. "But IS people are all over here."

Residents claim that the border is now virtually non-existent. Previously, rebels affiliated to the FSA would smuggle themselves to and fro with ease; now it's IS fighters crossing back and forth - their long beards and rough demeanour a quick giveaway. Where IS control finishes and ends has become harder to pinpoint over the past year, with the ominous black flag of the jihadists flying high over Tal Abyad less than half a mile away, reminding the people of Akçakale exactly who their close neighbours are.

The IS has now become part and parcel of the town's fabric. Akçakale's three privately owned hotels have become the stopover place for the Sunni militants, filling up every night with hardened, scarred fighters.

Down a darkened side street just off the main road, Otel Ugur's flickering neon light draws the eye. The Sunday Herald spent a night at Otel Ugur, known locally for being a discreet establishment that is often frequented by passing IS fighters, some on "business" - carrying out tasks set by the jihadist "government" on the other side - as well as hopeful new recruits to the Sunni militant organisation.

Passing up wonky concrete stairs, and into a labyrinthine building, a makeshift reception area appears, centred between four rooms. This was a family house before but now bedrooms have been crudely put together. What was obviously a former cupboard has been transformed into the only bathroom - no basin, or toilet, just a hole that leads to plumbing.

Six bearded men with long cloth scarves wrapped around their heads militant-style occupy the biggest room, talking in Arabic. There is no luggage in their room. The two smaller rooms are also occupied. The last room, vacant, is empty except for three beds and a beautifully decorated Koran hung from the wall. The bookmarked page, presumably left from a former guest, recalls the importance of converting non-Islamic countries to Islam.

That night the hotel erupted in loud arguments in Arabic, the men yelling at each other about a previous mission gone wrong, and about their commander on the other side.

"I told him I was hungry, and he pointed at a body on the ground and shouted at me to eat that if I was really hungry," one shouted angrily as tempers continued to flare. Staying silent behind a fortified door, we learned that the men had just returned from fighting in Kobani, Syria, where a battle between the IS and Kurdish fighters has raged on for weeks. One claimed another had killed 13 people the previous week. At 3am this man left for the border, another warning him, "be careful of the police".

That night was just a taste of what many residents said they go through, and fear, in Akçakale every day, where people try to stay safe at home during the night, rather than risk running into deadly militants.

Khalil told the Sunday Herald he never ventures out past sundown.

"I left because I was scared of them, but now I see their fighters in this town every day," he said, disheartened.

The smuggling of people - IS fighters and potential new recruits - has become commonplace. The tunnel economy is a lucrative and secretive business. Rubbing shoulders with IS territory has meant the town has become a lurid centre for fighters and recruits from around the world, hoping to join the jihadist group.

"This area is still full of their fighters," Khalil said. "They don't know me, and I ignore them, but if you go to the wrong street you will die, if they get the opportunity to kill you they will kill you - if you go to a dark street directly you will be killed. They still have the jihad mind when they are here, even if they are just here on holiday or other business."

Many residents are wary of ­talking. "I know nothing apart from my restaurant, and what we serve here," Ibrahim, a local cafe owner stressed, despite his town-centre spot clearly being a popular hangout for the cross-section of characters that now grace Akçakale's streets.

Further down the main street, towards the archaic, intricately carved mosque, a friendly market owner cuts the conversation short when the IS is mentioned, suddenly becoming uncomfortable and nervous - he motions his hands, indicating that he isn't willing, or able to speak. However, away from the main street on a grassed section just some metres from the border fence, Muhsen Suroor, a long-term resident of the town, opened up about the situation that now consumes Akçakale. The IS have a foothold in the Turkish town, he states, and they are not afraid to show their level of control, despite the town - officially - being under Turkish jurisdiction.

"Here the situation is difficult, their fighters come here to the markets, restaurants, cafes during the night - with a gun they threaten to kill the owner unless they get money," he confirmed, while keeping a close eye out for passers-by, and potential onlookers.

This place is lawless, Suroor reiterates. "If you walk here at night and you see fighting or arguing, you walk as far away as possible, the people out at night will probably be fighters and they are dangerous. Even if you accidently make a problem with an IS fighter on the street, maybe you look at him in the wrong way, then suddenly 30 fighters will appear out of nowhere on the street against you. They are everywhere. They can kill you, they can kidnap you."

There is a Turkish police presence here and undercover officers are commonplace, Suroor said, yet the police generally leave the IS fighters alone. Instead, they prefer to keep an eye out for foreigners in the town to question, rather than militants that are already known to them - a reality the Sunday Herald experienced while working in the town, despite the numbers of IS fighters obviously roaming the streets.

Not every resident of the town, however, is against the IS. With fighters populating Akçakale, and the close proximity to Tal Abyad - which itself is situated in Raqqa province, home of the self-proclaimed capital of the militant group - some locals have become conditioned to the presence of the organisation, even becoming supporters and members. While most residents we approached shied away from any discussion on the very political and, at times, dangerous reality that now exists in their hometown, residents who confessed to supporting or being part of the IS are happier to talk.

Bilal, a resident of Akçakale who wished to be identified by his first name only, not only supports the IS but claims to be a member. He says that his family are all important members in the jihadist group, and that he illegally crosses the border frequently, preferring the Syrian side to the Turkish side.

'ALTHOUGH these both sides are the same, there is no border," he remarked while sitting on the pavement, smoking a flavoured waterpipe - an ever-present staple of the region.

"I am part of the IS, and most of my family are as well. I have a wife on both sides, one here in Akçakale and one in Tal Abyad," Bilal continued, taking a puff from the waterpipe. "But I like that side better," he said, waving his hand across the street towards the border.

"I can smoke like this on either side even though it is illegal in Tal Abyad and you will be punished for it. But I sit and smoke with IS people over there. Many of them in the government are my family, so no-one can stop me. All of us sit in the garden, take a break, sit, smoke, and then we go back to jihad."

Bilal's candid admission to being part of the IS is not so unusual in Akçakale although not everyone is so open, he says. Even so, the police don't seem to care, he claimed.

"They don't bother us, we don't bother them," Bilal continued. "We can cross the border whenever we want, I see many of my friends from the other side here on this side," he said, motioning towards several men who had gathered around to listen in to the conversation.

"The only thing I change is that I trim my beard when I come to this side because my wife here doesn't like it long," Bilal laughs, as he takes a final puff on the pipe before passing it on to one of the listeners.

Akçakale has become not just a town on edge, but one with a sense of surrealism. No-one in the town can really pinpoint its status, some claim it is still under the control of its long-term residents - except at night. However, the tension, and the threat of kidnap, is ever present.

Last week, a failed kidnap attempt in Akçakale of a high-profile Free Syrian Army figure was carried out during daylight hours. The overriding impression is that here is a Turkish town slowly falling into the iron grip of the Islamic State.

Additional reporting by Abed al-Qaisi