Amid Instability In Northern Syria, Turkey Faces Possible Influx Of Jihadists
Ankara fears that members of the Islamic State will flee across porous border
A potential Syrian regime attack to take back the northern Idlib Province will likely push jihadists into Turkey, analysts told The Media Line.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has links to al-Qai’da and is the successor to al-Nusra, strengthened its control over most of Idlib in January, making an offensive by Damascus likely.
Gareth Jenkins, a long-time Turkey analyst and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, told The Media Line that many fighters would enter Turkey in such an eventuality.
“They will almost certainly include some members of HTS,” Jenkins said, although he qualified that they are unlikely to launch attacks in Turkey anytime soon.
While Ankara has significantly tightened up the border with Syria since 2017, there are still ways to come back into Turkey.
Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that fighters returning is something the Turkish government will need to keep an eye on.
“There’s always reports…that there are still smuggling networks that you can get through these places and you can wiggle your way through [Syrian Democratic Forces] territory into essentially what is Turkish-held territory,” he said.
The Turkish state news agency reported last week that police detained a senior ISIS suspect of Syrian nationality in western Turkey. Last April, the state news agency said authorities arrested four high-level ISIS suspects, including one believed to have close ties with leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Turkish government increased its monitoring of ISIS in 2017 after a series of attacks, learning more about the group’s logistics, its members and connections to other networks, according to Dogu Eroglu, who wrote a book on ISIS in Turkey and is an investigative journalist with the Medyascope outlet.
Eroglu told The Media Line that as attacks against ISIS in Syria intensified around 2015, most of the organization’s Turkish citizens were able to return home.
While they are unlikely to perpetrate local attacks now, Eroglu too believes that “doesn’t mean they aren’t going to become huge liabilities in the future.”
Another vulnerability is the millions of Syrians in Turkey who fled the war.
“In this chaotic atmosphere, I think some of the fighters going back to their final destinations through Turkey might have slipped [through] but that is something very hard for the government to prevent,” Eroglu said.
He added that surveillance at airports and bus stations where police check people’s identities has led to some suspects on the watch list being apprehended.
However, Jenkins warned, if the Syrian war comes to an end then radicalized individuals may focus their efforts on Europe since they cannot fight elsewhere.
Turkish authorities have likely looked out for single males on one-way tickets coming in, Stein said, and they would probably look at those leaving as well.
Indeed, analysts told The Media Line that the risk of a lone wolf attack by an extremist already in Europe is probably greater than terrorism being carried out by jihadists returning to Turkey.
Ahmet S. Yayla, an Assistant Professor at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and a former counter-terrorism police chief in Turkey, told The Media Line that he believes 8,000-10,000 Turks joined ISIS and al-Qai’da-linked groups in Syria.
He said that law enforcement has focused on the border, including along the Aegean Sea, and are looking into organized crime groups that are helping smuggle people out of the country.
“The intelligence [service] can figure out who is trying to leave,” Yayla said, although he contended that much of these efforts would focus on perceived political opponents attempting to flee Ankara’s post-coup crackdown.
A central question, then, is how governments will define what constitutes a jihadist as opposed to a sympathizer that has not helped conduct attacks.
Stein said that in the case of Turkey, the distinction can be blurry and the situation could be complicated by Ankara’s classification of the Syrian Democratic Forces as a terrorist group.
“The SDF is holding thousands of these people, they are sitting in open air camps. What are you going to with them?,” Stein asked. “There will be a jail break, it will eventually happen.”