ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) - As Islamic
State insurgents threaten the Turkish border from Syria, Turkey is
struggling to staunch the flow of foreign jihadists to the militant
group, having not so long ago allowed free access to those who would
join its neighbor's civil war.
Thousands of foreign fighters from countries including Turkey,
Britain, parts of Europe and the United States are believed to have
joined the Islamist militants in their self-proclaimed caliphate,
carved out of eastern Syria and western Iraq, according to diplomats
and Turkish officials.
The militants, who seized an air base in northeast Syria on Sunday
as they surge northwards, are trying to secure control of the area
bordering Turkey above the city of Raqqa, their major stronghold, in
a bid to further ease the passage of foreign fighters and supplies,
sources close to Islamic State said.
Some of the foreign fighters in their midst reached Syria via
Turkey, entering the region on flights to Istanbul or Turkey's
Mediterranean resorts, their Western passports giving them cover
among the millions of tourists arriving each month in one of the
world's most visited countries.
From Turkey, crossing the 900 km (560-mile) frontier into northern
Syria was long relatively straightforward, as the Turkish
authorities maintained an open border policy in the early stages of
the Syrian uprising to allow refugees out and support to the
moderate Syrian opposition in.
That policy now appears to have been a miscalculation and has drawn
accusations, strongly denied by the Turkish government, that it has
supported militant Islamists, inadvertently or otherwise, in its
enthusiasm to help Syrian rebels topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The rapid and brutal advance of Islamic State, bent on establishing
a hub of jihadism in the center of the Arab world and on Turkey's
southern fringe, has alarmed Ankara and its Western allies, forcing
them to step up intelligence sharing and tighten security
"Thousands of Europeans have entered Turkey en route to Syria, and a
large number of them we believe have joined extremist groups," said
one European diplomat in Ankara, describing Turkey as a "top
security priority" for the EU.
"In recent months especially we've seen a real hardening in Turkey's
attitude, a recognition that this is a potential threat to their
national security and a desire to take more practical steps through
intelligence channels, police channels," the diplomat said,
declining to be named so as to speak more freely.
That cooperation includes tighter screening of passengers on flights
into Turkey in collaboration with European Union member states, and
the beefing up of border patrols on the frontier with Syria, the
diplomat and other officials said.
Turkey already kept a "no-entry" list of thousands of people
suspected of seeking to join "extremists in Syria" based on
information from foreign intelligence agencies, a Turkish official
said, and barred more than 4,000 people from entering the country
last year alone as a result.
Only three of 13 border gates between Syria and Turkey were now
fully open, the official said, with foreign nationals only allowed
to pass through two of them. Close to 70 people were detained in
Turkey last year on suspicion of links with extremist groups in
"Security measures were increased a while ago as a result of the
latest developments ... The Turkish armed forces believe the current
precautions are sufficient," a second senior government official
The presence of foreign fighters among Islamic State's ranks was
made brutally apparent this month by the beheading of American
journalist James Foley, his killer's London accent apparently
identifying him as one of an estimated 500 Britons believed to have
joined the jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
Highlighting security failures on the Turkish border, a Syrian
source close to Islamic State told Reuters that the militants had
been tipped off to a planned U.S. operation to rescue Foley when
Americans were seen asking about the hostages in the Turkish city of
Antakya, about 12 miles (20 km) from the Syrian border.
Foley and other U.S. hostages were moved as a result, the source
said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"If Turkey had not opened its border with Syria ... to Islamic State
(IS), if so many fighters had not crossed the border into Syria with
their guns and equipment, and if this group had not used Turkey as a
base, IS could not have amassed its current strength in Syria,"
wrote columnist Kadri Gursel on Al-Monitor, a news website focused
on the Middle East.
One non-Syrian Islamist fighter who joined the Syrian rebel ranks in
2012 said he had crossed the border several times in the early
stages of the conflict, though he said it had since become much more
"The borders were wide open. We used to get in and out of Turkey
very easily. No questions were asked. Arms shipments were smuggled
easily into Syria," he told Reuters from outside Syria.
Syria's rebels at the time enjoyed Western backing despite concerns
about Islamist militants in their ranks, with Washington providing
non-lethal aid and European states including Britain and France
pressuring the EU to allow its arms embargo to expire.
Turkey has repeatedly denied harboring or arming militants or
turning a blind eye to their presence. Officials say it designated
Islamic State's precursor a terrorist group as long ago as 2005 and
that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan vowed "zero tolerance" for al
Qaeda-linked groups last November.
But they recognize a growing
threat to their own security, particularly with Islamic State
fighters still holding 49 hostages seized from the Turkish consulate
in the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, including the consul general,
special forces' soldiers, diplomats and children.
They also refer to video footage filmed in Raqqa and broadcast this
month by Vice News in which an Islamic State activist said the group
would "liberate" Istanbul if Turkey did not reopen a dam on the
Euphrates river, prompting a government minister to respond that it
would not surrender to such threats.
"The Islamic State is here to establish the law of God ... Turkey is
not being ruled based on God's law but as a secular state," one
Islamic State fighter in Syria told Reuters.
"Right now the priority is Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Saudi
Arabia, then Turkey," he said.
Sources close to Islamic State in Syria say the group wants to take
control of the border crossing at Jarablus, northwest of Raqqa.
Earlier this year, it pushed out rival Sunni Islamist militants from
the village to try to do so, but the Turkish authorities closed the
Islamic State also controls the area around the tomb of Suleyman
Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in northern
Syria. The group has destroyed several shrines and tombs sacred to
Shi'ites and other sects, stirring fears in Turkey that their next
target might be Suleyman Shah.
Ankara regards the tomb as sovereign Turkish territory under a
treaty signed with France in 1921, when Syria was under French rule,
and has said it will defend the mausoleum.
But Turkey, along with its Western allies, could also face the
threat of militant attacks on its own soil.
"I think they're waking up to the severity of the situation,
particularly as the internal threat is getting higher and higher,"
said a second European diplomat, adding coastal resorts popular with
European holidaymakers could become a soft target.
"It's a danger for Turkey because if Islamic State decide that
Turkey is an enemy (and launch an attack) then Turkey becomes like
Egypt ... That's the end of tourism," he said.
Turkey's experience with a range of security threats, from Kurdish
militants who fought a three-decade insurgency in its southeast to
leftist extremist groups behind urban bombings, has left it with a
formidable domestic intelligence agency.
But officials in Ankara estimate there are foreigners from more than
80 nations fighting in Syria and Iraq and say it is unreasonable for
Turkey to act as "lone gatekeeper", stopping individuals who have
traveled freely from their countries of residence after being
radicalised at home.
"I don't think anyone has to worry about capabilities, but it's the
scale of the threat and the speed it's evolving that any country
would struggle with," said the first European diplomat. "And Turkey
finds itself right on the front line."
(Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg, Tulay Karadeniz and Orhan
Coskun in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Will