With the Islamic State and other jihadist groups facing imminent defeat in Syria, Ankara is becoming increasingly concerned that many fighters will escape into Turkey. In the past few years over 300 people have been killed in attacks in Turkey, blamed on jihadists. But with the prospect of thousands more militants escaping Syria to Turkey, security forces are now embarked in a desperate battle to thwart the threat, with hundreds of arrests in the past few weeks.
The size of threat faced is considerable, thousands Islamic state militants are still believed to be active in Syria. Over 10,000 jihadists, including many linked to Al Qaeda affiliated groups, remain holed up in the Syrian Idlib enclave bordering Turkey.
“Potentially (the) jihadist threats, its huge, it’s extremely grave, it’s extremely important,” warns Haldun Solmazturk head of the Ankara research group 21st Century Turkey Institute. “Jihad ,the sacred war, is something endless for them,” he says. ” It will never end until the whole world, not only Turkey, not only Syria, but the whole world comes under the control or rule of an Islamic caliphate. So it doesn’t make any difference for them to fight within Syria, in Idlib or Turkey as long as they find the ground and the space and the opportunity to fight.”
In 2015, Islamic State militants were blamed for Turkey’s most deadly terror attack when two suicide bombers killed 109 people and wounded more than 500 at a peace rally in the capital, Ankara. Last year, Istanbul’s main international airport was hit by a coordinated jihadist attack that killed 45. But questions are now being raised about the speed of the response by the Turkish security forces to the threat of returning jihadists.
“Nine hundred of them (jihadists) came to Turkey. Nobody has asked them any questions. None of them were incarcerated,” said Soli Ozel, an International relations expert at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “They were not interrogated and two of them with Austrian passports were (trying) to blow a major shopping mall to pieces.”
Last month’s thwarted strike on an Istanbul shopping mall was timed to coincide with Turkey’s celebrations marking the anniversary of the founding of the secular republic and could have been one of most deadly attacks by jihadists. The attackers were planning to remotely detonate bombs in the mall and then carry out suicide attacks as shoppers fled the building.
Thwarting the bombings is a triumph by security forces, who caught all the jihadists just before they launched their attack. A security source says the group had been under surveillance for weeks. Source said all those involved had been detained.
“Thankfully, thankfully the Turkish security forces and intelligence worked really well there,“ said Ozel and he points to signs that Turkish authorities are well aware of the danger. “We will have a major problem with these returning ISIS militants. The Turkish security forces and intelligence, they must now realize this, otherwise I don’t think they would have caught these guys, I think since Reina, the anti ISIS operations are far more serious than they may have been,” he said.
By: Dorian Jones