Turkey is unique in its decision to permit foreign and opposition fighters to traverse its southern border to the Syrian battlefield. As early as June 2011, Turkey allowed refugees into its territory, including civilians who quickly turned to violent methods to combat Syrian government forces in northern Syria.[1] Within months of the outbreak of the Syrian revolt in March 2011, the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led Turkish government called for the end of the rule of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.[2]

Almost three years later, the wheel has come full circle and Turkey itself has become a source of legions of militants—increasingly fundamentalist and sectarian in ideology—seeking to fight in the combat zones of Syria and Iraq against domestic government forces.[3] Although still a small fraction of the overall foreign fighting force now in Syria,[4] a growing number of Turkish citizens are electing to travel to Syria to fight against the al-Assad regime. Some support the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, an entity that has become de facto ever since jihadists from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared one in June 2014.[5]

This article looks at the motives of Turkish nationals who travel to Syria to fight against government forces. Based on interviews with a would-be Turkish combatant and an individual familiar with the actions and insights of Turkish jihadist fighters, this article finds that Istanbul is an important meeting and transfer hub and that Turkish fighters and Islamic fundamentalists regularly come into contact with foreign fighters before traveling south to fight in Syria and Iraq. It describes a selection of Turkish fighters known to have fought among opposition groups and outlines the Turkish government’s position on the movement of fighters to and from Syria.[6]

Recruitment of Turkish Fighters
Better known as a transit country for foreign fighters seeking to travel to Syria, Turkey is increasingly becoming a source of fundamentalist fighters. A Turkish newspaper reported in June 2014 that, according to the families of fighters, 163 Turks have joined ISIL and are believed to be fighting in Syria.[7] Other reports, based on Turkish intelligence data, claim that the figure is far higher, with close to 600-700 Turks joining ISIL.[8] The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation estimated that between 63 and 500 Turkish fighters were operating in Syria out of an estimated 11,000 total foreign fighter contingent as of December 2013.[9] More recent assessments suggest similar figures.

Young men in areas close to the Syrian border are particularly susceptible to recruitment and indoctrination. A 27-year-old Turkish man claimed that ISIL offered payments of $100-$200 per month to fight in Syria.[10] In May 2014, for example, a 14-year-old boy from Ankara and five friends left Turkey to join ISIL fighters in Syria. A month later, he was found at a Syrian border crossing with serious injuries sustained while fighting.[11] Recruitment centers are believed to exist in provinces across Turkey’s southeast.[12]

Radical Turks are thought to have recruited more than 200 local men in Adiyaman, a city of 217,000 people.[13] Adiyaman is considered one of the largest suppliers of Turkish jihadist fighters in Syria[14] and is located 85 miles from the Syrian border and 130 miles from the important transit border town of Kilis. The province of Adiyaman is home to a refugee camp with a population of around 10,000 Syrians.[15] Thousands more Syrians are thought to live in private accommodation across Adiyaman and neighboring provinces that border Syria.[16] “Nobody tells these people to go and fight [in Syria],” an alleged recruiter told Reuters in November 2013. “Most of them meet up in groups of three or five people and make their own decisions to go.”[17]

The recruitment of Turks has been recognized by Turkish authorities as a serious concern.[18] According to Israel’s military intelligence chief in January 2014, al-Qa`ida-linked groups allegedly have at least three bases in Turkey.[19] A report in al-Monitor suggested that, prior to 2013, alleged fighters were thought to stay at specific hotels, such as the Ottoman and Narin hotels, in the Turkish city of Antakya.[20] In July 2012, a six-minute video titled Turkish Mujahidin Who Are Conducting Jihad in Syria, released by a Syrian opposition organization, showed a group of fighters apparently located in Syria speaking in Turkish and calling for Muslims to fight Syrian government forces.[21]

One foreign fighter is known as “Yilmaz,” a Dutch-Turkish former soldier providing firearms training to jihadists.[22] In an interview with Dutch television, he said that he conducted military service in Turkey and had been in Syria for two years fighting in a “freelance” capacity.[23]

As collated by Jihadology.net, other Turkish fighters included: Ahmet Zorlu (also known as Abdullah Azzam the Turk) from Yalova, a town 105 miles south of Istanbul; Abudrrahman Koc from Adiyaman; Yakup Senates from Siverek; and Metin Ekinci from Bingol Province.[24] All four fighters are now deceased.

Other incidents relating to Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict include the September 2013 indictment in Turkey of five Turkish nationals for intent to produce Sarin gas.[25] A Syrian man was also charged. Turkish intelligence services believe that they were trying to procure Sarin for Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham, two militant groups active in Syria. At this time, intent for the attacks is unknown, as all parties involved have pleaded innocence.

Motivations for Turks to Fight in Syria
Young Turkish men who come into contact with Turkey-based Syrian activists are often influenced by the latter’s humanitarian work and experience in what some believe as a just Muslim war.

One such individual is Emrah, a 27-year-old man from the conservative district of Fatih in central Istanbul. He said he is not from a particularly religious family and that at university he started reading Islamic history and found that “Turkey shared much of its history with other Muslims countries. Muslim countries are all of one body with different organs.”[26] He said the history taught by secular Turkish institutions established during the 20th century portrayed other Muslim countries as backward peoples that backstabbed Turkey.

Emrah said that he started compulsory military service just as the Arab revolutions were occurring in early 2011. He explained that by the time these uprisings concluded, it was becoming increasingly clear that the al-Assad regime was killing thousands of Sunni Muslim civilians. He read a book about the uprising by Syrian activist Samar Yazbek[27] two years ago and as a result saw a new reality. He blamed the Turkish opposition media for presenting the “wrong picture” on Syria and said that the AKP’s position—support for the political and rebel opposition—was justified.

Around that time, Emrah met a Turkish friend who had been deported from Syria in 2010 where he studied Islamic studies at a mosque in Damascus. The man is now an imam in Istanbul, and he educated Emrah about how the al-Assad regime has repressed the Syrian people for decades. Emrah said that he and the imam continue to meet regularly to talk about issues related to Syria.

Emrah claimed to know around 10 Turkish people who have gone to Syria to fight the regime, all of whom are from Istanbul. As Muslims, he said both he and his fighting friends, or “mujahidin,”[28] in Syria “feel responsible to help Syrians being killed for no reason.”

He went to Syria in December 2012 after Syrian activist friends smuggled he and seven Turkish friends across the border at Kilis. At that time, he said, Turkish police lightly guarded the border, which is in contrast to the level of vigilance that exists now. He stayed for six days, witnessing, he claimed, the devastation of towns and villages as well as traveling to the frontlines as an observer. He himself did not engage in any fighting. He said he saw young boys suffer horrific injuries fighting against a much stronger Syrian national army. He has plans to go back to Syria, but this time to fight the regime.

“When I planned to go to Syria, first I wanted to go to the battlefields,” he said. “I wanted to know what it feels like.”[29] He did not say which group he would likely fight with, but feels “deep inside I want to pick up a gun and go fight the regime.”[30]

Jihadist Activity in Istanbul
Jihadist activity in Turkey is not contained to the border region with Syria. Osman,[31] who runs an internet café in the basement of a building in a district of Istanbul,[32] said he knows at least 10 Turkish citizens who are fighting for the al-Qa`ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, some of whom are his friends. All are from Istanbul and all work in the district. The following is a revealing excerpt from an exclusive interview with Osman in July 2014:

“One of the Nusra fighters, Abuzer, a 28-year-old Kurd from Istanbul, was killed by a Syrian government mortar when attacking the Aleppo central prison two weeks ago. Two months ago Abuzer went to a meeting with ISIS [ISIL] in Diyarbakir to discuss problems between the two groups. (Meetings were generally held in Diyarbakir and Gaziantep.) There are around 500 Turkish men fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, but more are leaving to join ISIS as they are deemed more successful following the Iraq offensive. Foreign fighters stay exactly a week at the safe house in the district before taking a bus south to the Syria border. Once they crossed close to Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province, they are trained by Nusra for six months before they see combat. I’ve met four Germans who were later killed in Aleppo on their second day in Syria in a mortar attack, as well as one Kurd from America and two Muslim UK citizens. When they [the foreign and local fighters] come to the café they tell me to turn off the music (which I do), and they watch videos of combat in Syria. During the World Cup, I saw four British guys at the café. The jihadists meet and pray in the basement of an apartment near the Konyali mosque in Istanbul. They don’t pray at a mosque as they say it’s not a real mosque and that Turkey is not a real Muslim country because it is too liberal. The basement apartment used to be owned by an Afghani man who I haven’t seen for two years.

“Since ISIS went into Iraq [in June 2014], many of these men have gone underground and haven’t been to the café, or seen sitting and drinking tea on the street, as they used to do at around 10 o’clock every night. I and other local shopkeepers give money to the Turkish fighters to support their religious war in Syria. My friends fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria regularly send me videos of attacks on Syrian government targets in order to attach logos to the videos. This is important. They are able to send me the videos as they access e-mail via satellite phones. They [the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters] are against America more than they are against Bashar al-Assad. They think Bashar is the first step and talk about taking over Lebanon and Jordan next.

“The jihadists do not smoke or drink alcohol, their apartment has many religious texts, they shave their heads and wear large beards with shaved upper lip in the style of Salafis. They break their Ramadan fast every evening 30 minutes later than local people to affirm the strength of their faith. A group of foreign Islamic students live in another nearby apartment.”[33]

Osman introduced this author to a neighboring shop owner who, Osman claimed, also supports the locally-based fighters with funds. According to Osman, his friends in Turkey’s police force are well aware of the activities of the above-mentioned individuals, but face little compulsion from their superiors to take action. In recent months, further reports of Istanbul-based Turks fighting with ISIL have emerged.[34]

AKP Rhetoric
In contrast to past Turkish governments, the AKP has embraced the country’s and the wider region’s Islamic values and identities since coming to power in 2002. State and pro-government media focus on Muslims being targeted in Egypt,[35] Gaza and Syria, firmly portraying the suffering and victimization experienced by Muslims across the region.

A wave of laws—including restrictions on the sale of alcohol,[36] partially lifting the ban against wearing the hijab for state employees[37] and the prime minister’s criticism of co-ed schools[38]—have given many religious Turks the confidence to publicly assert their religiosity, a right denied for decades under the country’s strictly secular military rule.[39]

Turkey’s president-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called Bashar al-Assad a “terrorist”[40] in his public speeches, while Turkey has supported the Syrian opposition more effusively than any other government in the world.[41] This has led to allegations that Ankara has supported jihadist groups, in particular Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkish police, for example, uncovered a truck suspected of carrying weapons to Syria in Adana in November 2013,[42] but the governor of Hatay Province prevented police from searching the vehicle, which elicited further suspicion of Ankara’s covert involvement in the Syrian conflict.[43] The Turkish government said the truck was carrying aid to Syria. The taking of a strategic border point in Turkey’s Hatay Province by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in March 2014 was viewed as having occurred with the direct acquiescence of Ankara, as rebels attacked and overran the Syrian border point from Turkish territory.[44] In May 2013, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu even said that the U.S. decision to declare Jabhat al-Nusra “a terrorist organization has resulted in more harm than good.”[45]

Yet by April 2014, Turkish authorities began building a portable wall close to Reyhanli to stop illegal cross-border activity.[46] In June, the Turkish government listed Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization, indicating increased pressure from the United States and a recognition that its alleged support of the group had run its course.[47] The government said it would be cracking down on foreign jihadists entering Turkey en route to Syria. “How could we understand that some tourists from Europe are jihadists…it is not written on their foreheads,” said a Turkish security official in June. “Now, since we have an intelligence flow from European countries, we are able to stop them [foreign fighters] at our gates and send them back.”[48]

A spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged that Turkish citizens have joined ISIL, but maintained Turkey’s opposition to the actions of Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups, pointing to the speeches of Erdogan and other government figures.[49] Since 2011, Turkey has banned around 5,300 people suspected of entering Syria to join the civil war and deported more than 824 foreigners believed to have links with terrorist groups.[50]

Although Western governments have highlighted the threat of radical fighters returning home after stints in Syria,[51] Turkey is the perfect location for the fueling of Islamic extremism in the years to come. The Islamist-tinged rhetoric adopted by president-elect Erdogan vis-à-vis Syria and the mistreatment of Muslims elsewhere in the region may embolden extremist groups in Turkey.

Jihadist blowback may already be taking shape in Istanbul[52] and, as illustrated by the two firsthand accounts from Emrah and Osman, Turkey’s largest city can readily claim the existence of extremist cells facilitating the movement of both indigenous and foreign fighters seeking jihad in Syria. Together with the fact that Turkey shares a 650-mile border with Syria and Iraq—the latter increasingly viewed as a failed state[53]—suggests that Turkey’s top national security concerns are likely to emanate from its southern borders in the years to come.

Stephen Starr is a journalist and author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2014).

[1] Martin Chulov, “Syrian Refugees in Turkey: ‘People See the Regime is Lying. It is Falling Apart,’” Guardian, June 9, 2011.

[2] Sebnem Arsu, “Turkish Premier Urges Assad to Quit,” New York Times, November 22, 2011.

[3] Jamie Dettner, “Growing Unease Over Turkish Jihadists in Syria,” Voice of America, October 8, 2013.

[4] According to Reuters, “U.S. intelligence agencies estimate around 7,000 of the 23,000 violent extremists operating in Syria are foreign fighters, mostly from Europe.” See Timothy Gardner, “U.S. Concerned Foreign Fighters in Syria are Working with Yemenis,” Reuters, July 13, 2014.

[5] “Sunni Rebels Declare New ‘Islamic Caliphate,” al-Jazira, June 30, 2014.

[6] This article does not discuss the role of nationalist Kurdish fighters of Turkish citizenship fighting in Syria, nor does it discuss Turkish nationals fighting on the side of the al-Assad regime. For more details on this, see Stephen Starr, “The Renewed Threat of Terrorism to Turkey,” CTC Sentinel 6:6 (2013).

[7] Fevzi Kizilkoyon, “Families Say 163 Turkish Citizens Have Joined ISIL,” Hurriyet Daily News, June 27, 2014.

[8] “Report: Around 700 Turks Joined ISIL,” Today’s Zaman, June 27, 2014.

[9] “ICSR Insight: Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise Among Western Europeans,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, December 17, 2013.

[10] “‘Cihada’ giden Turkler konustu,” Gercek Gundem, July 10, 2014.

[11] “14-year-old Turkish ISIL Militant Found by Soldiers Near Syrian Border,” Today’s Zaman, June 26, 2014.

[12] Idris Emen, “Adiyaman – Suriye cihat hatti,” Radikal, September 29, 2013.

[13] Ibid.; Constanze Letsch, “The Sons Feared Lost to al-Qaida in Syria,” Guardian, November 11, 2013.

[14] Emen.

[15] “UNHCR Turkey Syrian Refugee Daily Sitrep,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, July 10, 2014.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Daren Butler, “Turks Worry as Sons Go to Fight in Syria,” Reuters, November 26, 2013.

[18] “Deputy Arinc Laments Turkish Youth Joining Radicals in Middle East,” Today’s Zaman, July 6, 2014.

[19] Dan Williams, “Israeli General Says al Qaeda’s Syria Fighters Set Up in Turkey,” Reuters, January 29, 2014.

[20] Several of the hotels allegedly used are identified in Fehim Tastekin, “Radical Groups Operate on Turkey’s Border,” al-Monitor, October 17, 2013.

[21] Karen Hodgson and Bill Roggio, “Omar Farouk Brigade Calls on Muslims to Wage Jihad in Syria,” The Long War Journal, July 22, 2012.

[22] “Dutch Former Royal Netherlands Army Soldier
Trains Jihadists in Syria,” Nieuwsuur, January 27, 2014, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWua3exa6rw#t=15.

[23] “Sayfullakh’s Jamaat Deny Dutch Fighter’s Defection to ISIS,” From Chechnya to Syria blog, May 19, 2014.

[24] “Turkish Fighters in Syria, Online and Off,” Jihadology, August 20, 2013.

[25] Patrick J. McDonnell, “Syrian Rebel Groups Sought Sarin Gas Material, Turkish Prosecutors Say,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2013.

[26] Personal interview, Emrah, Istanbul, Turkey, July 5, 2014. The interviewee was contacted and introduced through a Syrian activist based in Istanbul and known to the author for more than a year. The interviewee was selected because of his willingness to discuss details about his motivations for wanting to fight in Syria but not already having done so. The research value in this lies in that the interviewee presents his motivational perspective while not having been affected by the strains of combat.

[27] Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (London: Haus Publishing, 2012).

[28] The interview subject used this word to describe his friends.

[29] Personal interview, Emrah, Istanbul, Turkey, July 5, 2014.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Osman asked not to be fully identified because he fears reprisals from jihadists for giving information to a foreign journalist.

[32] For a map of the district, see www.goo.gl/maps/7BGS9.

[33] Personal interview, “Osman,” Istanbul, Turkey, July 15, 2014.

[34] Hasnain Kazim, “Dschihadisten aus der Türkei: Verführung zum ‘Heiligen Krieg,’” Der Speigel, July 10, 2014.

[35] “Turkish Denounce Egyptian Injustice,” Daily Sabah, April 11, 2014.

[36] Gunes Komurculer, “Restrictions on Alcohol Sales Go into Effect Today in Turkey,” Hurriyet Daily News, September 9, 2013.

[37] “Turkey Lifts Headscarf Ban, Discontinues National Oath,” France 24, October 31, 2013.

[38] Piotr Zalewski, “Turkey’s Erdogan Battles Country’s Most Powerful Religious Movement,” Time Magazine, December 4, 2013.

[39] Ahmet T. Kuru and Alfred Stepan eds., Democracy, Islam and Secularism in Turkey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[40] “Turkey’s Erdogan Says Syria’s Assad is a Terrorist, Not a Politician,” Jerusalem Post, July 10, 2013.

[41] Erin Banco, “Why Turkey is Essential for the Syrian Opposition,” The Atlantic, May 30, 2013. Turkey’s support of the opposition is ideological but is more pressingly anchored in the realm of security. It shares a 560-mile border with Syria and in May 2013 suffered its worst ever terrorist attack when 53 people were killed in a double car bombing in Reyhanli, a town on the Turkish-Syrian border. Individuals with links to the Syrian government in Damascus are thought to have been involved in that attack. For more details, see Starr.

[42] “Rockets and Bombs Seized en Route to Terrorists,” Aydinlik Daily, November 8, 2013.

[43] Fevzi Kizilkoyon, “Turkish Governor Blocks Police Search on Syria-Bound Truck Reportedly Carrying Weapons,” Hurriyet Daily News, January 2, 2014.

[44] Ruth Sherlock, “Turkey ‘Aided Islamist Fighters’ in Attack on Syrian Town,” Daily Telegraph, April 14, 2014.

[45] Semih Idiz, “Why is Jabhat al-Nusra No Longer Useful to Turkey?” al-Monitor, June 10, 2014.

[46] “Turkey Builds Portable Wall on Syrian Border,” Today’s Zaman, April 27, 2014.

[47] “Turkey Lists al-Nusra Front as Terrorist Organization,” Hurriyet Daily News, June 3, 2014.

[48] Murat Yetkin, “Syria’s Foreign Fighters in Turkey’s Target, Too,” Hurriyet Daily News, June 7, 2014.

[49] Personal interview, Tanju Biglic, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, July 16, 2014.

[50] “Turkey Says Has Banned 5,300 Potential Syria Fighters,” Today’s Zaman, June 24, 2014.

[51] Richard Norton-Taylor, “Islamist Terror Threat to West Blown Out of Proportion – Former MI6 Chief,” Guardian, July 7, 2014.

[52] “ISIL ‘Attacks Shiite Mosque’ in Istanbul,” Today’s Zaman, July 16, 2014.

[53] John Kampfner, “Why Iraq is Close to Becoming a Failed State,” Daily Telegraph, June 15, 2014.

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