Turkey openly concerned about returning ‘jihadists’

Imran Khan analyses Ankara’s worries over its citizens fighting in Iraq and Syria in his weekly blog on security issues.

Forensic officers work at the scene of a bomb blast in Istanbul
On January 6, a woman who crossed the border ‎from Syria blew herself up in Istanbul [Reuters]

In the last few days, two separate reports have begun to circulate in the Turkish media about the the countries concern over its citizens fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat and local publications carried a report on Wednesday that claims to be based on a leaked intelligence document from the police worried that those who return could form sleeper cells and attack Western targets.

In Turkey, the fact that there is reporting on this issue suggests that concern is rising.

Turkish sources have poured scorn on the accuracy of the report, suggesting that it might be part of a strategy to discredit the government and the role it plays within the Syrian conflict.

‎However, Turkey has been hit as a direct result of the crisis in Syria. On January 6, a woman who crossed the border ‎from Syria blew herself up in Istanbul. In the days after the blast, the foreign minister said that at least 700 of its citizens were fighting in the country.

Turkish policy

What Turkey has done so far is strike an informal bargain with the Turkish citizens going to fight.

It – without any formal or informal contact with groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – suggested that Turkey wouldn’t crackdown on them or facilitate Turkish territory to attack the group.

It’s a common tactic. It means that Turkey has avoided any ISIL reprisals on it’s territory.

But things are changing. Increasingly, the two groups that have the largest number of Turkish fighters – according to reports – are Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIL.

However, those two groups are under pressure and are becoming desperate. There isn’t the kind of centralised leadership that, particularly in ISIL, there used to be.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi hasn’t been seen publicly since his appearance at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in July.

Since then, coalition airstrikes have killed several of his inner leadership and, according to Western diplomatic sources, he is increasingly decentralising control of the group.

That may well prove problematic for Turkey, as without clear leadership, what is to stop an angry young Turk from strapping on a suicide bomb and hitting a Western embassy in Ankara?

And that’s what seems to be driving Turkish concerns over those fighters coming back.

The question for Turkey now is: What policy will they implement to prevent attacks at home?

Already Western consulates and embassies across Turkey have increased security and are taking the threat seriously.

Source: Al Jazeera