LONDON— Turkish authorities arrested two senior al-Qaida members and 28 other suspects this week in coordinated counter-terrorist raids in several provinces.
Analysts say the action may herald a hardening of Turkey's policy towards jihadists. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been criticized for months for not doing enough to stop them from transiting Turkey to fight in the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Among those netted in the raids, according to Turkish security officials, were İbrahim Şen, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, and Halis Bayancuk, said to be al-Qaida’s top representative in Turkey.
Three other high-ranking al-Qaida affiliated fighters fled into Syria before officers made the arrests, according to Turkish security officials.
Authorities also raided a branch of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH), a Turkish charity that at times has enjoyed close ties with the Erdoğan government and is Turkey’s largest supplier of humanitarian aid to Syrians. Accusations of jihadist links have swirled around IHH for several years. In 2010, Germany banned a branch of the charity for links to jihadists.
Tuesday, the charity’s vice president said the raid was “part of a dirty plot.”
Huseyin Oruc denied any ties to al-Qaida and said in a statement: “IHH aid is delivered to Syrian babies, children and those who freeze in the cold. This is an operation to change perceptions (about IHH) and stop aid from being delivered inside Syria.”
On January 1, Turkish security forces seized an IHH aid truck in Hatay province headed for Syria. The truck was found to be loaded with weapons and ammunition. IHH denied any involvement in arms trafficking.
The counter-terror raids came just weeks after foreign ministry officials said Turkey had been deporting European nationals linked to radical Islamist groups. According to a report shared with Western embassies in Ankara, more than 1,000 European jihadists linked to groups fighting the Syrian government were deported last year.
Some analysts argue the deportation figure was exaggerated to quell Western fears about the rise of al-Qaida affiliates among rebel ranks in northern Syria.
"There's no actual evidence or other corroboration" of the deportations, said Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S.-based think tank.
Erdoğan’s government has been highly supportive of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and critical of U.S. and European powers for their lack of intervention. He has pushed for a no-fly zone to be established by the West to protect rebel-held areas in northern Syria.
Erdoğan also has allowed rebels to use Turkey as a lifeline for arms and supplies. In recent months, though, Ankara has come under mounting diplomatic pressure from its Western allies, especially Washington, over radical Islamist groups using Turkey as a base to fight in Syria. Anxiety has mounted in European capitals about a possible blowback from jihadists returning to their home countries.
The head of Britain’s foreign intelligence arm MI6, John Sawers, told a British parliamentary panel in December that 300 young British Muslims had gone off to join jihadist groups to fight in Syria.
“They are likely to acquire expertise and experience which could significantly increase the threat posed when they return home,” he warned.
Belgium’s Interior Minister told reporters at a recent security summit in Brussels that about 2,000 Europeans so far have fought in Syria.
While Western diplomats in Turkey privately acknowledge their governments’ frustrations with the lack of Turkish action against jihadists, Kurdish separatist leaders in Syria have gone further. They allege the Erdoğan government has used al-Qaida affiliates as proxies to curtail them in Syria, fearful of Kurdish separatist sentiment growing in Turkey. Jihadists and Syrian Kurds have been engaged in heavy fighting in recent months in competition for control of Syrian territory.
In an interview with VOA in November, Salih Muslim, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party [PYD] - an offshoot of the PKK, a separatist Kurdish group in Turkey - alleged that Ankara had not done enough to combat jihadists using Turkey as a logistical base and had in effect colluded with them by allowing jihadists safe passage.
“They were supporting them directly. They were sending them weapons and taking their wounded from fighting with us to hospitals," he said. "Recently, after pressure from Western countries, the Turks have been more secretive about their assistance.”
Turkish leaders have long denied aiding jihadist elements fighting the Syrian government. In a spat with reporters during a November visit to Sweden, Erdoğan denied there were any foreign jihadists in Turkey and angrily demanded that journalists offer proof.
“It is out of question that organizations like al-Qaida or al-Nusra could take shelter in our country. This is slander and lies,” Erdoğan said.
His foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been equally assertive in countering allegations of lack of action, collusion or facilitation, arguing that Western countries are not being cooperative enough in providing names of suspected jihadists traveling to Turkey.
In an interview with Al Monitor news site, Davutoglu said, “On what basis should we stop them? Turkey is receiving 34 million tourists. Should we say, ‘You have a beard, you may be a terrorist'?”
Despite Tuesday's raids, some analysts remain skeptical of the Erdoğan government’s commitment to countering jihadists.
Lisa Lundquist, an analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, questions the government’s willingness to keep the pressure on.
“Whether today’s raids constitute a genuine effort to stem the flow of jihadist fighters and weaponry into Syria from Turkey, or are simply attempts to deflect attention from claims that Turkey is turning a blind eye to jihadists, remains to be seen,” she said.