ISTANBUL — Turkey has been deporting European nationals linked to radical Islamist groups fighting in neighboring Syria. Ankara faces growing pressure from its Western allies to crack down on jihadists.
A Turkish media report, citing a ministerial source, said more than 1,000 European jihadists linked to groups fighting the Syrian government have been deported this year.
A Turkish foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he could not confirm the number, but he did say Turkish security forces were cooperating with their international counterparts.
Semih Idiz, a diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf and Al Monitor website, said this marks a shift in Turkish policy. Ankara has been accused of turning a blind eye to radical Islamists fighting to topple Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
But Idiz said there is now growing concern in Ankara over the threat posed by jihadists.
"Turkey is a hub country. It faces the Caucasus. It faces the Balkans where there are also jihadi elements. Think of Dagestan. Think of Chechnya for example, and the same you have Islamic communities in Europe you know. So yes it’s a conduit in this respect, but I don’t think it’s a willing conduit at the moment and I think it’s trying to control the situation," said Idiz.
Analysts say Ankara has been under mounting diplomatic pressure from its Western allies, in particular Washington, over radical Islamist groups using Turkey as a base to fight in Syria.
President Barack Obama reportedly raised the issue with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Washington in May.
But diplomatic columnist Idiz says Europe, too, has been turning up the diplomatic heat on Ankara.
"I think it has been under considerable pressure. From what we know from official statements in Europe they are afraid these citizens, in France especially, Britain, Germany - these countries are very wary about this issue, that these citizens will become even more radicalized and carry back their Jihad back to their home countries," said idiz. "These people fighting are not fighting for a cause, they are fighting for Jihad and Jihad is a universal thing. Today Damascus, tomorrow Frankfurt - it's all the same."
The issue has been a point of tension between Ankara and Europe according to Soli Ozel, a lecturer in International Relations at Kadir Has University. He said Ankara feels its European counterparts have not been helping in addressing the threat.
"The Turkish government complains that the governments in other countries know exactly who is flying to Turkey and who they are, and it also claims that the countries with citizens coming here are not giving proper information to the Turkish government," said Ozel.
But observers say in the past few months a new atmosphere of cooperation has emerged between European countries and Ankara - a result of renewed progress in Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
On Wednesday, Ankara signed a much-delayed agreement with Brussels on refugees and illegal migrants.
Analyst Ozel said there are inherent risks for Turkey, however, from any crackdown on jihadist groups. "The precedence is from other countries that there might be a security risk. Jihadists have a habit of turning on those who have fed them if they don’t get what they’ve been accustomed to. But hopefully the Turkish security forces know exactly what they can get these guys."
Analysts say Turkish security forces have a good record of tracking down al-Qaida groups. Following a series of bombings in 2003 in Istanbul, an al-Qaida cell was quickly identified.