ISTANBUL - 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.
Last year’s Islamic State attack on New Year’s Eve revelers at Istanbul’s internationally famous Reina night club sent shock waves across Turkey and around the world because most of the 35 dead were foreign nationals. The attack dealt another blow to the country’s already beleaguered tourism industry.
This year has seen security forces cracking down harder on jihadists, and in just the past few weeks, hundreds were detained across the country. The nationwide arrests highlights the scope of the threat faced by Turkey and the reality of the number of Turks who sympathize with the jihadists.
Some observers contend that Ankara is reaping a bitter harvest for previous policies. The Turkish government was repeatedly criticized by western allies for ignoring jihadists' operations during the early years of the Syrian civil war. Ankara robustly backed rebels fighting the Syrian regime and, critics claim, paid little attention to the affiliation of the fighters passing through Turkey to Syria.
“In a sense,Turkey shackled itself by supporting these jihadist elements in Syria. So, in a sense this is a trap Turkey put itself in,” asserts Solmazturk. “They (jihadists) have had a network an underground organization within Turkey for years and it will be very difficult if not impossible to eliminate them altogether in the short to medium term," he said.
Turkish security forces are expected to intensify their crackdown on jihadist groups. The army has been deployed in the Syrian Idlib enclave as part of a Moscow- backed “de-escalation zone” aimed to bring stability in the region and prevent any mass exodus into Turkey.
Analyst say Turkey’s European allies probably hope those efforts will succeed because many jihadists are from Europe. Turkey is a gatekeeper to those jihadists seeking to return to Europe, and Ankara will likely remind European neighbors that it is working hard to protect them as well as itself.