You never know who you’re going to meet on Turkey’s ‘jihadi highway’

September 23, 2014

Smugglers carrying blue jerry cans on horses ride back to Syria along the wire fences after ferrying fuel smuggled into Turkey from over the border in Syria, in Hatay province

Turkey’s border with Syria, like all borders, allows passage both ways – at least for the right price.

Refugees fleeing north to escape a three-year civil war and Islamic extremists heading south to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad all need a little help to make the crossing.

And in towns like Kilis, located just a few miles from Syria, they find it.

“We smuggle,” a 12-year-old boy wearing Adidas shorts and Velcro sandals told me as he hung out on a metal fence with his friends. “We’re the kids of the area, so we’ll walk where we want. It’s easy.”

The boy, who smuggles people across the border for around 50 to 100 Turkish lira (22 to 44 dollars), doesn’t reveal who his customers are or their motivations for making the crossing.

Of course, it’s not just children involved in the border-crossing business.

Abou Mahmoud, the owner of a road-side eatery offering falafels, cans of orange soda and kebabs, claims to have served at least 100 foreign fighters headed to Syria. They included men from France, Sudan, Egypt and Afghanistan.

The 58-year-old former truck driver, lights up when he recounts the foreign fighters who have eaten at his restaurant. “All of the foreigners that are down there, I brought them in,” he boasts, explaining that he aided their border crossing.

Here, connections to ISIS are no novelty. “He married his sister off into ISIS,” says Mahmoud, pointing to a man in the distance with a blue-checked shirt and a short beard.

Mahmoud says the foreign fighters he helped were all polite. One French 17-year-old said he wanted to go to Syria to “see true Islam,” Mahmoud said. “He looked like a nice blonde kid. Posh. Well brought up.”

Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member, is facing international criticism that years of indifference have aided the flow of foreign fighters joining ISIS, who use the country to transit from Western countries like the United States and Britain.

Under growing pressure, the government has vowed to clamp down on the border. It has ramped up border patrols and arrested more foreign fighters in recent months. But up close, promises to stem movement across the border seem near-impossible to keep.

Apart from the fact that the 750 mile border is difficult to patrol, one major problem is that smuggling benefits ISIS and refugees alike.

As many as 130,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey in the past few days alone. There are now more than a million displaced Syrians living in Turkey.

I met with one man, who wanted only to be known as Mohammed, in a kitschy cafe with red, heart-shaped vinyl chairs and fake rocks painted onto the wall. He smiled just a little when I asked what he did for a living.

“I work in facilitating people and goods across the border – legally and illegally…It’s a humanitarian thing, really. We might even do it for free,” he says smoking a cigarette.

Many refugees with legitimate passports are rejected at the border if their documents were issued too recently. Buying fakes, like the ones Mohammed produces, is the best way in.

After spending time in border towns like Killis, Hacipasa and Reyhanli, it becomes clear that closing down the border entirely and cracking down on smugglers, would hit innocent refugees just as much as it would the foreign fighters.

Even for locals, figuring out how to deal with the crisis next door is a complex task.

Mahmoud, who once fed ISIS fighters for free, says he regrets having done so after he learned of their murderous ways. At the time, he had believed that they were noble fighters supporting Syrians trying to topple the Assad regime. Now, he says, ISIS would never be allowed into his restaurant. “I would attack them,” he vows.

In this region, nothing is black and white. Nor are there any easy solutions.

After all, one person’s jihadi highway is another person’s humanitarian corridor.

PHOTO: Smugglers carrying blue jerry cans on horses ride back to Syria along the wire fences after ferrying fuel smuggled into Turkey from over the border in Syria, 2 km (1.2 miles) away from the Turkish Cilvegozu border gate, located opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa in Reyhanli, Hatay province, September 8, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas 
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The usually meet in Istanbul when the Turkish intelligence agency of MIT wants!

Posted by AlanDew | Report as abusive

[…] You never know who you’re going to meet on Turkey’s ‘jihadi highway’ […]

Posted by September 27, 2014 Grumpy Daily Headlines | Grumpy Opinions | Report as abusive

One person’s “Terrorist” is another person’s “George Washington”.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive