ISTANBUL – Turkish officials announced Thursday that they nabbed 10 Westerners and four Russians allegedly trying to cross into Syria to join ISIS in what may be an effort to stem international criticism that Ankara has been too lax in stopping the tide of foreign fighters using the Arab nation as a conduit on their way to join jihadists.
Three men, two women and four children from the UK and one French national were detained Wednesday by soldiers at a military outpost after being caught in the Hatay region of southern Turkey, Turkish armed forces said in a statement on its website. Separately, on Thursday, officials in the southeastern city of Gazientep announced four Russians had been detained on Thursday, just two days after they deported a Belgian national caught trying to cross into Syria.
The arrests seem to be evidence that, after years of international criticism for lax border controls, Turkey is taking a greater responsibility in monitoring human traffic over its 500-mile border with Syria.
This news comes on the same day that U.N. Security Council experts reported to the U.N. that more than 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries are linked to Al Qaeda and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, comprising a "veritable international finishing school for extremists."
FoxNews.com reported in October 2014 on Turkey being the preferred route for most Westerners intending to join the Islamic caliphate in Syria, the journey costing as little at $1,000. A little research found that one young woman, supposedly from Glasgow who had made the journey to join the Islamic State, had a tumblr website giving travel advice to would-be jihadists. It is thought that this same blogger, Aqsa Mahmood, was instrumental in encouraging three young girls who traveled from their homes in East London to Syria. Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, both 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, were thought to have made it to the city of al-Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State.
Security services in the UK estimate that some 600 British nationals have gone to Syria or Iraq to join militant groups there, including the man known as “Jihadi John,” who has repeatedly appeared in ISIS beheading videos.
In October 2013 Human Rights Watch reported that Islamic State fighters had received medical care in Turkey. More damning was the claim that Turkey’s lax border controls had meant that money and weapons were being easily transported over the border.
Experts in Turkey point to the fact that Turkey has a no-visa policy with Syria, like it does with many other countries in the Middle East. Furthermore, because of the huge influx of refugees, Turkey is unable to close its borders. UNHCR recently estimated that the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey is expected to rise to nearly 1.9 million.
In response to international criticism about lax border controls, Turkey has recently upped its precautionary measures. Numerous tourists and journalists have reported a noticeable rise in the intensity with which they are treated by security officials.
A 21-year-old British woman was recently on suspicion of trying to travel to Syria. She was detained at a bus station in the capital city of Ankara. Officials reported that she was expected to be deported after correspondences and images on her mobile phone indicated that she was planning to join the Islamic State.
The Turkish Minister for Customs and Trade, Hayati Yazici, has also spoken out, saying, “European countries let jihadists depart to Turkey and then they demand from Turkey that it should hinder them on entering Syria,” arguing that EU countries had an equal responsibility in preventing would-be jihadists from leaving in the first instance.
Turkish media has recently reported that more than 4,000 people have been refused entry into Turkey because they were thought to be radical Islamists. The Turkish newspaper “Haberturk” reported that, according to a government report, 1,100 Europeans had been deported, the majority of which came from Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.