By Rukmini Callimachi
June 29, 2016
When the bodies of Islamic State fighters are recovered on the Syrian battlefield, the passports found on them have often been stamped in Turkey, which thousands of recruits pass through on their way to join the terror group.
Fighters who call relatives abroad often do so using Turkish cellphone numbers, and when they need cash, they head to Western Union offices in southern Turkey, according to court and intelligence documents.
From the start of the Islamic State’s rise through the chaos of the Syrian war, Turkey has played a central, if complicated, role in the group’s story. For years, it served as a rear base, transit hub and shopping bazaar for the Islamic State, and at first, that may have protected Turkey from the violence the group has inflicted elsewhere.
Now, the Turkish government and Western officials say the suicide bombings at Istanbul’s main airport on Tuesday bore the hallmarks of an Islamic State attack, and they have added them to a growing roll call of assaults attributed to the group in Turkey in recent months.
Analysts said Turkey was paying the price for intensifying its action against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. Under mounting international pressure, the country began sealing its border last year, as well as arresting and deporting suspected militants. And last summer, Turkey allowed the United States to use Incirlik Air Base to fly sorties over the group’s territory in Syria and Iraq.
“Turkey has been cracking down on some of the transit of foreign fighters who are flowing into as well as out of Turkey, and they are part of the coalition providing support, allowing their territory to be used by coalition aircraft,” the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John O. Brennan, said in an interview this week with Yahoo News. “So there are a lot of reasons why Daesh would want to strike back.”
Soon after the government’s decision to allow airstrikes to be carried out from the base in southern Turkey, the Islamic State began naming Turkey as a target, according to Michael S. Smith II, an analyst who closely tracks the group’s messaging. Last fall, the cover of the group’s Dabiq magazine ominously featured a photo of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, standing alongside President Obama.
The attacks attributed to the Islamic State began around then, too, including devastating bombings in the southern city of Suruc in July 2015 and in Ankara, the capital, in October. This year, two suicide bombings targeted tourists in Istanbul.
The Islamic State was blamed for all of those attacks, yet none of them were claimed by the group, despite its habit of reveling in its violence elsewhere in the world. While officials blamed it for the attack on the Istanbul airport, the group’s daily news bulletins for Tuesday and Wednesday made no mention of the bombing. Its main English-language channel on the Telegram encrypted messaging app instead posted a photo essay of fighters in fatigues posing with automatic weapons on a hill in Deir al-Zour, Syria.
Some analysts saw this as the Islamic State trying to have it both ways: punishing Turkey for starting to act against it, but leaving enough of a gray area that it avoids a full-on clash with a country that has been valuable to its operations.
Still, there has clearly been a shift.
“Since mid-2015, a significant rise in pejorative references to the Erdogan government in Islamic State propaganda has indicated Turkey is now in its cross hairs,” Mr. Smith said, adding that this kind of rhetoric also preceded attacks in Western Europe and beyond. “An increase in terrorist attacks in Europe, in North Africa, in Bangladesh and in the Caucasus region was all preceded by increased focus on these areas in Islamic State propaganda materials.”
The group’s long honeymoon with Turkey started with the country’s aid to rebel groups that were fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, often with the blessing of Western intelligence agencies, according to analysts. At the start, the Islamic State fit into that category, though it then began focusing more on eliminating competitors than fighting Mr. Assad.
Among the competitors the group was killing were Turkey’s avowed enemies: Kurdish separatists sheltering in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s Western allies began accusing it of clinging to ambivalence toward the Islamic State. Even when it began strikes against the group last summer, its actions against the Kurds were more numerous and intense.
The centrality of Turkey for foreign volunteers flocking to the Islamic State is evident in court documents and intelligence records. Dozens of young men and women were arrested by the F.B.I. in the United States and by officials in Western Europe after they booked flights to Istanbul. Because so many of the group’s foreign fighters passed through Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, the destination itself became synonymous with intent to join ISIS.
By 2015, the group was advising recruits to book round-trip tickets to beach resorts in southern Turkey instead and to be sure to spend a few days pretending to be a tourist as a ruse.
That was the technique used by Reda Hame, a 29-year-old Parisian recruit. He explained to interrogators last summer, after he was arrested upon returning to France to carry out an attack, that he had made sure to buy a package stay at a beach resort in southern Turkey specifically because he wanted to throw off investigators, who knew to look for suspects heading to Istanbul. “I bought an all-inclusive holiday so that I could pass myself off as a tourist,” he said, according to a transcript of his interrogation by France’s domestic intelligence agency in August.
Thousands of pages of investigative documents from the agency, recently obtained by The New York Times, show that nearly all of the recruits arrested by officials in Europe had passed through Turkey on their way to join the Islamic State, as well as on their way back.
Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said that Turkey also figured heavily in the travel patterns of American adherents trying to join the group.
“The vast majority of American ISIS recruits used, or considered using, Turkey as their route,” said Mr. Hughes, who provided a breakdown showing that, of the 91 people charged with ISIS-related offenses in the United States, 18 purchased tickets through Istanbul, and 15 others either traveled through Turkey or considered doing so.
When Islamic State fighters communicated with worried family members, it was often with Turkish SIM cards. And investigation records reviewed by The Times show that two fighters who were arrested in Austria late last year, and who the police believed were supposed to take part in the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, had been sent money from their ISIS handler through a Western Union office in Turkey.
In his fortified office in northern Syria, Redur Khalil — the spokesman for the Y.P.G., the main Syrian Kurdish group fighting the Islamic State — keeps a stack of passports found on the bodies of the fighters his group has killed. He brings them out for reporters and turns the pages to show the Turkish entry stamps they all bear: proof, he said in an interview last summer, that the terrorist group’s foot soldiers are passing through Turkey.
Islamic State prisoners being held by the Kurds, whom The Times interviewed in the presence of a Y.P.G. minder, all said that they had moved freely across the Turkish border into Syria.
Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Turkey and its Western allies had not been quick enough to recognize the threat the Islamic State would pose.
He said that when the rebel groups in Syria began to gain strength, Turkey had nods of approval from the C.I.A. and MI6, the British intelligence agency, to allow arms and volunteers across its border and into rebel camps.
“Where Turkey can be accused of negligence is failing to understand, just as Pakistan did with the Taliban, that these radicals who crossed Turkey to get into Syria would morph into an organization that not only threatened the West, but ultimately itself,” Mr. Aliriza said. “The threat assessment simply did not happen fast enough.”