Foreign recruits of Islamic State, eager to migrate to the territory the militant group had carved out in Iraq and Syria, would prepare their staples — a phone, a solar charger, a few garments — before buying round-trip plane tickets (the better to avoid suspicion).
Their destination? Almost always Turkey.
Once having landed there, they continued on to towns dotting the 566-mile border Turkey shares with Syria, crossing over for a new life among those who shared their fanatical vision.
It was just one of the ways that Turkey was the conduit for all things extremist. Turkey was where Islamic State acquired food and other essentials, found medical treatment for injured fighters, and even got the fertilizer needed to make car bombs.
As Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies now march deeper into northeastern Syria to battle Kurdish fighters who long served as the United States’ surrogate fighting force against Islamic State, many fear a resurgent extremist threat that Turkey will be unable to contain. The disruption could give Islamic State’s dormant army, comprising sleeper cells and tens of thousands of fighters and their families in Kurdish-held detention centers, the chance to reinvigorate its insurgency and use Turkey as a launchpad for attacks in Europe or as far off as America.
Turkey began its cross-border assault Wednesday, after President Trump gave his implicit blessing by ordering the pullout of U.S. troops from the area. The objective, Turkey says, is to seize control of a 20-mile corridor of territory along Syria’s northern border and make it a safe zone that would house about 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
But Ankara is also moving to excise what it calls Kurdish terrorists of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which it sees as the Syrian offshoot of a banned Kurdish separatist group it fights at home, but which had become the United States’ top Syrian partner against Islamic State.
Facing a full-blown invasion, Kurdish authorities say they can no longer spare the manpower for counter-terrorism work.
Already, there are signs that Islamic State’s sleeper cells are benefiting from the distraction, even in places far from the front lines.
On Friday, the group claimed responsibility for planting a car bomb in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli, 65 miles east of ground fighting in the border town of Ras al-Ayn. A day later, Kurdish authorities said another car bomb blew up near an Islamic State prison in the northern city of Hasakah. And on Sunday, hundreds of Islamic State family members escaped from a detention camp managed by Syrian Kurdish forces who were under attack by Turkish airstrikes and rocket fire.
Also in play is the fate of Islamic State detainees held in Kurdish-run prisons and camps, numbering an estimated 11,000 to 12,500 fighters and more than 60,000 family members. In the chaos, nearly 800 of them escaped Sunday from a camp near the Kurdish-run city of Ain Issa during an air barrage by Turkish forces. It followed a similar incident a day earlier, when five fighters escaped in Qamishli and others attempted to do so at another detention camp, Kurdish authorities said.
Turkish officials have done little to allay fears of an Islamic State resurgence beyond platitudes that they will monitor the prisoners in the area they intend to control. But it’s hard to expect the Kurds to cooperate in handing over Islamic State prisoners to their rebel and Turkish adversaries. Besides, some 50% of the interred extremists, Kurdish authorities say, are held in territory beyond the offensive’s stated limit. Also far afield is Dair Alzour, the eastern Syrian desert province where Islamic State remnants remain active.
At the heart of the matter is Turkey’s priorities versus those of the U.S. and its allies, said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute: Most of the latter view Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as a top threat.
“For Turkey it’s the YPG first and ISIS maybe second,” he said in a phone interview Saturday. “Turkey will achieve its military objectives, but those objectives don’t actually include much about ISIS.”
Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, agreed.
“The fact of the matter is that Turkey has never considered countering ISIS to be of utmost importance to its national security or its interests in Syria,” Heras said.
That attitude was especially clear in the early days of the Syrian civil war.
In 2011, the government’s crackdown on primarily peaceful protesters set off an armed rebellion in which Islamist and extremist groups — including Islamic State’s precursor — became dominant. These groups framed the war as a holy battle; Turkey, headed by a government with Islamist leanings, sought to empower the rebels against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkey gave them carte blanche to traverse its border with Syria.
The move made southern Turkish towns staging grounds for the opposition. Would-be jihadis from across the globe showed up in Turkey’s airports, many of them bearded men dressed in military-style fatigues and backpacks, determined to join the fight across the border. They would also frequently head back to Turkey for supplies.
Even though an estimated 40,000 foreign fighters crossed into Syria, along with weapons and explosives, Brett McGurk, Trump’s former envoy for countering Islamic State, said in a post on Twitter on Wednesday, “Turkey refused repeated and detailed requests to seal its side of the border with U.S. help and assistance.”
Turkey had also refused to allow U.S. warplanes stationed at Incirlik airbase to strike Islamic State positions, even as extremists poured into Syria.
It was only in July 2015, after the first Islamic State suicide attack on Turkish soil, that Ankara sealed the border. Even then, it did so more to block the Kurdish fighters who had begun working with the U.S. against Islamic State.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters Sunday that Turkey had blocked 70,000 people and deported about 70,000 suspected of terrorist links from entering the country.
Turkey’s partners, the self-styled Syrian National Army, are made up of opposition factions that have seeded their ranks with former members of extremist groups, said Heras.
The U.S. turned to the Kurds, said McGurk, in large part because many rebel factions were reluctant to combat Islamic State, whether because they were sympathetic to the jihadists’ aims or wanted to focus on defeating Assad.
When blitzing through Kurdish-controlled areas in the past, rebel factions have engaged in widespread looting, human rights abuses and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, whom they see as atheists and separatists, rights groups say.
On Saturday, video emerged that appeared to show Turkish-backed Syrian rebels summarily executing a Kurdish fighter they had stopped on a road in northeastern Syria. They also massacred nine Kurdish civilians, activists said. (The uproar following the atrocities prompted the Syrian National Army’s command to issue a statement on Saturday urging its cadres “not to take vengeance” or engage in looting against the Kurdish population.)
“That kind of environment, said Heras, primes the pump for an Islamic State comeback. “And there’s no guarantee these Syrian rebel proxies would have any interest in combating [its] reemergence.”