Radical Islamists In Northern Syria Spill Over Turkish Border

As radical Islamists take control of Syrian border towns, the spill-over is evident in southern Turkey. Small shops cater to radicals, selling black head bands with Koranic slogans. In Killis, on the Turkish border, cafes offer "jihadi tea" for a clientele with long beards and an alarming agenda. Many analysts say Turkey turned a blind eye to international jihadists crossing the border to overthrow the Assad regime. The bill has come due as Washington expresses extreme concern, young Turks join the jihad in Syria, and international extremists flock to the Turkish border on the way to the jihad.

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As we just heard, Turkish officials say they're clamping down on the radical Islamists who move through Turkey to join the rebellion in Syria. But in some frontier towns of southern Turkey, there's little sign of a crackdown.

NPR's Deborah Amos has that story.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Usually, we begin a story like this in a Turkish border town, the places near Syria's northern frontier that are a hub for radicals who want to join al-Qaida linked groups. But we start this story in New York, in September, during the United Nations General Assembly meeting.

Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas was part of the media group traveling with the Turkish president.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: And everywhere we went, whether it was a closed session or a public session or a meeting with journalists, people brought up Turkey's support for radical groups.

AMOS: It was the same week that Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, was in the spotlight. Turkey, she says, was in a new an uncomfortable role.

AYDINTASBAS: Turkey was being treated as a terrorist state. So, I think the message got back to Ankara: We got to do something about this.

AMOS: But just what that something is, is a matter of some debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

AMOS: After maintaining an open door for any young man coming to fight in Syria, closing the pipeline is proving difficult. This is Kilis, a Turkish town less than five miles from the Syrian frontier. It's a haven for radicals who come from around the world, says Mohammad, a Syrian aid worker who doesn't give his last name for his safety. He sees these radical travelers all the time.

MOHAMMAD: You will see them anywhere. They came few day and go inside for fighting Syrian regime.

AMOS: We talk in a cafe on the main street, where he orders red Karkade tea made from hibiscus flowers. It's popular with the jihadists, holy warriors who stay in cheap hotels or safe houses, then head for border fences with smugglers who hook them up with al-Qaida linked groups. Turkish merchants have learned to cater to them, says Mohammed.

MOHAMMAD: Here in Kilis, it's call Noc Chai Jihadi, and its Jihadi tea.

AMOS: If I ask the waiter for Jihadi tea, will he bring it to me?

MOHAMMAD: Yes, just tell him Jihadi tea and he will bring one for you.

AMOS: The flow of radicals to Turkish border towns began as a trickle and is now a flood, says Mohammed. How to track them is a daunting task for the Turkish police, especially in small towns filled with Syrian refugees.

We head to a coffee house popular with Syrians. Abu Amer is a 21-year-old Syrian studying civil engineering in Turkey. In his spare time, he says, he crosses back into Syria to work with the hardcore al-Qaida fighters from Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He supports their radical Islamist ideology.

ABU AMER: Whew, very good. Excellent.

AMOS: This is real jihad, he says. Raqqah, a provincial capital in Northeastern Syria, is now the first city to be controlled and governed by radical Islamists. In Raqqah, churches have been turned into Islamist training centers, women are forced to veil, and beheadings are the punishment for capital crimes.

AMER: I love ISIS now because very good.

AMOS: In Raqqah, it's very good?

AMER: Yeah, in Raqqah and every city in Syria.

AMOS: Like many Syrian young men, Abu Amer has been radicalized by the war. His adopted ideology means he's had to give up his old ways to fit in with a group that demands absolute discipline.

AMER: No smoking and drinking, and...

(LAUGHTER)

AMER: ...and going to nightclubs and...

AMOS: You stopped all of that?

AMER: Yeah.

AMOS: Turkey has misread these radicals, says journalist Asli Aydintasbas. At first, they were seen as a boost to a revolt to overthrow the Syrian regime.

AYDINTASBAS: Turkey did not really think radicalization was a huge problem, that al-Qaida was a huge problem. And when we did realize it was, it was too little too late.

AMOS: These radicals aren't going away anytime soon says Isa Afacan, a professor of international relations in southern Turkey.

ISA AFACAN: Once these groups settle in these cities, especially in Raqqah, I think definitely this is going to be creating more serious challenges towards Turkey. Not only Syria, but towards Turkey.

AMOS: And this presents Turkish leaders with some tough choices, he says. If the reset means a full crack down on al-Qaida linked groups, the radicals may turn against Turkey.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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