A Smuggler Explains How He Helped Fighters Along 'Jihadi Highway' : Parallels Thousands of international recruits have crossed into Syria from Turkey to join the Islamic State. A Syrian man who helped smuggle those jihadis in explains how it worked, but says he's stopped now.
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A Smuggler Explains How He Helped Fighters Along 'Jihadi Highway'

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A Smuggler Explains How He Helped Fighters Along 'Jihadi Highway'

A Smuggler Explains How He Helped Fighters Along 'Jihadi Highway'

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As Turkey has hesitated to get involved in the fight against ISIS, the southern part of the country has become a transit point for ISIS fighters. Over the weekend, Vice President Joe Biden apologized for public remarks in which he suggested that ISIS recruits were allowed to pass through Turkey.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports that in recent weeks, Turkey has cracked down on the flow of fighters but not before thousands crossed into Syria. She recently met a man who had helped pave the way for some of those militants. And he told her why he quit.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The Syrian smuggler agrees to meet at a border cafe where waiters serve glasses of sugary tea and Turks play dominoes long into the afternoon. He's in his mid-20s. He chain-smokes as he talks about a lucrative operation he ran for two years. He's open about everything except his name. He says he smuggled hundreds into Syria - foreign fighters who wanted to join ISIS.

AMOS: So is smuggling a good business?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Without the moral thing, it's good. (Laughter) The money - it's very good. But you feel you're bad. So it's very bad thing.

AMOS: He now sees the danger. But when he began his work, he believed he was helping the Syrian revolt, a fight to topple an oppressive regime. With no prospect for serious international support, he guided these intensely religious young men across the border to join the fight. They said they came for jihad. And it was easy work, he says, as the men streamed into Turkish airports along the border.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) For the Turkish people in the beginning, they just closed their eyes. They don't care. In the airport - someone in the airport says good luck in jihad in Syria.

AMOS: Turks at the airport saw them come in and say good luck?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, I'm sure.

AMOS: This Jihadi Highway from Turkey to Syria has long been an open secret well-documented by the international media, Syrian activists and the Turkish press. Militants were often spotted in Turkish border towns before crossing into Syria.

That open secret led to Vice President Joe Biden's charge in a speech at Harvard. He said U.S. allies, including Turkey, were so determined to unseat the Syrian president, they channeled money and guns to anyone willing to fight. His remarks incensed Turkey's president says commentator Soli Ozel, a specialist in international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

SOLI OZEL: The Turkish government steadfastly denies that it has ever helped them. This help, of course, is not a direct help of, you know, training them and sending them officially, but, you know, turning a blind eye, allowing them to come and be treated in Turkish hospitals when they are wounded.

AMOS: The indirect support, say Turkish analysts, was based on Turkey's gamble the militants would boost the rebels' cause. Turkey was slow to see the danger even as Western governments raised the alarms, says Ozel.

OZEL: And now there is a bit more pressure.

AMOS: Pressure to shut down the network on the border, says the smuggler. He's been forced to quit, he says, as Turks step up patrols, arrest suspected militants, closely monitor border crossings and put the smugglers on notice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) First of all, the government - all of them they got warning. So it's not easy to go to ISIS from the border. You could, but it's not easy.

AMOS: But the ISIS threat is now a direct domestic danger for Turkey with the spread of radical Islam, says Ozel. There are credible reports that more than a thousand Turks have already joined the militants with support cells inside the country.

OZEL: We know that for instance these guys had recruitment offices in different parts of the country. And these guys have socialized in different parts of the country with others who may not like their methods but who sympathize with their ideology.

AMOS: Sympathy that's already been on display. In Istanbul, a University protest against ISIS was openly attacked by ISIS supporters. A mosque in the city offered prayers for militants killed in the U.S. airstrikes. Small details, says Ozel, that indicates an alarming trend. It will be part of Turkey's calculation as it considers a role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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