ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turks have been bit part players in al Qaeda’s global jihad, but a recent security scare in Europe pointed to a small but growing number in Germany and Turkey who have joined militant ranks in Pakistan.
Muslims from many parts of the Islamic World went to Pakistan during the jihad to end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. There may be nothing new about Turks taking that path, but recent obituaries on jihadi websites and tales of the exploits of Turkish jihadis have been eye-catching.
“Turkey serves as a gateway for al-Qaeda, through which it channels both funds and recruits for operations abroad,” said Tim Williams of Stirling Assynt, a political and terrorist risk consultancy in London. “The growing number of Turks appearing in the Af-Pak theater...(is) evidence of that.”
Turks returning from Afghanistan were involved in the November 2003 bombings that killed 57 people in Istanbul and wounded hundreds more in a series of attacks that targeted the British consulate, an HSBC bank and two synagogues.
“I am concerned about increased radicalization among Turkish youth -- not just in Turkey but also in Europe,” said Zeyno Baran, a scholar at Washington’s Hudson Institute.
An more critical focus on Israel and the West by some sections of the media has hardened attitudes in a society that is becoming more conservative, more Islamic, according to Baran.
“That propaganda has a powerful impact on the youth, some of whom seem to be joining the militant ranks in Af-Pak region.”
Surveys by Washington’s Pew Research Center show Turks share similar levels of antipathy toward the United States as Egyptians, Pakistanis and Palestinians.
Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul based security analyst noted a proliferation of jihadi websites with Turkish language pages over the past couple of years.
With an overwhelmingly Muslim population of 75 million, and a large diaspora, particularly in Germany, it is natural that Islamist militant groups should try to make inroads.
Turkey, with its democratic foundation and orientation toward the West, is not a natural breeding ground for Islamic militancy. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s brand of religious conservatism, while opening the door to the Islamic Middle East, gives no quarter to the likes of al Qaeda.
If militancy is growing, it remains at least for now on the fringe.
Israel’s Gaza offensive two years ago fueled sympathy for militant causes among some, analysts say.
“The Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2008 had a profound effect, leading to increased recruitment of Turks by al Qaeda and allied groups,” Williams said. “We believe that the numbers increased dramatically in the wake of that operation.”
It is a touchy issue for NATO’s only Muslim member. Turkish troops serve in non-combat roles in Afghanistan.
Officials are guarded about the presence of Turkish militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They say nationalities of the martyrs named on jihadi websites are unconfirmed. But arrests back in Turkey show the authorities are vigilant.
In January, police detained more than 120 al Qaeda suspects in raids mostly in east and central Anatolia, though barely any details emerged from those arrests.
Then last week, police arrested a maths student from a university in the western city of Izmir who was in contact with a Turkish militant described as the head of al Qaeda’s Aegean cell and who is now fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Student Abdulkadir Kucuk’s extra-curricular studies involved bomb-making and devising computer programs to jam flight signals for drone aircraft used by NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Four other suspected fundraisers for the cause were detained too. They were later freed pending trial, but in a follow up operation this week police in Istanbul rounded up a dozen more.
A senior Turkish security official told Reuters that all the Turks who have joined al Qaeda’s ranks in Afghanistan-Pakistan belong to one group. He went on to name its chief as well as a commander, Zekeriya, whom Kucuk was caught e-mailing.
“Their leader is named Ebuzer, the leader of all Turks in al Qaeda. Zekeriya is another high-ranking leader of Turks there,” he said.
The Washington-based Jamestown Foundation identifies Ebuzer as Serdar Erbashi, a veteran of the second Chechen war, who, it says, had headed al Qaeda’s cell in Ankara.
The Turkish official didn’t name the group, but a Pakistani security officer in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, identified it as Taifatul Mansura, a koranic reference meaning “Assembly of the Victorious.”
Based in North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region known as a hotbed of al Qaeda and Taliban activity, Taifatul Mansura’s profile has risen over the past year on jihadi websites and anti-terrorism blogsites.
The Pakistani security official says its ranks have been depleted by clashes and drone missile attacks, and a splinter group broke off a few months ago.
The faction appeared to emerge out of the Ittehad-e-Islami, or Islamic Jihad Union (IJU).
The ISU is itself a by-product of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a Central Asian jihadi movement that has forged ties with al Qaeda and actively recruits in Europe.
Jihadis who do not fit easily into South Asian or Arab militant camps gravitate to groups like Taifatul Mansura which, according to the Pakistani official, is made up of Turkic-language speaking Central Asians, as well as Turks and European Muslims, notably from Germany.
“It is a motley crowd out there in the North (Waziristan),” the Pakistani security official told Reuters. “There are people from virtually everywhere, including the Turks.”
Editing by Ralph Boulton