Turkey’s Counterterrorism Response to the Syrian Crisis

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 14

Syrian rebels celebrate the destruction of a military tank during a day of heavy fighting with Syrian government forces in Idlib, north Syria (Source Telegraph)

Turkey has faced a relatively limited but consistent threat from jihadist militants linked to al-Qaeda dating back to the 1980s/90s, particularly following the return of Turkish fighters from Afghanistan (Hurriyet, October, 2001). The 2003 Istanbul bombings that resulted in over 60 fatalities triggered a major crackdown on suspected jihadists that led to the official conclusion that “the main body of the terrorist organization [al-Qaeda in Turkey] has been dismantled.” [1] 

The numerous foiled plots and raids connected to al-Qaeda cells in Turkey signal the considerable capacity of Turkish security forces seasoned in countering terrorism. The ongoing conflict in Syria, however, adds an unexpected element to Turkish (in)security and the types of threats authorities will have to counter in coming years.   

Al-Qaeda does not consider Turkey a priority target and will therefore continue to focus efforts on Syria via Jabhat al-Nusrah (JaN). However, Turkey’s border provinces present an increasingly complex environment in which Turkish authorities may struggle to maintain control. The border runs for 560 miles and remains easy to traverse despite additional security at border points. 

The presence in this region of Syrian opposition forces, refugees, local jihadist and Salafist groups, al-Qaeda-associated groups such as JaN, Kurdish nationalists and Turkey’s Alawite and Alevi populations all contribute to a situation that is volatile and has the potential to significantly deteriorate as the conflict in Syria drags on. The establishment of long-term jihadist networks in the border region presents a serious concern, although is outweighed by the potential for widespread sectarian conflict spilling over into Turkey. 

Turkish nationals who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan later returned to Turkey establishing cells focused primarily on support activities such as recruitment and fundraising. In October 2012, the U.S. State Department asserted that al-Qaeda elements in Iran, led by the financier Muhsin al-Fadhli, were moving fighters and funds through Turkey to Syria (Today’s Zaman, October 19, 2012). Turkey’s geographical position made it a key transit state for jihadists travelling to Afghanistan and Iraq, a factor that now also extends to its southern neighbor, Syria. 

Meanwhile, Ayman al-Zawahiri has directly referenced Turkey in official messaging, noting the cooperation of the ruling Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi (AKP – Justice and Development Party) with Israel as well as its alleged fight “against Islam and Shari’a” as points of contention. [2] According to intercepted courier communications, discussions between Osama bin Laden and Habib Akdas, the leader and founder of al-Qaeda in Turkey, similarly referenced such issues as justification for the 2003 Istanbul attacks. [3] 

Over the past ten years, plots involving jihadists with varying degrees of affiliation to al-Qaeda have included: 

·         A 2004 plot to attack the NATO Summit in Istanbul;

·         A 2005 plot to attack an Israeli cruise ship in Antalya;

·         A 2008 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul that resulted in three fatalities;

·         A 2011 plot to attack the Incirlik Air Base (used by the United States to send supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan);

·         Plots in 2011 and 2013 to attack the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. 

Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition appears to have been based initially on humanitarian concerns as well as the underlying assumption that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will not remain in power. This has further extended to lending support to the force it believes has the best shot at maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity and as an extension, the most likely to be able to stem the growing tide of sectarian tension. The jihadist threat to Turkey vis-à-vis Syria comes in the form of local groups; al-Qaeda affiliated Syrian groups (namely JaN); and foreign jihadists. 

Support for local jihadist and Salafist groups somewhat fits within Turkey’s wider strategy, particularly as some maintain links to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Islamic Front. Such groups include Ghorba’a al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham. Ghorba’a al-Sham is a local jihadist group which often aligns with the JaN and consists mainly of Turks; Ahrar al-Sham is not a jihadist group but is considered a hardline Salafist group. Turkey has agreed to funnel all military aid through the opposition’s Supreme Joint Military Command; however, this agreement is in an early stage and the reality is that many informal funding routes still exist. [4] Although these fighters do not necessarily share al-Qaeda’s desire to establish a global Islamic caliphate, support for hardline groups nonetheless feeds into wider sectarian tensions in the area and could contribute to the formation of long-term jihadist networks.

Clashes in the border areas between opposition forces and Kurdish nationalists, including members of the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYDDemocratic Union Party), Syria’s largest Kurdish organization, have prompted claims that Turkish support for local jihadist groups is based on its desire to squash Kurdish influence in northern Syria amid fears of a breakaway Kurdish state. Fierce battles in Ras al-Ayn (Syria’s northernmost city, close to the Turkish border) between the PYD, Ghorba’a al-Sham and the JaN in November, 2012 focused further attention on Turkey’s motives in the conflict (Naharnet, November 22, 2012). While the PYD has now brokered a ceasefire with the FSA, Ghorba’a al-Sham maintains control over the nearest border checkpoint and the extent to which the more hardline groups will adhere to such agreements remains to be seen. 

Several Turkish media sources reported the foiling of a plot in the southern town of Adana on May 31 that allegedly involved members of JaN and the nerve agent, Sarin. A Turkish daily reported that targets included the Incirlik air base and the Turkish border town of Gaziantep (Sabah, May 31). Another source stated that the nerve agent had been brought across the border from Syria (Radikal, May 31). However, Adana’s Mayor, Hüseyin Avni Co? denied the presence of Sarin gas in a May 30 official statement to the state-run Anatolia News Agency and refused to comment on the suspects’ organizational affiliations. There is no evidence to suggest that JaN is receiving direct support from the Turkish government (not surprising given the contrasting views of either side); although it also seems unlikely that the group would choose to target a major supporter of the opposition – a move that could precipitate a major security clampdown in the border provinces and restrictions on military and financial aid to the rebels. The lack of reporting since May 31 seems to confirm that the initial reports were not credible and failed to indicate that JaN presented a direct threat to Turkey. 

The presence of foreign jihadists in Syria has arguably been exaggerated, particularly in the West. Nonetheless, the arrest of four Belgian citizens on the Turkish border in June clearly highlights the challenge faced by Western countries in deterring their citizens from attempting to join foreign jihadist groups (Hurriyet, June 19). For Turkey, such fighters are unlikely to pose a direct threat given that their objective is to reach the conflict zone, although it does contribute to sectarian tensions in Turkey’s border region and the development of jihadist networks.  

The Belgian case was brought to rest by “excellent cooperation” between the Turkish and Belgian police, however, in other instances, Syrian opposition forces have themselves dealt with foreign jihadists. Late last year, the raising of al-Qaeda’s black flag above the Bab al-Hawa border crossing by foreign fighters prompted a bitter fight with Islamist fighters from the al-Farouq brigade as well as the FSA (al-Akhbar, October 3). 

It is true that Syria, rather than Turkey, remains a priority for al-Qaeda and its affiliates as it presents a critical opportunity for the group to reassert its relevance following perceptions that it failed to respond appropriately to popular uprisings elsewhere in the region. In this context, Turkey will most likely remain a recruitment and support base for jihadists, particularly in the border areas. 

Of greater concern is the impact of the Syrian conflict in fueling sectarianism, an aspect which could be perceived as having been fueled by Turkish support for hardline groups that have stoked tensions with Turkish Alawites and Alevis, as well as with Syrian Kurds. This will present a much longer-term and complex challenge for the Turkish government and its security forces over the coming years, as a solution to the crisis in Syria remains improbable in the near to medium term. 

Jennifer Lang is a freelance consultant with a background in counterterrorism, defense and security analysis. 

The author is grateful to Defne Gönenç, Ph.D. student, Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies, for her assistance in the translation of the Turkish-language sources and for her comments on the article more generally and to Haluk Baran Bingöl, Clendenin Fellow, Kennesaw State University, for his insight into wider sectarian tensions in Turkey.


1. See: Turkish National Police, 2012, https://www.turkishnationalpolice.gov.tr/AL_QAEDA.html.

2. See: “Message to the Muslim Turkish People,” as-Sahab Media, August 15, 2010, at https://jihadology.net/2010/08/16/as-sa%E1%B8%A5ab-presents-message-to-the-people-of-turkey-by-dr-ayman-al-zawahri/, Today’s Zaman, February 24, 2010; al-Jazeera, August 15, 2010.

3. See: S. Ozeren, I. Dincer Gunes and D. M. al-Badayneh, Understanding Terrorism: Analysis of Sociological and Pyschological Aspects, Lancaster, UK, 2007, p.287.

4. See: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2013/05/14/63221/the-structure-and-organization-of-the-syrian-opposition/.