A Brief History of Jihadism in Turkey

Despite the Istanbul attacks in 2003, the Turkish fight against terrorism has remained largely synonymous with the fight against Kurdish separatists. To my knowledge, there are few if any in-depth academic studies of Turkish jihadism. Not even the 2003 Istanbul attacks have been closely examined by scholars, despite a wealth of available Turkish sources. At most, there are studies of how the Turkish media covered these events, and the emphasis is on the narrative being used by non-jihadists to describe the phenomenon (see e.g. Gökhan Gökulu’s 2005 M.A. thesis “Terör Eylemlerinin Medyaya Yansıması”). With the exception of Mehmet Faraç’s book İkiz Kulelerden Galata’ya: El Kaide Turka and the reporting of a few other journalists, Turkish writers and intellectuals seem surprisingly uninterested in the phenomenon itself. Although it has been thought that the secular Turks were almost immune to militant Islamism, the Turkish jihadist community appears to be growing.

The first Turks entered the jihadi scene in the late 1980s. Ferzende Kaya has interviewed a few of the surviving Turkish fighters from the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s. The first Turkish jihadists went to Afghanistan as early as May 1980. According to Kaya, most of the veterans of the war either died in combat or retired from jihadism as they returned home.

Brian Glyn Williams offers a rare account of how a new generation of Turkish jihadists were recruited and trained in the 1990s. He puts its genesis down to the influx of Turkish Islamists who entered Islamist universities in Pakistan after 1994. The students, argues Williams, frequently crossed to border into Afghanistan to get what he calls “hands-on education”. Very little is known about this period, and I am uncertain what source material Williams bases these claims on.

Whether or not they arrived there by way of Pakistani universities, Turks arrived in Afghanistian in large enough numbers to keep a Turkish-language jihadi training programme running. By 2001 a Turkish group had coalesced around a Turkish Emir called Habib Akdaş. They were based in the Khalden camp in Eastern Afghanistan. Sometime between 9/11 and the American-led attack about a month later, the group left for Turkey. Two years later the group carried out the attacks against the British Consulate, two synagogues and an HSBC branch in Istanbul. According to his own account, the al-Qaida Iraq leader abu Musab Zarqawi’s right hand man, Louai al-Sakka, was the master mind behind the attack and the link between the Akdaş group and the al-Qaida leadership. Al-Sakka is now in prison for both the 2003 attacks and for attempting to bomb an Israeli cruise ship in 2005. The cruise ship plot was foiled when the chemicals al-Sakka was to use exploded in his rented apartment. Akdaş died fighting in Iraq.

In April this year, there appears to have been a spate of arrests in South-Eastern Turkey, and one of the arrestees is an Uzbek. The Turkish press described the arrested men as al-Qaida members. The Turkish (or rather Kurdish) Hizbullah (not to be confused with its Shia namesake in Lebanon) is located in this area, which also seems to provide many of the Turkish recruits for the Islamic Jihad Union. Although little is certain, there may be a link between IJU and Hizballah.

Arrests of alleged al-Qaida members are nothing new in Turkey. There have been raids many times before. One such wave of raids happened in April last year. If one is to believe the Islamic Jihad Union member Ebu Yasir el-Turki, as many as 2000 Turks have arrived in Afghanistan since 2001. He claims that most of them have gone back to Turkey where they try to create groups and recruit people for the Jihad in Afghanistan. As many as 5000 Turkish militants may have joined the insurgency in Iraq. If this continues, Turkey may have an important role to play in the global Jihad. Maybe it will not be a combatant or front, but Turkey is already a conduit, recruitment base and maybe also training ground for jihadists going to the hot fronts.

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