Turkey is one of the world's top tourist destinations, but its close proximity and lengthy border with Syria means a home-grown jihadist undercurrent is taking root. As in Britain and France, the radicalisation of young men may turn out to be one of the most enduring legacies of the Syria conflict on Turkey and increasingly they are springing from a surprising background.
Kurds are traditionally known for their leftist, secular worldview embodied by the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has fought for autonomy and identity rights for Kurds for over three decades. Today, Kurdish Peshmerga in Syria and Iraq are at the forefront in the ground war against Islamic State.
However, a conservative fragment within Kurdish society in Turkey has emerged as a leading element within Turkey’s jihadist threat, illustrated most recently by the killing of 32 activists last month in the border town of Suruc by a suspected Kurdish suicide bomber.
In June, a political rally in Diyarbakir was targeted by another Kurdish youth in an attack in in which four people died.
Radicalism taking root
The establishment of
, a right-wing Kurdish Islamist party, in 2012, and “Dokumacilar”, a small, IS-linked terrorist group believed to have begun operating recently in Turkey, suggest radicalism is taking root on an unprecedented scale. That the Turkish government appears sympathetic to jihadist groups in Syria, such as
, has led to accusations from opposition parties that the caretaker AK Party government is exacerbating the problem.
Though no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, both the Suruc and June 5th rally bombers are believed to have been trained in Syria and acted on orders from an IS leader there; what’s becoming clear is that young Kurdish men in the cities of southeast Turkey are being openly recruited by IS affiliates to be used as cannon fodder in Syria.
Orhan Gonder, the rally bomber, was known to be a quiet teenager who took his education seriously.
After finishing secondary school, Gonder began associating with a new group of young men. Shortly thereafter, he became visibly more religious.
According to the Wall Street Journal, his parents became fearful Gonder would seek to cross the border – a two-hour drive south – to join up with IS, and they contacted local police. At the time, Gonder allegedly said he had no intention of leaving for Syria but did so last October. Gonder returned to Turkey this summer and was arrested, but later released, two days before he carried out the rally bombing.
Abdurrahman Alagoz, the university student and alleged Suruc bomber, also travelled to Syria last October. Alagoz was thought to have been influenced by his older brother, Yunus Emre, who ran an "Islamic tea shop" in the city of Adiyaman until it was shut down early this year.
Yunus Emre is on the run, and thought to be in Syria. He is one of 23 “terrorist-related” missing persons sought by Turkish authorities.
Sultanbeyli in the east of Istanbul has recently become a refuge for a small community of Syrian refugees fleeing the war. It is also home to a large working-class Kurdish population who migrated from the borderlands in eastern Turkey over the past two decades.
Here the majority of women wear the Islamic hijab, and skullcaps are popular among elderly men.
Though radicalism among the local Kurdish population is far from prevalent, local media report that the district is an Islamic State recruiting ground, and at least one local youth has joined Islamic State in Syria. On the street, young men in salafi dress are a common sight.
Observers of Kurdish sociopolitical currents in Turkey trace the emergence of radicalism among Kurds back to the 1979 Islamic revolution in
. During the decades since, Kurdish jihadists have fought as mujahideen or religious fighters in wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The main group was the Kurdish Hizbullah that now has a legal party in Turkey," said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.
“The war in Syria was an opportunity for Turkish and Kurdish jihadists to wage jihad. Just as for other jihadists all over the world, Syria is now the most popular.”
Van Wilgenburg said Adiyaman and Bingol provinces close to the Syrian border have become easy recruiting grounds because “poverty and Islamic organisations are strong in these towns”. Southeast Turkey has the highest unemployment rates in the state.
Mehmet Kurt, an expert in radical movements in Turkey at Queen Mary University in London, said social restrictions on youths in these areas allow Dokumacilar, the IS recruiters in Turkey, to present themselves as pious men who turn youths against their families.
“These young men have personal issues with their parents; they get no respect from their families,” said Kurt, who lived in Bingol for five years.
“Isis [IS] offers them a ‘heroic’ path. Isis use the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ from a religious perspective which reinforces the thoughts these people already have.”