December 9, 2014 | Policy Brief

AQ Leader’s Arrest Highlights Turkey’s Terror Problem

December 9, 2014 | Policy Brief

AQ Leader’s Arrest Highlights Turkey’s Terror Problem

A joint U.S.-Turkish operation last month led to the capture of a senior Libyan al-Qaeda leader allegedly involved in the 2012 murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi. While the arrest highlights high-level U.S.-Turkish intelligence cooperation, it also raises serious questions over Turkey’s transformation into a terrorist hub.

Turkish police and intelligence, working alongside the CIA, arrested Abd El Basset Azzouz on November 13 in a rented house in Yalova, a resort province in western Turkey. After his arrest, Azzouz was sent for questioning by U.S. authorities in Jordan, where he remains.

Turkey’s geographic proximity to crisis zones in Syria and Iraq, as well as Ankara’s nonchalant attitude towards jihadi groups, has allowed Turkey to become a transit point for terrorists linked to al-Qaeda and its off-shoots in Syria.

Western officials/analysts have criticized Ankara for allowing foreign fighters through its territory into Syria to fight. While Turkey remains reluctant to take an active role in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, the terror organization continues to use Turkey’s border with Syria to smuggle weapons, cash, fighters and commodities. Journalists have exposed the growing presence of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Turkey’s southeastern border provinces, as well in major cities like Istanbul and Ankara.

Turkey also appears to have become the overseas operational center for Hamas. Last month, following the discovery that a Hamas cell in the West Bank had received orders and training from leaders in Turkey, Israeli officials criticized the Turkish government for allowing Hamas activity on its soil, noting that such behavior is inappropriate for a NATO member country.

For Turkey’s part, it remains unclear whether the government has directly supported extremist groups in Syria or if the latter have simply exploited Ankara’s lax border policies. And while capture of Azzouz – like Turkey’s previous operations against al-Qaeda – is a welcome step, it is not enough to address the country’s underlying extremism problem.

Turkey has expressed legitimate concerns that coalition efforts are targeting the Islamic State without confronting the brutal, Iran-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. The credibility of those concerns, however, is undermined by the violent extremism Turkey is itself facilitating at home.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on Turkey. Find her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu.


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