Paris attacks put spotlight on Turkey’s ‘terror tourists’
ISTANBUL - Turkey is urging its European partners to do more to stop Islamist militants from travelling to and from Syria following the arrest of a man suspected of helping the attackers who killed 130 people in Paris on November 13th.
“Intelligence sharing is absolutely necessary if the international community wants to combat terrorism,” a Turkish government official said by email, commenting on condition of anonymity in line with government protocol. His statement came after police in the southern resort of Antalya detained Ahmed Dahmani, a 26-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent who is accused of helping the Paris group.
Dahmani’s detention on November 16th was the result of a coincidence, not of international cooperation between intelligence services in Turkey and Europe. Turkey, which shares a 900-km border with Syria, is the most important staging post for foreign militants joining the Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremist groups. Most EU citizens do not need a visa to travel to Turkey.
The case of Dahmani throws a spotlight on the travel routes of ISIS suspects to and from Syria. He is accused of having been in contact with the Paris attackers and might have scouted locations of the attacks.
Police in Antalya stopped a car with two Syrians on November 16th during vehicle checks ordered as part of security measures for the Group of 20 summit. Reports said the Syrians carried a fake passport for a third man. After questioning the pair and going through text messages on their mobile phones, investigators concluded the Syrians represented a kind of welcoming committee that had travelled to Antalya from Syria to guide Dahmani back to ISIS territory.
Based on those findings, police arrested Dahmani at a hotel in Antalya. All three men were put into pre-trial detention and France reportedly asked for Dahmani to be extradited.
According to the Turkish official, Dahmani flew to Turkey from Amsterdam on November 14th, the day after the Paris attacks. “The security forces stated that Dahmani is an ISIS militant who was preparing to illegally cross the Turkish-Syrian border,” the official said. “There is no record of the Belgian authorities having warned Turkey about Dahmani, which is why there was no entry ban.”
Islamist militants with EU passports have found it easy to travel via Turkey to or from Syria. As Turkey hosts some 30 million tourists every year, mostly from Western Europe, it is difficult for authorities to identify potential “terror tourists”, as they have been dubbed by the press.
The Turkish official said more than 26,600 people have been banned from entering Turkey after foreign law enforcement and intelligence services warned Turkish authorities about potential militants from their countries. “Roughly 50% of the no-entry list consists of the nationals of Middle Eastern and North African countries,” the official said. “Citizens of North American and Western European countries comprise another 25% of the list.”
Several thousand foreigners have been deported after being detained at the Syrian border or after being spotted by special police units at Turkish airports. In recent weeks, about 50 Moroccans were sent back to their country from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport after investigators concluded they were on their way to Syria.
But the level of cooperation is not where it should be to be truly effective, Turkey says. “Had the Belgian authorities alerted us in due time, Dahmani could have been apprehended at the airport,” the official said by mail. “We urge our allies to continue sharing information with us.”
In January, Turkish police detained Brahim Abdeslam, a Belgian national and one of the attackers who set off a suicide vest in Paris. At the time, Turkish authorities told Belgium that Abdeslam was suspected of wanting to join ISIS but Abdeslam was released after being sent back to Belgium.
“Unfortunately, intelligence sharing does not find a sufficient response from time to time,” Omer Celik, spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told Turkish state broadcaster TRT.
Turkish officials also said they had warned their French counterparts about ISIS suspect Omar Ismail Mostefei, another Paris bomber, in 2014 and this past summer, without hearing back from France until after the November 13th attacks.
One of the reasons that people such as Mostefei slip through the net is that intelligence services in Turkey and Europe are confronted with thousands of potential extremists who can travel without border checks within Europe’s Schengen zone and can take a flight to or from Turkey any time.
According to news reports and figures provided by officials, about 760 Germans, 500 French citizens, 350 Belgians and about 100 Spanish citizens have travelled to Syria to fight for ISIS. Hundreds have returned to their home countries and could pose a security threat, officials say.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected leader of the Paris attackers who was killed during a police raid November 18th, fled from Belgium to Syria after a police raid in January. He returned to Belgium although intelligence services were on the look-out for him. “If Abaaoud could go from Syria to Europe, that means there are failings in the entire European system,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.