REYHANLI, Turkey - Before their blitz into Iraq earned them the title of the Middle East’s most feared insurgency, the jihadists of the Islamic State treated this Turkish town near the Syrian border as their own personal shopping mall.
And eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet.
In dusty market stalls, among the baklava shops and kebab stands, locals talk of Islamist fighters openly stocking up on uniforms and the latest Samsung smartphones. Wounded jihadists from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda offshoot also fighting the Syrian government — were treated at Turkish hospitals. Most important, the Turks winked as Reyhanli and other Turkish towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms across the border.
“Turkey welcomed anyone against Assad, and now they are killing, spreading their disease, and we are all paying the price,” said Tamer Apis, a politician in Reyhanli, where two massive car bombs killed 52 people last year. In a nearby city, Turkish authorities seized another car packed with explosives in June, raising fears of an Islamic State-inspired campaign to export sectarian strife to Turkey.
“It was not just us,” Apis said. “But this is a mess of Turkey’s making.”
The U.S. military is back in action over the skies of Iraq, launching airstrikes against the Islamist militants who have taken control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. But for many months, the militants were able to grow in power partly by using the border region of a NATO member — Turkey — as a strategically vital supply route and entry point to wage their war.
Alarmed by the growing might of the Islamic State, Turkey has started cracking down. Working with the United States and European governments, Turkish officials have enacted new safeguards to detain foreign fighters trying to get into Syria and launched a military offensive aimed at curtailing the smuggling of weapons and supplies across the border.
But in a region engulfed by a broadening conflict, Turkey is also reaping what it sowed. It is engaging in border shootouts with rebels it once tactically aided. It is confronting spillover violence, a cutoff in its trade routes and a spreading wave of fear in Turkish towns as the Islamic State wins over defectors from rival opposition groups.
And despite the new measures, the Islamic State is still slipping through Turkish nets — raising doubts about international efforts to put a stranglehold on a radical Sunni group known for public crucifixions and the beheading of enemies.
“It is not as easy to come into Turkey anymore,” Abu Yusaf, a 27-year-old senior security commander for the Islamic State, said in a recent interview conducted in the back seat of a moving white Honda in Reyhanli. “I myself had to go through smugglers to get here, but as you see, there are still ways and methods.”
Wearing a polo shirt and white baseball cap to blend in on the more secular streets of Turkey, Yusaf, the nom de guerre of the European-born fighter who joined the group 2 1/2 years ago, added: “We don’t believe in countries . . . breaking and destroying all borders is our aim. What matters are Islam and a Sunni reign.”
Asked about the United States’ role in the region, Yusaf said, “We don’t fear the U.S., we only fear God. We fight whoever are fighting us. If the U.S. hits us with flowers, we will hit them back with flowers. But if they hit us with fire, we will hit them back with fire, also inside their homeland. This will be the same with any other Western country.”
"The Washington Post," August 12, 2014