World

Suspect’s escape to Syria shows Turkey’s role as jihadi highway

For the wife of the gunman accused of killing four people at a kosher super market in Paris 10 days ago, the escape from questioning about complicity in the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks was relatively easy.

Once Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, got to Turkey, she followed the path of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other European jihadi volunteers before her – into the self-declared Islamic State.

Aided by smugglers in the Turkish border town of Akcakale, and several companions, she walked through a disused border crossing on Jan. 8 and into the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, which has been an Islamic State stronghold for months.

She would have passed a guard shack on the old road between Alcakale and Tal Abyad, but if Turkish border guards took any notice, they made no effort to stop her, according to a Turkish security official, who spoke anonymously because speaking on the record was not allowed.

By the time French police identified Boumeddiene as one of the suspects in a terrorism onslaught that cost 17 people their lives and that France is calling its equivalent of 9/11, she was beyond their reach. The other three suspects, her husband, Amedy Coulibaly, who is believed to have killed a policewoman in addition to the four at the supermarket, and Said and Cherif Kouachi, blamed for the deaths of 12 at the Charlie Hebdo offices, would die in shootouts with police.

The Algerian-born Boumeddiene is not the first foreigner to cross into Islamic State territory from Akcakale and the surrounding region. But her escape focuses fresh attention on what is a sore point between Turkey and its European neighbors – the ease with which disaffected European youth are able to cross into Islamic State territory from Turkey and join the jihad.

Turkey insists it is taking steps to stop the flow of recruits to the Islamic State. But visits by a McClatchy reporter to Akcakale and three nearby villages found that a foreigner can easily cross into Syria. Smugglers’ fees are a pittance, as little as $30, and daylight crossings are common. Official efforts to discourage crossings to Syria appeared non-existent.

In each village, locals said foreigners cross the border regularly into Syria and offered to assist in crossing or to find a smuggler who would. They also named other villages where illegal crossings are a major business.

“It’s so easy to escape into Syria,” a farmer in a village about 25 miles east of Akcakale said. “You don’t need a smuggler, you can just walk.”

Another villager suggested dressing as a shepherd and pretending to tend to the herds of sheep that graze near the border. “When you cross the line, no one can stop you. Just run,” he said. McClatchy is withholding the name of the village and its residents for security reasons.

Some 15,000 foreign volunteers are now fighting with the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, according to U.S. figures, in what the U.S. and European public view as the single biggest security threat on Earth.

Turkey is widely viewed as the jihadi highway to Syria. Germany’s domestic intelligence chief said last week that of the 550 people who left Germany to volunteer for the Islamic State, “well over 90 per cent” traveled to Syria via Turkey. “We are asking Turkey, we demand that Turkey stop travel via Turkish sovereign territory in the direction of Syria,” Hans-Georg Meissen, Germany’s domestic intelligence chief told a TV interviewer on Jan. 12.

Turkish officials reject responsibility and say they have been made into a scapegoat. Responding to Meissen’s demand, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said closing the border would have sealed it to refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war as well.

“We could have shut down the border,” he said, “but then the responsibility for every child massacred by the Syrian regime’s bombs would belong to us who want to close the borders.”

The Turkish security official acknowledged that there is more that the country could do, citing the need to train and deploy more security personnel to the Akcakale area. But the official said other countries had also failed.

“I fully agree that on our side, we can do more, we should do more,” the official said. Then the official expressed astonishment at Meissen’s disclosure that 550 jihadis had traveled to Syria from Germany, noting that the Germans to date have given Turkey only 110 names.

“There is a huge number they haven’t given us as a list,” said the official.

The dimensions of the problem are huge. Turkey shares an almost 550-mile long border with Syria. Its open-door refugee policy has resulted in some 2 million Syrians fleeing violence at home for refuge in Turkey.

Akcakale, a mostly Arab city of nominally 95,000, is packed with refugees. Formally, the border gate is closed, but for Syrians returning home it’s open three days a week and on demand.

On Thursday, hundreds of Syrians milled in front of the gate with suitcases and carts for hours until the gate opened then they quickly pushed through to the other side. There’s no fee, but all are fingerprinted as they depart Turkey, and all are supposed to be interviewed to determine if they’re really Syrians.

But in actual practice, hundreds, possibly thousands, can cross illegally at any untold number of spots away from the legitimate border crossing. One of the busiest illegal crossings is Buket, about 10 miles west of Akcakale, a hamlet of possibly 25 houses, reached on a bumpy, rutted, mud-covered road that can be located only by asking directions; there are no road signs.

A visitor asked Ahmad, a boy of about nine, whether it was possible to cross into Syria, and he replied: “People are always going to Syria.” He said his brother was a smuggler and would be happy to help. But he couldn’t remember his brother’s cell phone number. “Come back tomorrow, I’ll give you his number,” he said.

Turkish officials have taken steps to stop cross border smuggling. In Zenigova, about 10 miles east of Alcakale, the government has dug a ditch, installed lights and a barbed wire fence to prevent smuggling of any kind. But in the next village to the east, there are no lights and barriers, and residents recommended it as a crossing point.

The precautions that exist also are aimed primarily at Syrians trying to cross into Turkey. There’s a lot less scrutiny for those traveling to Syria, according to residents of the three villages visited by McClatchy. Cameras are set up on the border are pointed toward Syria, to prevent arrivals not to stop departures.

Boumeddiene’s role in the Paris terror killings isn’t known. French news reports say she and the wife of one of the Kouachi brothers spoke frequently on the phone and that the couples were close.

According to what authorities here have pieced together, she’d entered Turkey one week before the Kouachi brothers opened fire at the Charlie Hebdo offices and is believed to have crossed into Syria on Jan. 8, one day before her husband was killed as police raided the grocery store where he’d taken hostages.

Turkish authorities say she and a male companion immediately raised suspicion when they arrived Jan. 2 from Madrid at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport, the city’s secondary airport on the Asian side of the Bosporus and a rare destination for international travelers. Dressed in traditional Muslim clothing, she appeared mismatched to be traveling with a man who was not a relative – her companion has since been identified as Mehdi Belhoucine, 23, whose brother Mohammed was convicted of terrorism charges in France in 2010. The immigration inspector ordered that the pair be placed under surveillance.

The pair checked into the Bade Hotel, a modest hotel in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district on the Asian side of the Bosporus, where a double room costs $45 a night. According to Turkish media reports, hotel staff said the two left their room only twice during their two-night stay.

Turkish authorities gave up their surveillance two days after the pair arrived – why is not clear – but returned to the hotel on Jan. 7, after gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Boumeddiene and Belhoucine had checked out. When French police announced they were looking for her Jan. 9, Turkish authorities obtained her cell phone number and determined that she had entered Syria the previous day.

Officials in Akcakale appear deeply embarrassed that Boumeddiene escaped through the town. The governor of the district, Eyup Firat, received a McClatchy reporter cordially, but when asked how Boumeddiene had escaped to Syria, gave a brusque reply. “We have a standard,” he said. “We allow our Syrians to go to Syria.” As for Boumedienne and her companions, “She didn’t pass through our border gate. If she went in another way, I don’t know.” He then excused himself for another appointment.

The old gate though which she is said to have passed is about 300 yards from Firat’s office.

McClatchy special correspondent Duygu Guvenc contributed to this report.

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