Turkey airport police hunt extremists en route to Syria

Turkey airport police hunt extremists en route to Syria

ISTANBUL - Agence France-Presse
Turkey airport police hunt extremists en route to Syria

Passengers wait at the passport control check desk of the international airport in Istanbul on Jan. 29. AFP photo

Everything seems normal as the passengers stream out of a routine flight from a Middle Eastern country after landing at a major Turkish international airport.

But as they cross the air bridge from the plane into the airport, two plainclothes Turkish police - on the lookout for jihadists on their way to Syria -- scrutinize their appearance and behavior.

They check the passengers' passports and detain two men who arouse suspicions after saying they are travelling on to the city of Adana, in southern Turkey.

The country has long been under pressure to do more to thwart the transit of jihadists across its territory to war-torn Syria. Thousands are believed to have taken commercial flights to Turkish airports before heading overland to Syria to fight alongside Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants.

But Ankara insists it is now doing all it can to tighten border security and said Western states should do more to prevent the jihadists from leaving for Turkey in the first place.

Turkey has clearly been stung by the criticism, and last year it established "risk analysis centers" at international airports and bus terminals across the country in order to spot extremists and deport them.

Eager to show the extent of the measures now in place round the clock at Turkish transport hubs, the Turkish authorities gave AFP unusual access to its security teams at the airport.

The teams have detected some 1,500 suspects and around one third of them were sent back to their countries of origin, a Turkish security official told AFP in an interview.

"The suspect is spotted at the air bridge and then taken to the passenger documents check desk and later to the risk analysis center for a further interview with the police," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

During the process the authorities can communicate with the countries of origin if necessary.

Eyes turned to Turkey when Hayat Boumeddiene, the partner of an Islamist militant who took part in the January 7 Paris attacks, flew to Istanbul, passed through immigration -and then the entire country- without being stopped.

Ankara says it cannot assure 100 percent border security unless Western states provide real time intelligence and full lists of suspects, which was not the case with Boumeddiene.

"In the past intelligence sharing was weak," said the official, adding that it was enhanced after the Paris attacks but "it is not considered sufficient."   

He said: "35 percent of (ISIL) members come from European countries and hold European passports." 

Up to 600 Turkish nationals have joined Islamist militants but this does "not place Turkey in the top 10 source countries," according to the official.

A 33-year-old terror suspect, identified only by his initials S.L., was held at Istanbul's international airport by Turkish police in June last year after arriving on a flight from Paris exhibiting "suspicious behavior." During the interview it emerged that he had converted to Islam very recently and planned to join ISIL, authorities told AFP.

In another incident, police confiscated military equipment, binoculars and first aid material from a Norwegian suspect last year.

"How can an individual with military equipment in his bag [on his way] to join DAISH be completely unnoticed in the country of departure?" the official said, using an Arabic acronym for the ISIL group.             
Meanwhile, jihadists are now going out of their way to appear normal when entering Turkey, down to shaving off the long beards traditionally worn by conservative Muslims.

"Shaving the beard or changing appearance does not mean that suspects will not be spotted," the official said.

Psychological testing in interview rooms helps determine whether suspects are to be sent back. For those deemed suspicious, authorities draw up a confidential document outlining their justification for deportation, place it in an envelope and give it to the airline to be delivered to the country of origin.

"Airline companies are responsible for the passengers they carry," the official said.

The two suspects who said they were headed for Adana are taken to the risk analysis center in a small room nearby for further questioning.

Officials declined to give any hint about their ultimate fate.