BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio speaks to an ISIS operative in Turkey about the group’s efforts to smuggle fighters to the West.
BuzzFeedNews (Jan 30) — ANTAKYA, Turkey — An ISIS operative traveled across the Syrian border late last year, settled in a Turkish port city, and began work on a mission to sneak jihadis into Europe. It has been successful, he said, in an interview near the Turkey-Syria border: “Just wait.”
The operative, a Syrian in his thirties with a close-cropped black beard, said ISIS is sending covert fighters to Europe — as did two smugglers who said they have helped. He smuggles them from Turkey in small groups, he said, hidden in cargo ships filled with hundreds of refugees. He said the fighters intend to fulfill ISIS’s threat to stage attacks in the West. He views this as retaliation for U.S.-led airstrikes against the group that began in Iraq last summer and Syria last fall. “If someone attacks me,” he said, speaking with BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity, “then for sure I will attack them back.”
Western governments worried even before the airstrikes that ISIS would find ways to get its battle-hardened fighters across their borders. The operative is the first ISIS member involved in these plans to discuss them with the press. He detailed a scheme that takes advantage of the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation, which has sent 3.8 million refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, pouring more than 1.5 million into Turkey alone.
From Turkish port cities like Izmir and Mersin, many thousands of these refugees have ventured across the sea, aiming mainly for Italy. Then they often make for more welcoming countries like Sweden and Germany, turning themselves over to authorities and appealing for asylum. The operative said he worked with smugglers to slip fighters into this chaotic human tide. “They are going like refugees,” he said.
Two refugee-smugglers in Turkey said they helped ISIS send fighters to Europe in this way. One put more than 10 of them on his ships, then got cold feet when asked to send more, he told BuzzFeed News last fall. Another said he’d been sending ISIS fighters for months and continues to do so. “I’m sending some fighters who want to go and visit their families,” he said in an interview in southern Turkey, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Others just go to Europe to be ready.”
Among his colleagues in the port city where he works, the smuggler has a reputation for transporting fighters. BuzzFeed News contacted him after meeting the ISIS operative, seeking to investigate the operative’s claims. At first he denied that he smuggled fighters at all; then he said he needed “permission” to discuss the issue with a journalist. Soon after he revealed that he worked for the ISIS operative, who confirmed this and allowed the interview.
Despite crackdowns from Turkish authorities, ISIS continues to move its fighters across a porous, 565-mile border that has long been a transit point for jihadis traveling to and from Syria’s war. Those who need them are given fake Syrian passports, the smuggler said, which can be relatively easy to obtain. After he receives the fighters, the smuggler said, he puts them up in a hotel, waiting for the passenger list for the refugee ship to fill and the weather to be right. They leave Turkey like any refugees: on small boats that steal them away to cargo ships anchored in international waters. The smuggler said he had 10 fighters waiting in one port city, “and we will send them on the next ship.”
… ISIS has more than 20,000 foreigners in its ranks, according to one recent estimate, with more than one-fifth of them citizens or residents of Western European countries. If these jihadis return to Europe in refugee ships, they can travel home via open land borders that receive far less scrutiny than airport security. The ships could also land Syrian or other Middle Eastern fighters in Europe amid the confusion of a refugee crisis that worsens by the day.