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Once Gateways, Turkey's Border Towns Now Close Doors On Islamic State


Before the Islamic State swept into Iraq to wage war, it was building up its forces with the help of Turkey. The Washington Post reports that Turkish towns along the Syrian border rolled out the red carpet for Islamist fighters to aid them in their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The border towns served as gateways for the Islamic State to move foreign fighters and equipment into Syria. Militants stockdd up on supplies in Turkey and were even treated in its hospitals. Well, now Turkey is cracking down on the jihadists, but it may be too little too late. Souad Mekhennet cowrote the story in the Washington Post, and she now joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SOUAD MEKHENNET: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: First, how long ago was this that Turkey was essentially aiding what's become known now as the Islamic state?

MEKHENNET: Well, it hasn't been that long ago that people - also high-level members of ISIS or the Islamic State had access to Turkey and were treated at Turkish hospitals. So we know, for example, of about one high-level ISIS fighter who was there just six months ago.

SIEGEL: And as for the flow of material across the border, was it flowing freely? Were the Turks just letting it go through?

MEKHENNET: Well, it depends on how you - who you talk to. You know, if you talk to members from the Turkish government, of course they're saying we've been tracking down on ISIS for a long time. But then on the other hand, if you go to the border region and you talk to politicians - local politicians and also members - especially members from the opposition, they are telling us that actually they know about cases just like two months ago where some trucks were stopped by local policeman, but the government asked actually the people to let them go through Syria. And inside the trucks, according to these witnesses, they did not find help supplies as it was stated in the documents. What they found were weapons.

SIEGEL: Now, you interviewed a security commander with ISIS, now the Islamic State that is, in the town of Reyhanli, Turkey. How much of his group's success did he attribute to the porous border and the aid that the fighters received from Turkey?

MEKHENNET: Actually, quite a lot. According to Abu Yusaf - this is how he called himself - ISIS was able to bring in fighters but also weapons via Turkey into Syria. And these equipments and also these people - these manpower - had been used in order to gain the trust of Sunni tribal chiefs in Iraq in the area of Mosul. And then also because of the help of fighters coming via Turkey, they were able to be successful in Iraq. So according to Abu Yusaf, the ISIS commander, Turkey played a very big role in that.

SIEGEL: Well, what's different now - that is, would senior jihadists find it more difficult to get treatment in a Turkish hospital? Is it tougher at least to get a truck across the border filled with weapons? What are the signs of Turkey's crackdown?

MEKHENNET: It is difficult, and they are not stupid. I mean, even Abu Yusaf told us we know that now the whole region is full of intelligence services, and we therefore are no longer really treat our people in Turkey. But he also clearly said we no longer need to because we do have hospitals. We do have access to equipment in Mosul. I mean, we're talking about U.S. equipment that the U.S. had given to the Iraqi military, and now they have access to that. He said they no longer are really in need of basically getting weapons from Turkey or via Turkey into the Islamic State, but for now he confirmed to us that there are still fighters traveling via Turkey into Syria and then also to Iraq.

SIEGEL: Despite Turkey's taking a dim view of the Islamic State?

MEKHENNET: Absolutely. And I mean, you know, one of the biggest proofs here for this is we were able to meet this person on the Turkish side in Reyhanli, as we also wrote in the article. And he used smugglers, but he also confirmed that there are still people coming in from north Africa, from Europe, even from the United States who are smuggled into Syria via Turkey.

SIEGEL: Souad Mekhennet, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MEKHENNET: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Journalist Souad Mekhennet cowrote the story in the Washington Post about Turkey's recent crackdown on Islamist fighters. She's a visiting fellow at Harvard, Johns Hopkins University and the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.