Written by Andrew Arnett
All photos by Andrew Arnett
GAZIANTEP — Labeled as the “Jihadist Highway,” the Turkish city of Gaziantep has been thrust into the media spotlight due to its unique geographic location.
Its proximity, within 40 miles of the Syrian border, makes it a heavily used conduit for smugglers, refugees, humanitarians, journalists, secret agents and jihadists eager to join their brethren in the fight in Syria.
Not long ago, before the Syrian uprising in 2011, Gaziantep was known more for its world renowned baklava and pistachio cultivation. It is also famous for its copper-ware and “Yemeni sandals.”
With a population of 1.5 million, comprised mostly of working class families, one gets the feeling that Gaziantep would prefer keeping a lower profile, eschewing the notoriety that has been foisted upon it.
On December 3, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a warning stating militant groups may be planning an attack on certain locations inside Gaziantep.
The warning states that “extremist groups may be planning an attack against the Syrian Interim Government building located near the Fevzi çakmak park and the Kalyon Kavşagi roundabout in Gaziantep, Turkey. We remind U.S. citizens that the situation in southeast Turkey, while usually calm, can change without warning and U.S. citizens should avoid traveling in areas close to the Syrian border.”
The Syrian Interim Government building houses the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an internationally recognized group apposed to the Assad regime in Syria. This group was formed in November of 2013 and set up headquarters in Gaziantep early this year.
The Turkish-Syrian border is 560 miles long, and logistically, Gaziantep is the most feasible way for extremists to enter into Syria, thus journalists dub it the “Jihadist Highway.”
For the first two years of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey would turn a blind eye to the thousands of foreign fighters entering through Istanbul then flowing south over the border.
In addition, there is the smuggling of illicit oil supplies, through the same channels which move the jihadists.
According to The Independent, “Smuggling has become one of the few ways of eking out a living in these dangerous borderlands. Fuel is heavily taxed in Turkey, so cheaper products from Isis-controlled oil wells, crudely distilled, is shipped back into Turkey.”
On December 1, the New York Times reported on a 15-year old Muslim girl from France who had run away from home to join jihadists in Syria.
She was seen on surveillance cameras in Mulhouse airport in France, boarding a flight bound for Istanbul with a connection to Gaziantep.
This is one of scores of examples of young people from at least six western nations, including Canada, Britain, and the U.S., embarking on the exodus to join extremists in Syria.
The flow, of course, goes both ways. There are upwards of 200,000 Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, and another 180,000 being maintained by Turkey on the Syrian side. The situation has reached epidemic proportions and the UN food assistance program for the refugees has just run out of money for the month of December.
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