TIME world affairs

Europe Has a Jihadi Superhighway Problem

Michael McCaul is the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Extremists are exploiting EU security gaps to exit Syria and Iraq and return to the West undetected, leading to a “terrorist diaspora”

Foreign fighters headed to the Middle East are not deterred by U.S. bombing in Syria and Iraq. According to recent reports, 1,000 fighters from countries across the globe are pouring into the conflict zone each month to fight with ISIS and other fanatics, adding to the 16,000 already estimated to have gone there.

The bad news is that Westerners are among their ranks, including Americans and Europeans, who are only a plane flight away from our shores. More troubling is that security gaps in Europe—and Turkey in particular—make it easier for them to return to the West undetected once they decide to leave.

The threat from “returnees” is real and growing. These battle-hardened, violent Islamists have the training and extremist networks to plot deadly terrorist attacks against our homeland. We’ve already seen returning fighters conduct attacks in places like Belgium, and with a continuous trickle of extremists departing the conflict zone, the danger is getting greater each day. In testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security in September, FBI Director James Comey warned that we need to brace ourselves for a wider “terrorist diaspora” out of Syria and Iraq.

It has always been a challenge to disrupt terrorist travel, but I believe some of our European partners are not moving quickly enough to confront the return of foreign fighters. Extremists have already managed to exploit Europe’s security gaps and transform it into a jihadi superhighway. The inbound lane to Syria is clearly busy, but it is the outbound lane we should be especially worried about.

Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia, is the biggest concern. It remains the primary foreign fighter transit point. Some Turkish officials acknowledge their long, porous border with Syria is used by foreign fighters to get to the battlefield, yet their recent efforts to enhance border security do not instill confidence that they will be able to stop the foreign fighter flow anytime soon.

The Turkish government has beefed up its terror watch list. But the list is useful only if Turkey is screening against it, and the country’s air passenger screening capabilities are not where they need to be. Moreover, it is unclear how rigorously Turkey is screening outgoing passengers to identify possible foreign fighters headed back home from Syria, and even when they do, some Turkish officials say they are not getting enough information from European partners about who they should stop.

Extremists are quickly finding even more vulnerable transit points. They have reportedly begun to use cruise ships to get into the country, taking advantage of Turkey’s more lax security rules for sea passengers. This is a startlingly easy way for fighters to exit the region, too.

Equally worrisome is that terrorists might use refugee groups as a Trojan Horse to get into the West. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have poured into Turkey this year, and many of them have left for other European countries by boat. It is unclear whether extremists are hiding in these groups, as few are comprehensively screened on the way out.

Unfortunately, the Mediterranean countries where these refugees are headed, like Italy and Greece, also have a disincentive to screen them. Overwhelmed by large migrant populations drawing on social services, these governments have a reason to “look the other way” and let unregistered migrants make their way into the rest of Europe to become another country’s problem. These transit routes are disturbingly susceptible to terrorist exploitation.

Wider European Union security gaps are also a problem. EU law forbids member states from automatically running EU citizens against terror watch lists when they return to the continent’s 26-country Schengen Area, a large swath of Europe in which its citizens can travel freely without border checks. As a result, only a fraction of EU citizens are screened against terror databases when they re-enter Europe. This vulnerability may allow European foreign fighters—many of whom can travel visa-free to the United States—to make it back to the West without drawing attention.

Other EU security deficiencies can also make it easier for American extremists to travel back from the conflict zone, including the lack of an advanced EU-wide air passenger information screening system and inadequate fraudulent document detection capabilities.

In all too many ways, Europe is in a pre-9/11 counterterrorism posture. Many countries have legal barriers that prevent law enforcement and intelligence agencies from cooperating effectively, EU member states often share information in an ad hoc and decentralized way, and a number of states lack the necessary laws to prosecute foreign fighters even when they are detected.

The EU has begun to discuss how to fix some of these gaps. But it is tough to reach consensus in the EU, which is why individual member states need to begin building up their own capacity to combat this threat with or without the Union. The United States stands ready to provide assistance and share lessons learned from our own post-9/11 experience improving terrorist “tripwires.”

We also have our own work to do. The U.S. government has not released a strategy for combating terrorist travel since 2006, and watchdog groups have identified vulnerabilities in everything from U.S. biometric information collection to visa security. The Obama Administration has taken positive steps to reconcile some of these deficiencies, including recently enhancing security at overseas airports and requiring more information from foreign passengers prior to travel, but we need to do much more.

Accordingly, the House Committee on Homeland Security is launching a comprehensive review of U.S. government efforts to deter, detect and disrupt terrorist travel. This investigation is also looking closely at foreign fighter travel routes and security gaps our foreign partners can help us fill.

Connecting the dots to catch terrorists is not an easy task for a single nation, let alone a group of them like the EU. But if we do not work together better to improve our defenses—and quickly—we will be meeting the threat face-to-face at home, not overseas.

Michael McCaul is the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Turkey

Islamist Militants Are Setting Off to Wage Jihad by Boarding Cruise Ships

Cruising jihadists aren't ponying up for some wholesome, organized fun — they're en route to Syria and Iraq to fight for groups like ISIS

Interpol says foreigners seeking to join Islamist militant groups are beginning to take cruise ships to their war-torn destinations rather than go through airports, where the security is comparatively much tighter.

“There is evidence that the individuals, especially in Europe, are traveling mostly to Izmit and other places to engage in this type of activity,” said Pierre St. Hilaire, director of counterterrorism at Interpol, reports the Associated Press.

Izmit is a coastal town in Turkey, which is a popular gateway into Syria and Iraq for foreigners bent on joining militant forces like ISIS.

Seeking to close the loophole, international police speaking in Monaco also announced plans to expand I-Checkit, a program that lets airlines, banks and hotels screen customer passport information against Interpol’s database of Stolen and Lost Travel Documents.

I-Checkit has been tested at AirAsia, a low-cost airline based in Southeast Asia, and has since June led to 18 people not being allowed to board their flights because of security concerns raised.

Read more at the Associated Press.

TIME Turkey

Here’s How Much Turkey’s Lavish Presidential Palace Costs

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves the construction of new presidential palace built inside Ataturk Forest Farm with the official presidency car in Ankara, Turkey on Oct. 16, 2014.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves the construction of new presidential palace built inside Ataturk Forest Farm with the official presidency car in Ankara, Turkey on Oct. 16, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Critics say President Erdogan's extravagance is a sign of his self-righteousness

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidential palace, over 30 times the size of the White House and four times the size of Versailles, is costing Turkey $615 million, the country’s finance minister said Tuesday.

The lavish residence, which had an expected price tag of $315 million, comes with a $185 million Airbus presidential jet tailored to Erdogan’s design preferences, according to Bloomberg.

For years, the former Turkish Prime Minister had been accused of abusing taxpayers’ money when he helped design the extravagant, 1,000-room building known as the White Palace. Several court orders were ineffective in stopping the construction and expansion of the building, which totals over 3.1 million square feet.

Erdogan’s critics believe the mega mansion is a sign that he feels superior to the law that governs the country, an economist at GlobalSource Partners told Bloomberg. Other critics have likened Erdogan’s palace to the People’s Palace built by Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was infamous for his brutal and repressive regime.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Advertising

Turkish Company Accidentally Features 9/11 Terrorist in Hair Removal Ad

"We featured him for his hair, not terrorism"

A Turkish cosmetics company is defending itself after it accidentally used a picture of a former al-Qaeda leader in a hair removal ad.

The ad features a chest-up image of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as the “principal architect” of the 9/11 attacks, alongside Turkish words that translate to “The hair will not go away because you keep waiting!” according to Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s oldest English-language daily.

“We didn’t know that he was a terrorist. This image is in popular use in Turkish memes on the Internet. The guy is quite hairy, so we thought his body was a good fit for our ad,” a spokeswoman for the company told Hurriyet. “We didn’t want to imply anything political. We didn’t know that it could become an international story. I repeat: We featured him for his hair, not terrorism.”

The spokeswoman said the company had discovered the memes using Mohammed on an online community website similar to 4chan. The photo had circulated around the Internet after its release by the U.S. government in 2003 when Mohammed was captured, according to Vox.

[Hurriyet Daily News]

TIME Turkey

Boat Sinks Off Turkey, Killing 24 Migrants

Rescuers retrieve a boat that sank, killing 24 migrants, off the Black Sea village of Garipce near Istanbul on Nov. 3, 2014.
Rescuers retrieve a boat that sank, killing 24 migrants, off the Black Sea village of Garipce near Istanbul on Nov. 3, 2014. Osman Orsal—Reuters

Migrants may have been travelling from the Middle East to Romania

At least 24 people have died after a boat carrying migrants believed to be from Afghanistan and Syria sank Monday in the Bosphorus Strait.

The Turkish coast guard said 24 bodies have been recovered and seven people rescued from where the Strait meets the Black Sea. Rescue crews are searching for other passengers by air and sea.

This year hundreds of thousands of migrants have tried to reach the European Union, making dangerous journeys across sea and land. The BBC reports that the refugees may have been trying to reach Romania, a member state of the European Union.

[AP]

TIME Bizarre

The 32 Most Surprising Photos of the Month

From the return of Kim Jong Un to spooky Halloween traditions, TIME shares the most outrageous and intriguing images from October 2014

TIME Syria

Kurds Welcome Backup to End ISIS Siege of Syrian Border Town

Mideast Iraq
A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier reaches out his hand to supporters, at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing, in the Northern Kurdish Region of Iraq, Oct. 29, 2014. Bram Janssen—AP

Turkey allows Kurdish troops to cross into Kobani

Kurdish fighters in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani welcomed the arrival of a vanguard of fighters from Syria and Iraq on Wednesday, despite fears that the reinforcements are too small to end the siege.

Around 50 troops from the Syrian Free Army crossed into Kobani from Turkey on Wednesday, to stiffen the town’s resistance to fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Also on Wednesday, a convoy dispatched by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq carrying supplies, weapons, and 70 peshmerga, or Kurdish fighters, crossed into Turkey and began making its way to Kobani by road. A separate group of 80 peshmerga arrived by plane in the Turkish town Sanliurfa, an hour’s drive from the Syrian border, before dawn.

The peshmerga will have their own command structure, according to KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee, but they will coordinate with U.S. Syrian Kurdish forces. They will not be involved in direct combat, he added, but will instead provide “artillery backup” for the city’s defenders. “Targeting will be provided by forces operating on the ground.”

Anwar Muslim, the head of the local government of Kobani, said he was confident that the arrival of the troops from Iraq and Syria would help end the almost month-long siege. U.S. airstrikes in Kobani and ground attacks by the Kurdish militia defending the city had destroyed “about 70% of Daesh’s heavy artillery weapons,” he told TIME, referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym. “The peshmerga will give us huge support and perhaps now we’ll finish the job in a very short time.”

But the arrival of a small contingent of soldiers is not guaranteed to stop ISIS from taking over the town. Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cautioned against premature optimism. “As long as there’s no additional pressure on ISIS elsewhere, they will continue to reinforce their forces near Kobani,” he said. “Without a more comprehensive strategy to combat ISIS, this is not a permanent solution. Kobani may still fall.”

The U.S. said it carried out eight airstrikes near Kobani on Tuesday and Wednesday but it is limited by Turkey’s refusal to allow the U.S to carry out combat missions from NATO bases in Turkey.

Ulgen said that Turkey would not do more to fight ISIS unless the U.S. commits to eliminating the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. “A real game changer,” he said, “would be for the U.S. and Turkey to come to terms about the main elements of campaign against ISIS.”

For over a month, Ankara refused calls to relieve the outgunned Kurdish forces in Kobani, insisting that the militia was little more than the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U. list as a terror group. “For Turkey, the PKK and ISIS are the same,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month.

On Oct. 20, after the U.S. parachuted weapons to the Kurds in Kobani, the Ankara government announced that it would finally allow Kurdish troops from Iraq to cross Turkey to aid fighters in Kobani.

“For Turkey, regardless of whether its hand was forced by the U.S., this was a smart move,” says Mr. Ulgen. The deployment will help Turkey deflect claims that it has been appeasing ISIS, he says, and change the balance of forces on the ground to its advantage.

“Erdogan and the government didn’t want to be seen as directly helping a PKK linked group,” he says. “With the peshmerga now on the ground, it will be easier to give a green light to further logistical aid to Kobani.”

TIME Syria

US Airdrop to Kurdish Fighters Seized by ISIS

Syrian Kurds Battle IS To Retain Control Of Kobani
Smoke rises through the air after an explosion rocks Syrian city of Kobane on October 20, 2014. Gokhan Sahin—Getty Images

ISIS-affiliated social media accounts posted sarcastic "thank you" notes to social media

A U.S. airdrop intended to arm Kurdish fighters in northern Syria ended up in the hands of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters, local activists said Tuesday, underscoring the challenge of arming Kurdish fighters along fluid and ill-defined battle lines.

ISIS-affiliated social media accounts filled with images of what appeared to be the intercepted weapons cache, which included ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades, along with sarcastic thank you notes to “Team USA.” Activists for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Associated Press that ISIS fighters had seized at least one package.

The U.S. deployed three C-130 cargo planes on Monday to airdrop supplies to the embattled bordertown of Kobani, as Kurdish forces struggled to repel an onslaught of IS fighters near the Turkish border.

[AP]

TIME Turkey

Why Turkey Changed Course on Kobani

Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani on Oct. 19, 2014.
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani on Oct. 19, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

The NATO ally announced on Monday that it would let Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross its border with Syria to join the fight against ISIS

Turkey’s announcement on Monday that it will help Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross its border to fight jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) appeared to signal a major shift in Ankara’s attitude towards the fight against ISIS. Until then, Turkey had refused to allow Iraqi Kurdish forces to travel across its border to join the fight taking place in the besieged town of Kobani, just a few kilometers to the south. It has now dipped its toe, albeit indirectly, into the battle – and analysts believe pressure from the United States is likely behind the move.

“Turkey has been resisting pressure to cooperate more closely with the U.S.-led coalition, but at the end of the day, the realities do assert themselves,” says Fadi Hakura, head of the Turkey project at London think-tank Chatham House. Turkey’s reluctance to assist Kurdish fighters in the battle in Kobani – which has been going on for over a month – is rooted in its fraught relationship with the country’s own Kurdish political movement. The Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., NATO and the European Union, waged a 30-year campaign against the Turkish state to try to secure political rights and self-determination for Kurds in Turkey. Ankara’s view is that the Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS across the border under the banner of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) are little more than an extension of the PKK. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted on Sunday as saying “the PYD is for us, equal to the PKK. It is a terror organization.” Hakura says close links between the two groups help explain Ankara’s refusal to help Syrian Kurds push back ISIS advances, since Turkey fears the potential creation of a powerful Kurdish fighting force that would straddle the Turkish-Syrian border.

Though a peace process between Turkey and the PKK began to develop in 2013, it has come increasingly under threat in recent weeks. Hakura says one major reason for Turkey’s “abrupt reversal” to allow fighters into Kobani is that “the Turkish government does not want its peace negotiations with the PKK to falter due to the developments in Kobani.” But Aaron Stein, associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, says that Turkey’s announcement on Monday should not be seen as a change in policy at all, since Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated the apparent threat the PYD poses to the region. He said that like ISIS, the PYD “aim to have control over a certain part of Syria” and as long as it holds these ambitions, Turkey would not support them.

“This recent decision is more an outcome of Turkish isolation, rather than Turkish inclusion,” says Stein, who believes Turkey was “terrified” of international isolation and “left with no choice” by the actions of the U.S.-led coalition. Turkey had opposed U.S. arms transfers to Kurdish fighters in Kobani, but the U.S. went ahead on Sunday night and air-dropped weapons and ammunition to soldiers in the area. According to Stein, “the U.S. is now firmly driving this aspect of policy. Whether you agree with the policy or not, we’re seeing definitive outcomes” of the continued air strikes and the overnight air drops, which seem to have pushed ISIS onto the defensive. Hakura also highlighted the impact of mounting pressure on Turkey, saying that since Turkey is a member of NATO and the U.S. is its main source of arms, it could no longer try to block U.S. plans in Syria and Iraq. As the U.S. began to coordinate more closely with the Syrian PYD fighters on the ground, “Turkey felt a strong desire to intervene to balance the dynamics and not be isolated.”

The strategic impact of Turkey’s decision remains to be seen, since it is not yet clear how many Iraqi Kurdish fighters will end up crossing the border to help the fight in Kobani. In any case, officials say the ultimate outcome of the besieged town is unlikely to change the course of what will be a long, protracted war against ISIS, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stating on Oct. 12, “Kobani does not define the strategy of the coalition.” But as Hakura points out “the fall of Kobani could be seen as a psychological setback” for those who have been fighting ISIS in past weeks. And as the U.S.-led coalition has no doubt been hoping, Turkey’s new position may well make it easier to secure Kobani, a town which holds – at the very least – considerable symbolic value in the fight against ISIS.

Read next: Turkey Will Help Iraqi Kurds Join Fight Against ISIS in Syria

TIME Turkey

Turkey Will Help Iraqi Kurds Join Fight Against ISIS in Syria

TURKEY-SYRIA-KURDS-CONFLICT
Kurdish people watch the Syrian town of Kobane from the Turkish border in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province, on Oct. 19, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

A shift in Ankara

Turkey said Monday that it will help Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross its border to fight militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) who have besieged a city in Syria.

“We are helping peshmerga forces cross into Kobani,” the BBC quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying in a news conference. He didn’t give any further details.

Turkey has come under pressure to increase its support for the international coalition fighting ISIS, and the announcement represents a significant shift from Ankara. Until now, Turkey has refused to allow Kurdish fighters to cross into Syria because of links between Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s own separatist rebels. The announcement came just hours after the U.S. made multiple airdrops of weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to Kurdish forces in Kobani, who now appear to be gaining the upper hand against ISIS.

[BBC]

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