Radical Turks

Why Turkish Citizens are Joining ISIS

Turkish demonstrators in Istanbul, November 5, 2014. Osman Orsal / Courtesy Reuters

The past few weeks have seen a wave of Muslims from all around the world joining the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Although most of the attention has been on those coming from the United States and Europe, the bulk of foreign fighters has actually come from Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey.

The flow of jihadists from Turkey is particularly puzzling. For one, in the past, Turkish citizens have not joined jihadist groups such as al Qaeda in large numbers. In addition, ISIS advances in Iraq and Syria have come at a high cost to the Turkish people. During the assault on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in October, for example, Turkish Kurds took to the street in large numbers, protesting Ankara’s inaction. Riots left around 50 people dead. More than a thousand buildings, including schools, banks, health centers, and administrative offices, were burned to the ground. Business confidence in the Kurdish provinces was severely undermined. Finally, the appeal of radicalism is hard to square with Turkey’s image as a role model of Muslim democracy. The country has a history of electoral democracy going back to 1950, longer than any other Muslim-majority nation in the world, and has been ruled by a moderate Islamist party since 2002. Theorists have long posited that Islamist political participation would diminish radicalism as Islamists become stakeholders in the existing system.

In fact, radicalization in Turkey is peculiarly suited to the evolution in recent years of the country’s civil society and political institutions under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—and, in turn, the types of Turks who have been caught up in the jihadist net make for unusual recruits.


According to recent reports, around 1,000 Turkish citizens have joined ISIS and several hundred have joined Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda branch in Syria. These numbers likely underestimate the real scope of jihadist mobilization in Turkey, owing to the weak patrolling along the Turkish-Syrian border.

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