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. To get a better sense of who these fighters are, we generated a new database with information on about 112 individuals who joined the jihadists. We used open sources such as newspapers, magazines, online news portals, forums, and blogs to collect biographical information. We also visited Turkey and attended Islamic circles with pro-jihadist views to develop a better understanding of the conditions under which Turks radicalize. 

The data set reveals several interesting patterns. The jihadists, who are all males, come from diverse social and economic backgrounds. They include lawyers, merchants, small-shop owners, university students, and government and private service employees. A surprisingly high number of them are married. Among the records we have, 31 are married with children and 37 are not married. The average educational attainment of the group is higher than the national average, and many of the recruits have stable jobs. The average age at the time of joining the jihad was 27, significantly older than Kurdish nationalist fighters in Turkey and Syria. Although the jihadists have diverse geographic and ethnic origins, Kurds are overrepresented in the sample. Many of the Kurds in Turkey traveled to Syria to fight against ISIS, but many others joined ISIS or other Islamist organizations Close to 50 percent of the sample, 51 recruits, are of Kurdish ethnicity. About a third of the fighters are veterans of earlier jihadist wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Seventeen of them had court records for their Islamic activities. Most of the rest, though, have no history of political activism.

These characteristics are surprising. Most of the literature on radicalization highlights the role of relative deprivation, the lack of a robust Muslim middle class, social networks that alienate young Muslims from the rest of the society, or victimization at the hands of repressive state authorities. But many of the Turkish fighters have stable family structures and are embedded in strong communal networks. Further, with Turkey having been ruled by an Islamist party for the last 12 years, most of the current fighters would have little or no direct experience of state religious repression. Unlike other countries in the region, moreover, Turkey has an expanding economy that has lifted large numbers of its citizens out of poverty. Although inequality among groups has not necessarily diminished, most Turkish citizens have become better off during the AKP era. And many of those who joined the jihad in Syria benefited from the increasing wealth.  

In other words, when it comes to radicalism in Turkey, something very unusual is going on.


According to conventional interpretations, Islam in Turkey stands as distinct from Salafi Islam in the rest of the region because Turkish Islamic movements have favored moderate and pragmatic rhetoric­—and active accommodation of Westernism and secularism—to win a space for religion in public and political life. The 1990s saw the rise of several violent Islamist groups in response to the Turkish military’s authoritarian secularism, but their appeal remained very limited. The rise of the ruling AKP and Gulen movement came to epitomize the possibility of a new Muslim model of governance incorporating piety, pluralism, secularism, and moderation. 

Over the course of its rule, the AKP has achieved impressive economic growth rates after a decade of economic mismanagement and political instability. Pious Muslims, who previously felt like second-class citizens, embraced AKP rule, which put them at the top of the hierarchy. For a long time, and especially after the Arab uprisings of 2011, the “Turkish model” appeared to offer a way out of the vicious cycle of authoritarian rule and illiberal Islamist populism that beset many Middle Eastern regimes.

Yet AKP rule came with some unintended consequences. For one, it led to much more civic activism overall, because AKP sponsored Islamic organizations both to please its core supporters and to promote a more pious society. And that burst of activism facilitated radicalization, because organizations had free rein to pursue their own intolerant and exclusive agendas as long as they did not challenge the AKP. The process has accelerated with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing monopolization of power. Press freedom has been in constant decline, judicial independence has been curtailed, and security services use disproportionate force against protesters and the like. Even as the institutions central to democratic functioning have eroded, Islamic activism has continued to flourish with few checks.

Both institutional (registered organizations) and informal (conversation groups, street gatherings, café groups, mosque groups) types of Islamic activism have expanded. In our fieldwork in Turkey, we found that jihadists exploited the freer civil space provided by the AKP to form conversation groups, turn bookstores into social centers, and recruit in mosques. For example, over 180 religious publishing houses and bookstores participated in a record-setting book fair during Ramadan in Istanbul. Iftars (Ramadan dinners) and the special tarawih prayers organized by religious groups, including those with ISIS sympathies, provided an environment for radicals to network. The increasing numbers of Syrian refugees brutalized by a vicious civil war provided an additional impetus to join up.

Overall, a flourishing civil society and decaying political institutions have created a radical-friendly environment in Turkey. And that presents a challenge to conventional thinking about the mutually reinforcing link between civil society, moderation, and democracy. Civil society has a dark side, and it might undermine democracy when that democracy doesn’t have strong checks and balances. This is particularly true in the informal sphere, where ad hoc and semi-clandestine networks compete with the government for loyalty.

This unique constellation of conditions in Turkey has contributed to the radicalization of educated and socially well-connected individuals. And that will make it all the harder to curb the appeal of jihadism. In fact, there is likely no silver bullet to the problem—just a continuation of the long, hard work of building a healthy civil society and the robust institutions that can steer it. 

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