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A Smuggler Explains How He Helped Fighters Along 'Jihadi Highway'

Alleged Islamic State militants stand next to an IS flag atop a hill in the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border in Suruc, Turkey, on Monday.
Aris Messinis AFP/Getty Images
Alleged Islamic State militants stand next to an IS flag atop a hill in the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border in Suruc, Turkey, on Monday.

Smoke rises from buildings in Syria's Kobani city on the Turkish-Syrian border, near Sanliurfa, on Monday.
Sedat Suna EPA/Landov
Smoke rises from buildings in Syria's Kobani city on the Turkish-Syrian border, near Sanliurfa, on Monday.

The Syrian smuggler agrees to meet at an outdoor cafe in Kilis, a town on the edge of Syria-Turkey frontier. As waiters deliver glasses of hot, sweet tea and Turks play dominoes at nearby tables, he talks about his role in the "Jihadi Highway" and why he finally decided to quit.

The smuggler is open about every aspect of the lucrative enterprise, except for revealing his name. He is well known to the militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, who paid him well for his skills. They would certainly kill him for speaking to a journalist.

Over the past two years, he says he helped hundreds of bearded young men, and in recent months, four young women, cross the Turkish border into Syria to join ISIS. In his mid-20s, he chain smokes as he explains that the Turks are finally shutting down the pipeline.

"All of us got a warning" from the Turkish border police, he says. "So, it's not easy to go to ISIS from the border."

But it's also not impossible, he says with a grin and glint of professional pride.

He says he is not a religious radical. He needed to support his family as the Syrian civil war dragged on. He decided to quit when more moderate rebels threatened him. They now control the Syrian side of the border across from the Turkish town of Kilis. The moderate rebels wanted the smuggling routes closed to stop more fighters from joining the ranks of ISIS.

Smuggling is a good business, he says with a shrug: "The money is very good, but you feel you are bad."

He now sees the danger. But in 2012, when he began his work, he believed he was helping the Syrian revolution that began as peaceful protests against an oppressive regime.

As the Syrian regime stepped up the violence and it became clear there was no prospect for international support, local rebels welcomed the international recruits willing to fight and die in Syria. They said they came for jihad.

"They are excited people and don't think about the risks," he says.

It was easy work, says the smuggler, as they arrived in Turkish airports along the border.

"In the beginning, the Turkish people closed their eyes," he explains. He greeted bearded men with foreign accents who came without luggage. They arrived from all over the world.

At the airport, he says, some Turks voiced their support.

"Good luck for jihad in Syria," they would say, and the smuggler believed he had Turkey's tacit support.

Even when his clients were young women, no one stopped him. They were young, he says, between 17 and 20, from Tunisia, Morocco, one came from Britain. They had met militant fighters online and came for marriage and jihad.

The Jihadi Highway from Turkey to Syria has long been an open secret, well documented by the international media, Syrian activists and the Turkish press. The militants were often spotted in border towns buying supplies before crossing into Syria to join ISIS.

Vice President Joe Biden said in a speech at Harvard University's Kennedy School last week that "our allies in the region were our largest problem," in promoting the growth of radical groups.

Biden said that U.S. allies, including Turkey, were so determined to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad that they channeled money and guns to anyone willing to fight.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was incensed, and Biden has apologized. The diplomatic spat comes at a sensitive time, as the U.S. wants Turkey to join the anti-ISIS coalition.

"The Turkish government steadfastly denies that it has ever helped (ISIS)," says Soli Ozel, a specialist in international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

But the Turkish media has documented tacit backing, says Ozel, including "turning a blind eye, allowing them to come and be treated in Turkish hospitals when they are wounded."

Turkish analysts say the indirect support was based on Turkey's gamble as the Syrian revolt raged on that the militants would boost the rebel cause in the absence of Western support.

Turkey was slow to see the danger even as Washington began to raise the alarm. In recent weeks, Turkey has stepped up border patrols and arrested suspected militants.

But the ISIS threat is now a direct domestic danger with the spread of radical Islam in Turkey, says Ozel. There are reports that more than a thousand Turks have already joined the militants with support cells inside the country.

"We know these guys had recruitment offices in different parts of the country," says Ozel, as ISIS targeted Turkish youth and others, "who may not like their methods by sympathize with their ideology."

The sympathy has been on display at Istanbul University, where ISIS supporters openly attacked anti-ISIS students. Last week, a mosque in Istanbul's Fatih neighborhood offered prayers for militants killed in U.S. airstrikes. These are small details, says Ozel, but indicate an alarming trend. It will be part of Turkey's calculation as it considers a role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.