Al Qaeda Flummoxes Belated Western Efforts to Track Jihadis Entering and Exiting Syria
As the Syrian war enters its fourth year, the US Department of Homeland Security is at long last building a database to identify and keep track of the movements of the 8-10,000 foreign fighters in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda-Syria) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Also participating in the nascent project to trail the jihadists through Syria and Iraq are a long list of concerned host countries: Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Australia, Canada, Malaysia and Indonesia.
American counterterrorism agencies are hoping for Iranian assistance, too.
Notably absent from this list of participants is Turkey and its National Intelligence Agency (MIT), DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources note.
The non-cooperation of MIT and its chief Haikan Fidan is a very serious omission. It is the only agency of any NATO country with an accurate list of the foreign fighters who have slipped into Syria via Turkey since 2011. The Turkish records have names, photos, aliases, dates of entry and departure, and often the dates of repeat entries to Syria.
Turkey has best information, but withholds cooperation
Had Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan acceded to US President Barack Obama’s repeated requests to hand this information over to the FBI or NATO headquarters in Brussels, the new database would have won a running start with a catalogue of the 1,000-2,500 American and European jihadists known to have entered Syria via Turkey.
Without it, the compilers of the data base are fumbling in the dark with no more than scrappy and anecdotal information on the whereabouts of wanted Islamists, and no clue to suspects who may have departed Syria and are plotting mass terrorist assaults in US, Canadian or European cities.
Washington has declined to comment on Ankara’s refusal to cooperate, preferring not to exacerbate the already fraught relations between Obama and Erdogan.
The Erdogan government, for its part, is convinced that Syria and its Iranian and Hizballah allies will win the civil war, and is playing its cards close to its chest. Eventually, the precious inventory of jihadists may serve Ankara as a bargaining chip with Tehran and Hizballah.
The jihadists weave back and forth with new passports
But Turkey’s reticence isn’t the only obstacle to building the database. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources cite two more hurdles:
1. Al Qaeda’s logistics and intelligence apparatuses anticipated the possibility of its fighters being stalked and made allowances for this by switching their ID documents. The compilers of the Washington database noticed that Al Qaeda fighters heading for Turkey in recent weeks stopped off first in Sweden or Morocco. Jihadist recruitment centers in Stockholm and other Swedish towns, as well as in Rabat and Marrekech, issued them with new passports and fake identities.
Fighters making multiple entries to Syria received new documents each time they returned.
Al Qaeda’s intelligence branch, which the West had discounted as inactive or ineffective, has managed to turn the work of assembling an Islamic terrorist database into a Sisyphean task.
Multiple names for the same person must be crosschecked with passenger manifests from the last four years of air travel flights from the US, Canada, Asia and Europe to Sweden and Morocco, then to Turkey and back again.
2. American CIA and NSA satellites and advanced tracking equipment have proved unequal to the tasks of monitoring the routes taken by these fighters for entry to Syria and Iraq, or tailing them on the battlefield.