On Tuesday morning, Turkish police in the border cities of Kilis and Gaziantep arrested 25 people on suspicion of aiding Jihadi fighters in neighbouring Syria, including two said to be high ranking Al Qaeda operatives. Seven Conservative MPs had flown out of Gaziantep less than twenty-four hours previously. I was with them, meeting with Syrian opposition leaders and observing Turkish efforts to house the refugees flowing across the border.
Most of those arrested have links to the IHH, a religious organization repeatedly accused of terrorism offenses by US politicians, and behind the ‘flotilla’ attempt to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza in 2010. But in Turkey, the IHH is both legal and popular, and it’s indisputable that it carries out genuine charitable efforts among the poor. On Saturday night, two minutes were all it took me to walk from the parliamentary delegation’s hotel to an IHH fundraising stall in the central square of Gaziantep, Istanbul’s sixth largest city. The large banners proclaim that they’re fundraising for humanitarian aid to starving Syrian children. But Gaziantep’s residents are in little doubt that many of the funds end up in the hands of Islamist fighters.
And over the border, it’s clear that extremist forces are gathering strength. In Syria, anti-Assad forces are fracturing and turning on themselves, with fierce fighting between Al Qaeda-backed ISIS and the allegedly liberal Free Syrian Army. So as I watched Free Syrian Army representatives beg British MPs to give them weaponry, they had an uphill struggle to convince the delegation that any such weapons would stay out of the hands of extremists, who recently captured several FSA warehouses.
In one meeting, Aleppo commander Colonel Aloquaidi swore to us to offer himself for execution if any weapons under his command were captured by terrorists.