ISTANBUL, Turkey, (AP) -In a last letter to his parents before dying in a clash with American soldiers, a young Turk urged fellow Muslims to join him in Iraq to fight the U.S.-led coalition.
“Allah gave me the opportunity to defend the lands of Muslims,” Ebu Bekir Yigit said in a letter published in the pro-Islamic Vakit newspaper. “My mujahedeen brothers in Iraq are doing their best in your absence.”
That message, repeated on radical Islamic Web sites, suggests a trend of militants from Turkey crossing into Iraq to join the insurgency.
More than 60 Turkish militants, including several snipers, are known to be fighting in Iraq, an intelligence officer and two senior police officials in charge of anti-terrorism efforts said in interviews with The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Yigit was killed in Anbar province this year, according to the intelligence officer and an announcement on a Web site run by Turkish militants.
His letter — delivered to his family home in Istanbul — was publicized two weeks ago, just ahead of this week’s third anniversary of al-Qaeda suicide bombings of two synagogues and attacks days later on the British consulate and the local headquarters of HSBC bank. A total of 58 people died, along with four suicide bombers.
Dozens of Turkish Jews and Muslims cried and recited prayers Wednesday as they marked the bombing anniversary in ceremonies outside the rebuilt Neve Shalom and Beth Israel synagogues. Officials, religious leaders, and relatives laid red carnations on the streets where attacks took place.
Turkish officials fear the country could again become a target even though it opposes the war in Iraq, especially if militants return home.
“Iraq is indeed a training camp — or breeding ground — for militants and militant groups loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, and the longer this quagmire exists, the more anti-Western and anti-secular militants it will spawn,” said Dr. Peter Lehr of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Turkey — as both a secular state and a U.S. ally — is a target for Islamists who subscribe to al-Qaeda’s world view, he said.
Turkish militants and citizens of several European countries, including France and Belgium, have died in clashes and suicide bombings in Iraq. Among them was the alleged ringleader of the Istanbul bombings, Habib Akdas, who is believed to have been killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2004, according to Turkish police and his comrades. Akdas’ uncle identified his body from video footage, police said.
Other Turks, including Akdas’ brother, are being held at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and were caught before they could carry out attacks, police in Istanbul said. Turkey is seeking their extradition.
Emin Demirel, a Turkish terrorism expert, said going to Iraq to fight U.S.-led forces has strong appeal among some Turkish Muslims, and that images of attacks on mosques provide propaganda for recruitment efforts. U.S.-led forces have raided Iraqi mosques suspected of harboring militants or weapons caches.
In an Istanbul court this week, a suspect who proudly claimed responsibility for the attacks in the city in 2003 called for more bombings.
“Don’t relax: We should increase our support for jihad more than ever,” said Harun Ilhan. “With God’s help, we will be the ones that clinch victory.”
There are several homegrown radical Muslim groups in Turkey, but al-Qaeda’s austere and violent interpretation of Islam receives little public backing in the country, where a moderate understanding of Islam is predominant.
However, some radical Muslims regard Turkey’s friendship with Israel, the United States and Britain — as well as efforts to join the European Union — as tantamount to treason. The country is still debating the role of religion in the officially secular state.
“Al-Qaeda finds support in Turkey using the same tools and recruiting techniques that are ‘tried and true’ in other Western nations,” said Nick Pratt of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. “Some Turkish citizens are upset that they are not allowed to integrate in Europe, while other citizens are fearful of creeping modernization, which is perceived as destroying traditional life.”
The fall of Ebu Bekir Yigit while fighting in Iraq has made him a hero for like-minded Muslims.
“You might feel sorry for me time to time, but don’t forget I left home to help Muslims,” Yigit wrote. “You should be proud of me.”