'Broken travel' keeps ISIS' Western recruits off the radar of intelligence agencies

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Marco Werman: If efforts to change the minds of young would-be ISIS recruits do fail, there’s always stopping them enroute. That’s not easy though. This week police in the UK pulled out all the stops to try and find three British Muslim girls believed to be headed for Syria but they were too late. Today police said the three girls have probably already crossed from Turkey into Syria. You’d think that at this point the authorities in Turkey and elsewhere would have made it harder to cross over to the Syrian front lines, but that’s not necessarily the case according Joe Parkinson. He’s the Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Istanbul.


Joe Parkinson: It’s getting harder but it’s perhaps still not hard enough. What’s happened over the past few months is that Western intelligence organizations have increased their cooperation, and they’ve particularly increased their cooperation with Turkey. At Turkish airports, which were the favored routes for jihadists, security has been dramatically tightened. Turkey is still the main route, but for anybody who feels that they’re a suspect, anybody who feels they may be on some kind of blacklist, these people are starting to get clever, they’re starting to take much more creative routes to try to circumvent this new security dragnet. One of these routes is by bus across European Union territory to the much less fortified Bulgarian border. Another route is flying into southern Cyprus, Nikosia with a European Union passport, nipping over the dividing line, it’s not actually an internationally recognized border, and then hopping on a ferry again to Turkish territory, at which point it’s still relatively easy, if you have the contacts, to slip into Syria.


Werman: I know you followed one recruit in particular, the wife, Ms. Boumeddiene, of Amedy Coulibaly--he was one of the Paris attackers. We recall the pictures of her at security at some airport on her way to presumably ISIS territory, I don’t know if that narrative is accurate, but how did she slip through the net?


Parkinson: That narrative is accurate to a degree and she used what’s known in the security game as “broken travel.” So, rather than flying directly from Paris to Istanbul in this case, she, with an accomplice, actually drove in a car to Madrid. In Madrid, they then boarded a flight to Istanbul’s second airport--normally it’s not the favored airport for people flying in from elsewhere in Europe. Her name was not passed to the Turkish authorities and therefore when her passport was run in Turkey, no flashing light popped up. The Turkish authorities still actually followed her for several days in Istanbul before concluding that she wasn’t doing anything super suspicious, at which point she actually flew to the south of Turkey, slipping into Syria over a border area, and if we’re to believe ISIS’ monthly magazine, which I’m not sure that we can, but they claimed to have had an interview with her inside Syria; no pictures, but they published an interview with her, calling on other jihadis sympathetic from Europe to follow the path that she took.


Werman: You spoke about the cooperation between European countries and Turkey, and yet it seems they’re all playing catch-up in trying to stop these troops from getting to ISIS. What’s the problem?


Parkinson: It does seem like they’re playing catch-up and European governments now, just over the past couple of weeks, have held several high level meetings, especially after what happened in Paris and then in Copenhagen, where they’re trying to break old habits and coordinate more. Intelligence agencies in countries with more resources and great counterterrorism operations like France previously were loathe to share all of their information with poorer countries like Bulgaria perhaps partly because they feared that it would leak, perhaps just because they jealousy wanted to guard their own intelligence to make sure that they were the ones who could act on it. Now, that old system is obviously not fit for purpose given the new threat that’s evolving, but they do still face a very, very difficult campaign to try and stop lone wolves who are using their European Union passports to move around the block. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that amidst all of this, perhaps a bigger concern, although they wouldn’t put it this way, is that these people come back. They come back trained, they come back with capability and perhaps even the idea and the logistics to carry out attacks in European cities. Four years into the Syrian conflict now, that’s the big concern in the minds of these intelligence officials as they’re trying to plan going forward.


Werman: Joe Parkinson, Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. Thank you very much.


Parkinson: Thanks for having me.