Foreign fighters from Turkey

By Güneş Murat Tezcür, Jalal Talabani Endowed Chair of Kurdish Political Studies, University of Central Florida

*This memo was prepared for presentation at the Contemporary Turkish Politics Workshop at Rice University’s Baker Institute on  October 14, 2016


One of the effects of the Syrian civil war on Turkey has been the significant rise in the number of foreign fighters from this country. While Turkish citizens have traveled to foreign lands and fought in the “wars of others” since at least the early 1970s, the scope and pace of foreign fighter mobilization since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has been unprecedented. These fighters primarily pursued two opposing ideological goals, risking their lives to take arms either for religious (i.e., ummah and caliphate) or nationalist (i.e., Kurdistan) political projects. Demographic analysis of hundreds of these fighters sheds some light on exactly who these individuals are, where they come from and how they differ from those who left Turkey to fight a generation ago. It also provides some insights about the motives of these individuals. As some of these individuals return after conflict abroad – at times with deadly consequences – understanding these motivations becomes increasingly important.

Fighting for Kurdistan

The armed struggle between the Turkish state and the PKK (Partiya Karkarên Kurdistan, or the Kurdistan Worker’s Party) is one of the longest lasting ethnic conflicts of contemporary times. Two factors have contributed to the resiliency of the PKK over more than three decades. First, access to safe havens in neighboring countries allow it to train military forces, support a reserve of fighters, and regroup after periods of defeat and disunity. Next, the PKK is a transnational ethno-nationalist insurgency with strong appeal among not only Kurds of Turkey but also Kurds in the neighboring countries and the Kurdish Diaspora in Europe. In particular, a large number of Syrian and Iranian Kurds have lost their lives fighting security forces in Turkey. [1] In turn, Kurds from Turkey have fought against the Iranian regime since 2004 and have participated in the Syrian civil war since 2012. More than fifty percent of the 123 PJAK (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê‎, a PKK-affiliated Kurdish organization based primarily in Iran) militants who lost their lives fighting the Islamic Republic of Iran between 2005 and June 2016 were actually Turkish citizens. Thousands of young individuals from Turkey traveled to Syria to fight in the ranks of YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), a Kurdish militia force with extensive linkages to the PKK, since 2012.

The Turkish government’s decision to start negotiations with the PKK leadership in early 2013 decreased the fatalities due to armed clashes to their lowest level since the early 2000s. However, this temporary lull in violence was undermined after the self-styled Islamic State (IS) besieged the border town of Kobanî in the de facto autonomous Kurdish region of Syria, Rojava, in fall 2014. I have identified 706 Turkish citizens who fought in the ranks of the YPG against jihadist groups and were killed in Syria between July 2013 and September 2016.[2] While some of the individuals were seasoned militants who joined the PKK many years ago, others were fresh recruits who directly joined the YPG. Overall, Kurdish youth fighting in Rojava do not seem to have significantly different characteristics than Kurdish youth fighting against the Turkish security forces, blurring the distinction between Kurdish foreign fighters and insurgents.

An overwhelming majority of these fighters were single men and women in teens or twenties suggesting the importance of biographical availability for recruitment. More than 40 percent came from only three provinces: Diyarbakır, the most populous Kurdish majority province in the country; Şırnak, a mountainous province just across the Iraqi Kurdistan; and Mardin, just north of the Kurdish controlled Hasakah region of Syria. As shown in Table 1, these three provinces have exhibited strong support for the Kurdish nationalist movement for many years. They have had the highest numbers of PKK recruits too. The images of Kurdish women waging an existential fight are widely circulated in media outlets globally and have bolstered the Kurdish nationalist claim as an effective force facing jihadist extremism in Syria.[3] Around 21 percent of the deceased YPG fighters from Turkey are women, a ratio higher than that of among deceased PKK fighters (14 percent for the 1976-2012 period).

The armed struggle in Rojava has also attracted individuals with disparate levels of education and prospects of social mobility. For example, Rizgar – who had a journalism degree from the Istanbul University and interned at a popular independent media network – lost his life during the siege of Kobanî in October 2014. At the same time, many individuals with limited educational endowments also joined the ranks of YPG. Arjin migrated to Istanbul with her family at the age of four and had an arranged marriage with a relative at the age of 21. Yet she left her husband after three years and traveled to Syria in July 2014. Three months later, she staged a suicide attack in a street battle with the IS forces in Kobanî. Others survived the fighting with the IS and returned to Turkey after the restart of violence in summer 2015. Roza, a villager with primary school education, joined the PKK in 2009 when she was 23 years old. She also participated in the battle of Kobanî as a sniper. She survived the battle and returned to Turkey, fought and died in the battle of Sur, the historic center of Diyarbakır, in February 2016.

Table 1. Kurdish and Islamist Foreign Fighters from Turkey

YPG Jihadists
147 females (21%) & 559 males 9 females (4%) & 229 males
Provinces with the highest number of fighters (in %)
Diyarbakir 18 Adıyaman 10
Şırnak 13 Konya 10
Mardin 10 Ankara 8
Hakkari 8.5 Gaziantep 7
Van 8 Bingöl 7

Fighting for Ummah and Caliphate

Turkish citizens have been fighting in the ranks of Islamist groups in foreign lands since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At least several thousands have traveled to all over the world including Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, and Ethiopia to participate in jihadist campaigns. The outbreak of the Syrian civil war, however, led to a huge increase in the number of Turkish citizens joining Salafi-jihadist organizations such as the IS and al-Nusra in Syria.[4] Two factors have contributed to this spike in jihadist foreign fighters from Turkey: a) the feasibility and ease of traveling to Syria until recently, and b) widespread moral outrage in response to stories and images of Muslim suffering in Syria.

I have assembled an original sample of 458 Turkish citizens who traveled abroad and fought with jihadist groups since the Afghan civil war in the 1980s. I have employed triangulation and consulted diverse sources including news reports, social media accounts, and Islamist forums. Of these individuals, 238 fought in Syria since 2012, and the remaining 220 participated in the previous wars. Two interesting patterns emerge from a comparison of these religious foreign fighters. First, the new generation of fighters traveling from Turkey is younger and less likely to have a prior experience of political mobilization than previous generation of fighters. The Syrian jihad has attracted a broader demographic group than previous jihadist struggles. Additionally, IS recruitment is especially strong among individuals with no history of previous Islamic activism. It seems that the IS’s uncompromising, puritan, and highly reductionist ideology appeals to individuals whose religious knowledge and training is limited. These individuals are likely to lack Islamic knowledge and socialization to critically engage with the takfiri ideology propagated by the IS. These observations are consistent with widespread reports that the Syrian civil war and the rise of the IS have broadened the reach of jihadism among new types of individuals.[5]

An overwhelming majority of jihadists are men even if some Turkish women ended up joining the IS. This is in sharp contrast to Kurdish foreign fighters whose ranks include large number of women. Unlike individuals who join Kurdish movements, biographical availability (i.e., having few family obligations and life commitments) does not seem to be a significant factor in jihadist foreign fighter mobilization. In terms of age distribution, jihadist foreign fighters tend to be slightly older than Kurdish foreign fighters who typically join the armed struggle as teenagers or in their early twenties. While a plurality of Turkish citizens who fight with the jihadist in Syria are their twenties, a considerable number of them are individuals who in their thirties and forties. Furthermore, and unlike Kurdish foreign fighters, many jihadists are married with children at the time of their decision to travel to Syria. In fact, many of them take their families to Syria. Regarding educational attainments, 67 of 151 jihadists (around 44 percent) whose educational levels are known have at least some college education. Similarly, many Turkish citizens joining the YPG are college students. In comparison, only around 15 percent of all Turkish citizens had college degrees in 2015. While the limited availability of data decreases the reliability of inferences, there is no evidence that religious and ethno-nationalist foreign fighters from Turkey come from less educated segments of the society, a finding consistent with scholarship that debunks the association between poverty and violent political action.[6] For instance, Süleyman, a nineteen years old student of dentistry in a prestigious university in Ankara, took his younger twin brothers who were high-school students, and joined the IS in spring of 2015. Their father was a university professor.

A disproportionate number of jihadist foreign fighters from Turkey are ethnic Kurds. The sample has the records of ethnicity of 326 individuals, 147 of whom – or 44 percent – are Kurds, well above the Kurdish population of Turkey, estimated at 15 to 20 percent. This dual pattern among Kurds in Turkey to fight for either religious or ethno-nationalist goals likely reflects their lack of strong national identification with the Republic of Turkey. Their experience as a marginalized minority in the Republic facilitates their decision to take arms for alternative political platforms. At the same time, jihadists and ethno-nationalists tend to come from different Kurdish provinces. As noted above, YPG fighters come from localities with strong networks of Kurdish nationalist mobilization. The average vote share of Kurdish nationalist parties and candidates in three parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2015 were 84 percent in Hakkari, 81 in Şırnak, 73 in Diyarbakır, and 64 in both Mardin and Van. As Table 1 demonstrates, these five provinces are also characterized by high levels of YPG recruitment. In contrast, jihadist Kurdish foreign fighters typically come from localities with dense Islamist networks (i.e., provinces with a history of popular informal brotherhoods and formal piety associations) and relatively weaker Kurdish nationalist presence. The average vote share of Kurdish nationalists were 15 percent in Adıyaman, and 32 in Bingöl, two Kurdish majority provinces with high levels of jihadist mobilization. These observations point to the importance of face-to-face relations and quotidian contacts for violent mobilization.

Dynamics of recruitment and implications

This brief analysis provides some tentative responses to two important questions. What are the factors contributing to the decision of Turkish citizens to fight in Turkey? What are the implications of the foreign fighter mobilization for Turkish politics? Regarding the first question, several patterns can be detected. First, pecuniary considerations do not seem to play a decisive role in the decisions of these foreign fighters who face dire conditions and life-threatening risks in Syria. In fact, many of them come from relatively well-off backgrounds. Next, the role of state repression and political violence seems to have limited influence on their decisions. Many foreign fighters from Turkey joined the YPG during a period of truce between the Turkish state and PKK that lasted until the summer of 2015. Many were active in Kurdish political associations before their decision to travel to Syria and some were subject to various forms of repressive state practices, including detentions and disciplinary policies given their activism. In contrast, most jihadist fighters, especially the ones who joined the IS, did not have a history of political activism and were not subject to persecution. In this regard, pre-recruitment socialization experiences of Kurdish nationalist and jihadist fighters appear to diverge. Third, many ethno-nationalist and jihadist fighters are often embedded in face-to-face networks (e.g., local party branches and associations affiliated with the Kurdish political movement in the case of former, local mosques and tea houses in the case of latter) characterized by repeated interactions before taking arms. These networks generate not only dense social ties conducive to group solidarity but also frames of collective threat perception and victimhood transcending national borders. Such frames based on moral outrage (e.g., Kurdish/Muslim suffering) are associated with higher risk acceptance and greater urge to fight against perceived sources of collective threat. Furthermore, they make the logistics of joining the fighting groups in Syria easier and contribute to its feasibility.

The second question concerns the effects of returning foreign fighters for peace and security in Turkey. These effects are twofold. First, the PKK’s decision to organize an urban resistance by the fall of 2015 was a reflection of the strategies it developed and mastered during the Syrian civil war. Many fighters who fought against the IS in Kobanî and other cities also participated in battles of cities in Kurdish towns from fall 2015 to spring 2016. These battles where Turkish security forces imposed indefinite curfews and used heavy weaponry destroyed large sections of Kurdish towns and resulted in levels of civilian victimization unseen since the 1990s.[7]

Next, Turkey has a history of returnee jihadists staging large-scale attacks directly targeting civilians. A group of jihadists trained in al-Qaeda camps carries out a several attacks in 2003 and 2004, including the suicidal bomb explosions targeting the HSBC building and British Consulate in Istanbul. Similarly, the assault on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul in July 2008 was plotted and executed by individuals who had been to al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The primary targets of these attacks were the symbols of non-Muslim presence in Turkey. As returnee IS militants expanded their target selection, returnee jihadist violence became an unprecedented source of terrorist threat in Turkey by 2015. The deadliest terrorist attack in the modern Turkish history has been the Ankara bombing on October 20, 2015. Two suicide bombers blew themselves in the midst of a political rally organized by opposition groups, killing more than 100 individuals. One of the bombers was Yunus Emre Alagöz, a 25 -year-old from the Kurdish town of Adıyaman. He traveled to Afghanistan 2009 before joining the IS with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. His younger brother Şeyh Abdullah who also joined the IS in Syria, was the suicide bomber in the Suruç attack, targeting another group of leftist activists on July 22, 2015. Turkish security forces have dismantled several local IS cells and captured dozens of militants since then. All returnees who engaged in violence in Turkey were affiliated with the IS rather than any other group in Syria indicating the importance of takfiri ideology in shaping the nature of violence (i.e., indiscriminate attacks against civilians) and target selection (i.e., Turkey as a land of war, dar al-harb). At the same time, extensive research is required to identify the source of variation in returnee behavior and to explore to distinguish the characteristics of violent returnees from non-violent ones.


[1] At least 20 percent of the deceased PKK fighters were born in Syria, Iran, or Iraq. These numbers come from the Kurdish Insurgency Militants (KIM) dataset that is available at For a comprehensive study of PKK militants, see Güneş Murat Tezcür, “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Risks: Participation in an Ethnic Rebellion,” American Political Science Review 110 (May 2016): 247-64.

[2] The information is obtained from various Kurdish and Turkish news agencies (i.e., Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê) in addition to the YPG official website (

[3] For instance, see &

[4] According to a police report dating from April 2016, around 2,750 Turkish citizens joined the Salafi-jihadist organizations in Syria. Reported by Turkish dailies Hürriyet, April 25, 2016. Available at and Yeni Hayat, May 11, 2016. Available at

[5] For instance, Bergen, Peter, Courtney Schuster, and David Sterman. ISIS in the West: The New Faces of Extremism. New America. November 2015. Available at

[6] For instance, See Alan B. Krueger, and Jitka Malečková, “Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 17 (Fall 2003): 119-44.


[7] For a brief empirical analysis of civilian victimization, see