In 14 months of living in Turkey, for the most part, I have seen no evidence of support for radical Muslim groups like Al Qaeda. I had one experience in Southeast Turkey, traveling with a group of Turks and Americans, in which we stopped in a rural area overlooking the Euphrates River from a 2000-year-old Roman bridge. Momentarily wandering alone on the other side of the river and under the bridge, I encountered an Arab-looking man who asked me where I was from. "America," I said. A big grin broke out on his face (something common among the Turks, as they are most hospitable). But instead of welcoming me to his country as so many others had done, he said, "Osama Bin Laden," and gave a thumbs up. Then he started climbing down the bridge toward a group of men huddled behind some brush.
I think he was joking, but I wasn't certain, so I turned around immediately, climbed back up to the bridge, crossed it and joined the rest of my group.
I hadn't thought much about that brief encounter until I read
"Al Qaeda's austere and violent interpretation of Islam receives little public backing in Turkey," according to the Associated Press. Even so, Al Qaeda radicals such as number two man Ayman Zawahiri of Egypt have attempted to recall the glory days of the Ottoman Empire to recruit Turks to the cause. In centuries past, the “Ottoman State used to send sweeping armies and entire fleets to defend any threatened Muslim areas,” he said in a July 2011 statement, as analyzed by Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Now, in contrast, modern Turkey can only muster a handful of ships that Israel treats like “cattle in the sea of wolves.”
Zawahiri went on to blame the creation of Israel to the fall of the Ottomans. They had ruled Palestine and surrounding countries for hundreds of years until their empire tumbled during World War I.
<<Around 120 al Qaeda suspects were rounded up last January in raids mostly carried out in the southeast.>>
Officials believe the Turks involved in Al Qaeda are all part of the same group, with one designated leader.
There has also been an increase in the number of Turkish language jihadi websites, the article reports, though only rarely have Al Qaeda sympathizers set off violence in the country -- most notably in 2003 when bomb attacks killed 57 and wounded hundreds. Since then, Turkish police have stepped up their surveillance of radical groups.
So do I think Islamic terrorism is a danger for Westerners visiting Turkey? Not really. Turkey seems really safe to me. The overall crime rate is far lower than the US crime rate. I'd say your chances of encountering an Islamic terrorist in Turkey is less than your chance of encountering a random killer in the US.
If you go to Southeast Turkey, you should probably travel in a group, just to be safe. But my caution is less than that of some friends in the states who only read the violent headlines in foreign countries and over-generalize. They said I should stay out of Southeast Turkey as if it was in the midst of civil war. That, most definitely, is a wrong impression, I can say from first-hand experience, having had a delightful time visiting Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Kahramanmaras, Mt. Nemrut, and taking a bus with my 13-year-old son all the way to the Syrian border.