Hatay, Turkey (CNN) — It’s an odd experience flying in to Hatay, southern Turkey, on the border with Syria and its nasty and seemingly infinite war these days: there is a truly international flavor to the passenger manifests.
As we flew in, there were two men from Mauritania, one with a limp, accompanied by a woman from Tunisia. On another flight which we saw land, two young men with large backpacks, coming from Benghazi. On another, four Libyans, also from Benghazi.
Then a young, bearded man with a noticeably thick northern British accent, there to collect a friend from Leicester — the pair absolutely don’t want to talk, especially when I offer them a CNN business card. Then come the Egyptians, and a Gulf Arab — he sounded Saudi — who frantically kissed and embraced the bemused driver there to pick him up.
All these were men travelling in small groups or alone. Most refused to talk at all about why they were there, although the man from Leicester said he was doing humanitarian work, and the Benghazi pair were open about the fact that they were going to Syria.
It’s not a crime to travel to southern Turkey, and there are many foreign aid groups here, so surely many people are traveling innocently. But it is extraordinary to watch this volume of international traffic from countries where al Qaeda has a confirmed and consistent presence into a NATO member state. You find yourself asking: why are these men here, and why don’t they want to talk about it?
One man — we’ll call him Ibrahim — has a clearer idea why so many foreigners come here: he’s a smuggler, working to facilitate recruits joining the Syrian al Qaeda-linked radical group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Ibrahim collects many jihadis from the airport — in fact, he left our interview to collect a Saudi man arriving a few hours later.
He walks us through some olive groves as he explains how a route that was once little used has now become a busy – if unofficial – border crossing. It leads from the airport to a local safe house and then, at night, to the often porous fence between Syria and Turkey.