Turkish authorities arrest six Iraqis on charges of belonging to ISIS, have possibly released hundreds of others

SAMSUN, Turkey — On Tuesday, during a security operation carried by Turkish security forces in the Black Seas coastal city of Samsun, six Iraqi nationals were arrested on charges of belonging to the Islamic State.

The arrests, made during raids in Samsun’s Elkadim and Atakum districts, Turkish authorities seized several electronic devices and identification documents.

The Turkish Interior Ministry recently issued a statement announcing new measures to be followed in 14 Turkish provinces.

On 1 September, Turkish authorities announced the arrest of the so-called “Emir of ISIS in Turkey.”

Despite the high-profile arrests, Turkey’s track record in combating the Islamic State is spotty, at best.

According to a review of official statements by the Nordic Monitor, Turkey has released hundreds of Islamic State prisoners from Turkish prisoners over the past two years.

The most recent figure on ISIS prisoners, which included both those convicted and others who were in pretrial detention, was given as 1,163 on October 24, 2019 by Turkish Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül, who shared the figure with reporters during a visit to the Turkish border town of Akçakale, across from Tel Abyad in Syria. 

Gül, whose portfolio includes prisons and detention facilities in Turkey, had stated in February 2018 that there were 1,354 people affiliated with ISIS incarcerated in Turkish prisons, meaning that around 200 ISIS prisoners have been released by the government since then.”

Two U.S. officials told Foreign Policy that during the October 2019 Turkish invasion of Tel Abyad and Rish Ayno (Ras al-Ayn) in North and East Syria, factions in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) with ties to extremists were, “deliberately releasing detainees affiliated with the Islamic State from unguarded prisons.”

A Blind Eye

Coordination between Turkey and ISIS has long been alleged by officials in North and East Syria and some in the international community.

Turkey has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the presence of high-ranking Islamic State officials along the Syrian–Turkish border in territory controlled by its proxies. Even the self-appointed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was hiding out a stone’s throw from Turkey.

Before the 27 October 2019 U.S. Special Forces raid that killed Baghdadi, Turkish National Intelligence (MIT) was not informed, despite the raid taking place a mere three and a half miles from the Turkish border in an area under the control of their proxy forces.

Fearing that the operation would be compromised by Turkish intelligence, the U.S. military only notified Turkish officials that the operation was taking place but did not identify the target.

“Turkey did not provide any assistance in this operation, and he was located right next to their border,” a U.S. official told Foreign Policy at the time. “That shows you how little they do on countering ISIS.”

The U.S. local partner force and adversary of Turkey, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), on the other hand, provided invaluable intelligence that directly led to knowledge of Baghdadi’s whereabouts.

Barisha, Syria, the location of the self-appointed Caliph of the so-called Islamic State. (Image: BBC)

Baghdadi wasn’t the only ISIS leader killed in territory under Turkish control.

In May, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that a former ISIS commander was killed in Turkish-occupied Afrin by a Coalition drone strike. The high-ranking ISIS commander had been constantly moving “between the areas of Idlib and Jindiris” in northern Syria, according to SOHR.

Hassan Hassan, the director of Non-State Actors Program at the Center for Global Policy (CGP), first reported the identity of the target of the strike.

“One was formerly military chief of ISIS Hama Wilayat. They were traveling with documents claiming they were Ahrar al-Sham,” he wrote. “This would mean ISIS members are unsurprisingly traveling disguised as part of the local (Turkish-backed) rebel forces.”

A Coalition drone strike killed another ISIS leader near the town of Ihataymalat, east of Azaz near the Turkish border.

The raid that ultimately killed Baghdadi, the repeated Coalition drone strikes on ISIS leaders in Turkish-occupied territory, and the acceptance of former ISIS members into the ranks of the SNA has exposed an underappreciated reality of the Turkish role in regional politics: the Islamic State has never acted as though Turkey were an adversary — and vice versa.

Early Assistance

Former Turkish counter-terrorism police officer Ahmet Yayala, in an interview with the New Republic,  said that Erdogan and the MIT have “consistently helped ISIS, directly or indirectly.”

Yayala stated that during his time with Turkish National Police, he worked alongside MIT officers at the Turkish–Syrian border. In 2014, Yayala said he learned that Hakan Fidan, the head of MIT, had established a special unit whose only task was to handle ISIS supporters.

According to Yayala, the police were not directly informed about the creation of the unit.

“I would ask the MIT guys, ‘What are you doing with these guys?’ They would say, ‘Nothing,’” Yayala told the interviewer. “But we had all the investigative tools, and we followed them to meetings. We saw the terrorists meeting with our own service. It was extremely upsetting.”

Screengrab of video showing two Islamic State fighters chatting with Turkish border guards in 2014.

A 2017 research paper by Columbia University scholar David L. Phillips documents many of the reports of connections between Turkey and the Islamic State, including, among a litany of other things:

  • A statement from the Adana Office of the Prosecutor, made public by President of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) on 14 October 2014, maintaining that Turkey supplied weapons to terror groups.
  • A 25 August 2014 Daily Mail report that man foreign fighters traveled through Turkey on their way to Iraq and Syria and Turkish authorities did nothing to prevent them.
  • A 12 August 2014 Washington Post interview with an ISIS commander, who stated, “We used to have some fighters — even high-level members of the Islamic State — getting treated in Turkish hospitals.”
  • A 13 September 2014, The New York Times report on the Obama administration’s efforts to pressure Turkey to crack down on ISIS’s extensive sales network for oil in the country.

Continued Relationship

As the power of ISIS waned and the territory under its control shank, Turkey continued to act as a kind of safe haven for the group both physically and financially.

In April 2019, the Treasury sanctioned four Turkish companies  for providing financial support to IS.

In August of this year, the U.S. designated a Turkish-based man, Adnan Muhammad Amin al-Rawi, as a financier of terrorism. A part of the notorious Rawi Network, the man has allegedly been facilitating money transfers to the Islamic State in Syria.

The designation has raised fresh concerns that jihadists continue to use Turkey to fund their activities in Syria, with little in the way of pushback from Turkish authorities.

“Al-Rawi has materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support” for ISIS, according to a U.S. Department of the Treasury statement, adding that the radical group’s former finance emir, Fawaz al-Rawi, who was reportedly killed in a 2017 coalition airstrike, belonged to the same family.

The Rawis have been on the radar of governments and intelligence services for a long time, but the new designations have raised questions about why the Rawis have been allowed to operate with a free hand in Turkey.

“These designations targeting the Rawi Network and others reflect the extent to which various jihadist groups have exploited Turkey’s permissive environment,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who is currently a Turkey expert with Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), to Voice of America.

“Turkey is the only NATO member state that has repeatedly become a target of Treasury sanctions, a sign that Ankara is either negligent or lenient in its treatment of jihadist entities and individuals,” Erdemir added.

Turkey also continues to directly assist individuals affiliated with the Islamic State held in detention camps in North and East Syria.

A Chechen woman affiliated with the ISIS who was arrested by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) of North and East Syria in late-July while trying to escape from extremist wing of the Al-Hol Refugee Camp revealed that a Turkish charity was involved in the smuggling of many ISIS women out of the camp.

The evidence and testimony of the Chechen woman, Fatima Radwan Os, demonstrates Turkish involvement in attempts to free members of ISIS from detention in North and East Syria.

Turkey announced it had “rescued” a Moldovan woman and her children from the ISIS section of Al-Hol Camp earlier that month.

Os reportedly stated to North and East Syria officials that Turkey and Turkish-backed factions use the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) to finance the smuggling of ISIS members from the camp.

Os was arrested alongside another woman and her children and mother while trying to flee to Turkey in an empty water tanker. She confirmed during her confession that many ISIS women escaped from the camp through these tanks.

Head of conservative Turkish NGO İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı (IHH) Fehmi Bülent Yıldırım shaking hansd with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The head of IHH, Fehmi Bülent Yıldırım, was investigated for providing financial support to Al-Qaeda linked groups in 2012.

Yildirim led the funeral prayers at the memorial service for Shamil Basayev, senior leader of the Chechen movement who led the Budyonnovsk hospital raid and the Belsan school massacre where his men executed over 100 and 333 civilians respectively.