Levent Kenez /Stockholm
The actual number of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists in Turkish prisons is almost impossible to determine. The president and the justice minister had announced very different figures in the past, raising questions about how sincere Turkey’s fight against ISIS really was. Finally, Interior Minster Süleyman Soylu this week announced the number of ISIS members detained and arrested since 2016. Once again, figures inconsistent with those of other authorities revealed that Turkey had deliberately released hundreds of ISIS terrorists.
Speaking to parliament’s Planning and Budget Committee, Soylu on Tuesday claimed that the effectiveness of ISIS has been destroyed and shared figures of Turkey’s fight against the terrorist group year by year since 2016.
According to official data as of November 15 announced by Soylu, Turkey has carried out 7,504 operations against ISIS in the last five years and detained 19,960 people, 5,977 of whom were arrested. The meaning of “operation” was not explained, but it is known that every encounter between security forces and ISIS members is called an operation.
For instance, when examining the year 2017 from the information Soylu shared, 1,453 people were arrested. However, the state-run Anadolu news agency stated that only 739 people were arrested the same year, based on information it received from the Justice Ministry.
On October 25, 2019 Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül stated at a press conference that there were 1,163 ISIS arrestees and convicts in prison. According to the figures provided by Soylu, 1,035 people were arrested in 2019 alone. In this case, until 2019, only 128 detainees and convicts should have been in prison; however, Gül stated that there were a total of 1,354 ISIS members in prisons as of February 2018.
This was not the first time that the number of ISIS terrorists in prison in Turkey was unclear. Nordic Monitor had previously compared the numbers announced by the authorities and reported that there was a significant discrepancy between them in 2019.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on October 10, 2019 that there were around 5,500 ISIS terrorists in Turkish prisons, of which half were foreign nationals.
Responding to a parliamentary question on July 21, 2020, Justice Minister Gül said 1,195 ISIS members were in prisons either as convicts or suspects in pretrial detention. Of these, 791 were foreign nationals, he added. He declined to say how many had actually been convicted.
The significant disparity in numbers is not limited to jailed ISIS members. Erdoğan in 2018 mentioned that Turkey had arrested around 17,000 ISIS suspects since 2016, whereas Anadolu reported on October 29, 2019 that 13,696 people had been arrested in the same period. However, according to the information given by Minister Soylu last week, only 4,827 people seem to have been arrested according to police reports.
Nordic Monitor previously published a secret intelligence note dispatched by the Security General Directorate (Emniyet) stating that ISIS militants had been released in stages from prisons.
“Individuals who were caught trying to enter our country illegally while operating in areas controlled by the ISIS terrorist group in Syria and arrested on charges of ‘membership in an armed terrorist organization’ have gradually been released from prison,” the intelligence note filed on May 8, 2016 stated.
It is worth noting that the Interior Ministry, which in 2018 had published on a monthly basis the number of persons detained in counterterrorism operations on its website, stopped sharing that information as of January 1, 2019 for unknown reasons. In addition information on how many foreigners are among the detainees and arrestees in Turkish prisons has not been updated since then.
Another discrepancy is seen in the number of ISIS fighters in Syria who have been “neutralized” by Turkey. Anadolu claims that number is only 1,018, explaining that Turkish authorities often use the term “neutralized” in statements to imply the terrorists in question either surrendered or were killed or captured. However, Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, repeatedly said the Turkish army had neutralized more than 3,000 ISIS fighters in northern Syria alone since Turkey started its cross-border military operations in 2018. Interior Minister Soylu said on October 23, 2019 that Turkey had killed 3,069 ISIS fighters. However, the data Soylu shared last week in parliament claims that Turkey neutralized only 1,696 ISIS members.