Levent Kenez/ Stockholm
Turkey’s Defense Ministry on Monday tweeted that border guards in a joint operation with the gendarmerie captured an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suspect who is wanted on an INTERPOL Red Notice in Hatay province, located on the border with Syria, while the suspect was trying to enter Turkey illegally.
The ministry once again did not share any identification information about the detained suspect despite the fact that the person is included on INTERPOL’s Red Notice list. However, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported that according to the ministry statement the initials of the suspect are M.M. A Nordic Monitor review of the statement confirms that there is no such information in the official announcement from the ministry.
When Turkish authorities capture militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), they reveal their identity and distribute photographs of them taken in front of the Turkish flag.
According to a 2017 presidential decree, Turkish intelligence agency MİT is authorized to expel suspects to another country or swap them for people detained or convicted overseas. The defense ministry may have announced that a person sought by INTERPOL had been apprehended to give the impression that the Turkish military was continuing to fight radical terrorists before any possible military operation in northern Syria. However, Syrian territory bordering Hatay has been under Turkey’s control for a long period of time, and Turkish intelligence has been conducting intensive operations in the area.
Another reason why Turkey keeps the ISIS suspects it captures a secret is to prevent a follow-up of the legal proceedings of these people. In one of the most well-known examples, an ISIS kadı (judge), Jamal Abdul Rahman Alwi, who issued a fatwa — a legal ruling based on Islamic law — to burn two Turkish soldiers alive in 2016, was released shortly after his arrest in 2020. Alwi was arrested again and sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2022 after Turkish media reported that he was living in Gaziantep. How he was released in 2020 remains unknown, although it turned out that the court had been aware that Alwi was the person who issued the fatwa for the execution of the soldiers.
Turkey’s lack of transparency in the fight against radical jihadist groups, particularly against ISIS, is well known. Turkish authorities tend to announce numbers of detained ISIS suspects following operations that many believe are inflated, and it is not transparently stated how many of them have been arrested or convicted. There is also a significant gap between the figures of the interior and justice ministries. After growing criticism, the Interior Ministry, which had published the statistics of terror suspects detained every month since 2017, stopped releasing the figures on its website in 2020.
It is well known that the Turkish judiciary and security forces are tolerant of ISIS members, and ISIS even allegedly received support from Turkey for fighting Kurdish militants in Syria who Turkey considers terrorists.
Turkey’s most-wanted list includes a few ISIS suspects, while many critics who have nothing to do with terrorism are included on the list of fugitives, yet another sign of how the government is not really interested in cracking down on ISIS. There are only 84 alleged ISIS members out of the 1,304 people named on the list, amounting to roughly 6 percent of the total being sought. Since its creation, the list has never included Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS who was killed in a US raid in October 2019, a few kilometers from the Turkish border in northern Syria, despite the fact that ISIS has killed more than 200 civilians in Turkey and abroad and a number of soldiers, including the two who were burnt alive, and carried out a car bomb attack against the Turkish police. Similarly, al-Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, who was reportedly killed recently, is not listed as wanted.
Turkish officials do not disclose the number of successful convictions in ISIS cases and decline to respond to parliamentary questions asking for such information. Instead, they often float figures on the number of detentions and in some cases arrests, which in many cases result in acquittal and release.
According to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, police detained 2,438 ISIS suspects in 2021, but only 487 of them were formally arrested, corresponding to a 20 percent arrest rate. In other words, four out of five detained ISIS suspects were never put in jail. He did not provide figures on how many were let go after arrest. In most cases ISIS suspects who were formally arrested pending trial were released by Turkish courts at their first hearing.
Thousands of militants, both Turkish and foreign, have used Turkish territory to cross into Syria with the help of smugglers in order to fight alongside ISIS groups there. Turkish intelligence agency MIT has facilitated their travel, with Kilis, a border province in Turkey’s Southeast, one of the main crossing points into ISIS-held territory. Human smugglers were known to have been active in the border area, although Turkish authorities often overlooked their trips in and out of Syria.
A Nordic Monitor review of parliamentary records in 2020 shows that a total of 40 written questions out of 43 on ISIS have gone unanswered since December 2016 despite a Turkish law that requires that the government respond to such questions within two weeks. The only answers received provide insignificant details that are not relevant to the crux of the matter, suggesting that the government is deliberately ignoring parliamentary inquiries on ISIS.