Besieged in its last holdout in Baghouz, eastern Syria, the Islamic State (IS) has reached the end of the road in terms of territorial control, with Turkey standing out as an escape route for fleeing militants. Despite measures the authorities take, the militants sustain their efforts to sneak into Turkey and head to other countries after staying for a while. Smugglers play an important role in the infiltrations, charging thousands of dollars for each person they help cross the border.
Turkey has long been under fire for turning a blind eye to IS at its borders, failing to enforce enough measures and failing to properly prosecute IS members, letting many suspects walk free. Turkish officials respond angrily to such criticism. According to the government, no country can match Turkey’s efforts to combat the radical group.
After the 2012-2015 period, when Turkish borders were highly porous due to what amounted to a “free passage” policy, security operations targeting IS have notably increased in Turkey in recent years. According to official news agency Anatolia, 3,038 suspects were rounded up in operations against IS last year, with 408 of them sent to prison pending trial.
Eighty-seven suspects were detained in January — 36 of whom are in jail pending trial — Anatolia reported, heralding that IS “is being rooted out.”
The operations continued into February. Four IS suspects were caught Feb. 2 in the town of Akcakale at the Syrian border. Two days later, 24 suspects were rounded up in Istanbul and neighboring Kocaeli, with 11 of them released pending trial. On Feb. 6, three detainees suspected of links to IS — two Iraqis and a Syrian — were released in the northern city of Samsun. On Feb. 14, 52 Syrians were detained in operations in Bursa, northwestern Turkey, with no further information on how many of them were charged. Five days later, nine out of 12 people wanted on suspicion of IS membership were apprehended in the central province of Konya.
On Feb. 17, security forces in Bursa arrested two foreign women wanted by Interpol for links to IS. On Feb. 21, eight IS suspects — seven Iraqis and a Jordanian — were detained and then released in Samsun. In another operation in Bursa on Feb. 27, police captured a Syrian suspect described as an IS “emir” who coordinated IS militants in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor.
Meanwhile, several major trials are underway, including the trial of eight suspects connected to a senior IS logistics operative in Kayseri.
Detailing Ankara’s anti-terror tally in late December, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said that 69,967 individuals from 151 countries had been banned from entering Turkey and 7,031 people of 100 nationalities had been extradited for being “foreign terrorist fighters.” In 2017 and 2018, Turkish security forces foiled 697 and 347 terrorist attacks respectively, Soylu said.
Many observers, however, see Turkey’s efforts against IS as inadequate and not serious, given how Ankara waters the issue down by jumbling it together with other groups it considers to be terrorist organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG); and Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen and his followers, all of whom stand accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt.
Most of the questioning stems from a widespread impression that IS suspects are easily released. It is a widely held conviction that IS members enjoy lenient treatment in Turkey, not to be found anywhere else in the world. In some trials over IS attacks in the country, the courts have contended with questioning suspects via video links without bringing them into the courtroom, fueling doubts on how serious the trials are.
Despite the criticism, government officials have not stopped blurring the lines in their statements on IS suspects. Take, for instance, Soylu’s Feb. 15 remarks on the capture of an IS suspect driving a bomb-laden vehicle in Hatay, which borders Syria. The minister said the man had taken the bomb from the PYD in Syria and planned to detonate it in a big Turkish city in return for the PYD’s release of 100 IS captives. “The PYD and the PKK gave the instructions. Those groups are all the same,” he said.
The number of IS-related detentions in Turkey is no doubt impressive, but many detainees are subsequently released due to shallow investigations — not to mention those who duck the radar of authorities.
IS’ logistical networks and cells remain active despite the hundreds-kilometer-long border walls that Turkey erected in recent years against illegal crossings from Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports that at least 85 IS-linked families have sneaked into Turkey in the past two months, paying smugglers large sums of between $10,000 and $50,000. According to SOHR, the smugglers take the escapees through territory held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) first and then through the Turkish-controlled Operation Euphrates Shield region. An Uzbek fighter has reportedly paid the biggest sum to smugglers — $50,000 — for a clandestine journey to Turkey with his wife and two children. Others are said to pay up to $10,000 to make it to the western bank of the Euphrates River from areas such as al-Busayrah, Theban and Gharanij.
According to the SOHR tally, 49,650 people — among them some 5,000 fighters — have left the IS enclave in eastern Syria since Dec. 1. They included Syrians as well as nationals of various Asian and European countries such as Iraq, Russia, Somalia and the Philippines. The Iraqis, who constitute the majority, prefer to cross to Iraq where IS militants are still able to find refuge. About 5,000 civilians and some 400 fighters who refuse to surrender are estimated to remain in Baghouz. In addition, 800 fighters captured by the SDF and their relatives — numbering 8,000 people —are kept in four camps and various prisons.
Turkey stands out as a major crossroad in the accounts of IS members captured in various countries, from Tunisia to Britain. Interviews with 18 IS captives held by the YPG, conducted by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, indicate that Turkey has been central to the organization’s activities.
According to the account of Abdel Kadr — a Tunisian who had experience as a smuggler between Turkey and Europe prior to joining IS and then worked for the IS intelligence unit known as “emni” — militants underwent special training to set up sleeper cells in Europe, with some having hair replacement and plastic surgeries in Turkey to avoid recognition. Others vacationed in Turkish resorts, taking an abundance of pictures to build solid alibis before heading back to Europe to join sleeper cells.
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