Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government is detaining briefly and then releasing members of ISIS in Syria (above) and the Islamist State in Iraq.
Instances of such a practice were recently observed in a number of provinces across Turkey, confirming the view that the Turkish judiciary was instructed to go easy on jihadists including ISIS suspects. Despite the leveling of serious charges and the seizure of guns, ammunition and ISIS propaganda materials during searches of the suspects' homes, most, if not all, were quickly released.
What follows is a brief survey of police operations that ended with the release of detained ISIS suspects across Turkey. The picture is worse than actually reported since many cases don't make the headlines in the media, which is by and large under the control of the government.
On October 12, 2021 police in Adana, a province where many active ISIS cells maintain a presence and that is also home to Incirlik Air Base, where US-led, anti-ISIS coalition troops are stationed, detained seven suspects on alleged membership in ISIS. One of the suspects, identified only by the initials A.E.Ş., appeared in an ISIS promotional video in which the terrorist group vowed to plant an ISIS flag at the White House and threatened the US with attacks. During the search, police seized an unregistered gun and some ISIS campaign materials. The prosecutor let two of them go without even referring them to court for arrest. The rest were released by the court at their arraignment.
On December 30, 2021 the Istanbul Public Prosecutor's Office ordered the detention of 10 ISIS suspects who were affiliated with a Turkish cell led by Mahmut Özden, a senior ISIS figure. The police managed to detain only seven of them. All the detainees were quickly ordered to be released by the court at arraignment. On January 25, 2022 the police detained a suspect for providing funding to ISIS in the northwestern province of Balıkesir, but the court released him as well.
Turkish authorities show the same leniency to suspected foreign jihadists. For example, police detained five Syrians in Adana on January 12, 2022 in an operation on an ISIS cell. Three days later, the court ruled to release all of them in during their arraignment hearing. On January 31, 2022 police in Turkey's northwestern province of Kastamonu detained seven foreigners on ISIS charges. They were identified as suspects who previously fought for ISIS in Syria before settling in Turkey, but the court released all of them.
On March 12, 2022 police in the central province of Aksaray detained 10 ISIS suspects and seized guns, ammunition, ISIS promotional materials and bank records during the execution of search warrants. None of them were formally arrested, and they were all released by the court. On May 11 police in the southern province of Mersin detained 11 ISIS suspects for raising funds for the terrorist organization. All of them were let go. On May 24, 2022 police in Kocaeli province detained eight foreigners on ISIS charges, but the court ruled for their release as well.
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.
Erdoğan announced on October 10, 2019 that there were around 5,500 ISIS terrorists in Turkish prisons, of which half were foreign nationals. Yet on October 25, 2019 then-Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül stated at a press conference that there were 1,163 ISIS arrestees and convicts in prison.
Responding to a parliamentary question on July 21, 2020 Gül stated that 1,195 ISIS suspects and convicts were in Turkish prisons as of December 16, 2019. Of these 791 were foreign nationals, he added. Again, he did not say how many were serving time on successful ISIS convictions since many ISIS suspects were acquitted, or their convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.