The release of a Russian jihadist in Turkey, wanted for arrest by INTERPOL on alleged membership in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is the latest example of Turkey's revolving door policy, which is quietly pursued by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Islamist government to let jihadist militants go free after a brief imprisonment.
Ayshat Rzaeva, a 30-year-old woman from the village of Rukel in Russia's Republic of Dagestan, was detained on October 7, 2021 in the Keçiören district of Ankara. She was indicted by a public prosecutor and faces up to 15 years in prison for alleged membership in a terrorist organization if convicted. She confessed to joining ISIS and explained her involvement with the group in a statement she gave to the Turkish police and prosecutor.
However, at the first hearing of her trial on June 28, 2022, the panel of judges at the Ankara 26th High Criminal Court ruled for her release subject to a travel ban. The prosecutor challenged the ruling at the 27th High Criminal Court, which issued a new arrest warrant for her on July 5. At her arraignment, however, this court also decided to let her go.
Rzaeva, listed by ISIS in Syria under the names of Ummu Ahmad and Ummu Yahya, received training and operated on behalf of the terrorist group after she traveled to Syria from Russia through Azerbaijan and Turkey in 2015. Russian authorities had already informed their Turkish counterparts about her, and she was listed in the foreign terrorist fighters database.
When she arrived in Istanbul, ISIS operatives welcomed her at the airport and put her in a safe house for two months before taking her to the Turkish border province of Gaziantep and then to Syria with the help of smugglers. Her husband, Alirızaye Tahmiraz, was already fighting for ISIS in a Russian combat unit in Syria along with her elder brother when she arrived. She married an Azerbaijani jihadist identified only by the first name of Abbas after her husband and brother were killed in an airstrike.
Rzaeva and Abbas settled in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. Abbas was killed in 2018 as well.
She eventually ended up in Syria's al-Hol detention camp, which is run by the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces with support from the US military. After living in the camp for nearly two years, she managed to escape and enter Turkey by crossing the border through Hatay province. ISIS kept moving her to various safe houses in several provinces before she settled in Ankara.
She got married for a third time in Istanbul to a man named Ibrahim T., but the union was short lived.
During a raid on her apartment in Ankara, police seized a large amount of cash in Turkish lira and dollars as well as jewelry that the prosecutor alleged was obtained through terrorist activities and belonged to ISIS. She was distributing the cash sent by ISIS to families of jihadist militants.
Video footage and photos showing ISIS activities were discovered on her phone. One such video featured ISIS running a lottery to identify potential suicide bombers, and another showed a vehicle suicide attack perpetrated by ISIS. Rzaeva's name is also on the list of alleged ISIS suicide bombers.
The phone records showed that she was in contact with other known ISIS figures in Turkey.
It was odd that the Turkish courts ruled for her release given the fact that she did not maintain continuous residence at an address within the court's jurisdiction and was staying temporarily at a hotel in Ankara after moving out of the apartment that was raided by the police. Her two children, aged 3 and 6, were placed in the protective custody of social services.
Only one of the three judges wrote a dissenting opinion on her release, saying she posed a flight risk as a foreign national and did not have a home to live in.
Turkish courts, under intense pressure from the Erdoğan government, often go easy on jihadists including ISIS suspects and rule for their release despite the leveling of serious charges and evidence obtained in the cases. In contrast, courts do not show the same kind of tolerance to people who stand accused on politically motivated charges such as journalists, activists and opposition politicians.
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 such as the case of Rzaeva. 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.