The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had quietly built its second base in Turkey to target Europe and Central Asia, only to move its operations to Syria after the imposition of international pressure on the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which forced a limited crackdown on ISIS cells.
As part of reorganization efforts after sustaining heavy loses in the US-led global anti-ISIS campaign that wiped out caliphate territory, ISIS turned to Turkey in 2017 to set up one of the main branches under the name of the "Al-Faruq office." The office was designed primarily to manage the ISIS network in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Caucasus.
The core office that administers operations in Syria and Iraq under the "Al-Sham office" in Syria remained the main vehicle for the jihadist organization's general directorate of provinces to direct the ISIS global network.
ISIS leadership believed it could take advantage of the permissive environment provided by the Erdoğan government in Turkey, which it had used in the past to traffic fighters, raise funds and procure logistical supplies. To some extent, the ISIS leaders were right since the Turkish authorities turned a blind eye to ISIS operations in most cases and at times even supported the group in its fight against Kurdish groups in Syria. The criminal justice system functioned as a revolving door for ISIS suspects as most were quickly let go after brief detentions and many acquittals.
Brett McGurk, the White House Middle East coordinator and former US envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, accused Turkey of foreclosing "any serious cooperation on ISIS even as 40k foreign fighters flowed through its territory into Syria," in a tweet he posted on October 9, 2019. "Tal Abyad, a Syrian border town, was the main supply route for ISIS from 6/14-6/15 when weapons, explosives, and fighters flowed freely from Turkey to Raqqa and into Iraq. Turkey refused repeated and detailed requests to seal its side of the border with US help and assistance."
McGurk said Turkey also refused to permit the US military to fly from Incirlik Airbase to strike ISIS positions even while ISIS fighters were pouring into Syria from Turkey.
The track records of militants who wreaked havoc in European capitals show they have all spent time in Turkey, where they were linked with the ISIS network under the watch of Turkey's national intelligence organization, MİT. For example, Hayat Boumeddiene, a French national of Algerian origin who was the female accomplice of the Islamists behind the deadly attacks in Paris in January 2015, came to Turkey on January 2, 2015 and stayed in Istanbul for two days before going to the border province of Şanlıurfa, where she spent four days before finally crossing into Syria. Turkish intelligence had tracked her movements and listened to her conversations yet allowed her to work closely with ISIS cells in Turkey.
Ismail Omar Mostefai, a Frenchman of Algerian descent who was involved in the Bataclan concert hall attack that killed 89 people (130 in total in coordinated attacks) on November 13, 2015, travelled to Turkey at the end of 2013 and moved on to Syria afterwards. He was known to Turkish intelligence, which tracked his movements and shared details with French authorities in December 2014 and June 2015.
Brussels bombers Ibrahim El Bakraoui and his brother Khalid el-Bakraoui, who were involved in the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgium's history on March 22, 2016, which killed 32 civilians, also turned out to have been in Turkey. Ibrahim El Bakraoui, a Belgian national of Moroccan descent, flew to Turkey's tourist resort city of Antalya on June 11, 2015 and moved on to the border province of Gaziantep on June 14. He was caught three days later as he was trying to cross into Syria and deported to the Netherlands on July 14, 2015. His brother Khalid el-Bakraoui entered Turkey on November 4, 2014 through an Istanbul airport. He was let in without any trouble. He left Turkey 10 days later on his own. The entry ban for Khalid el-Bakraoui was imposed on December 12, 2015, after Belgium issued an arrest warrant for him on the same day.
The accomplices of Anis Amri, a Tunisian national who drove into the Christmas market in Berlin on December 19, 2016, killing 12 people, were detained in Turkey after the incident. German citizens of Lebanese origin identified as Muhammed Ali K., Yusuf D. and Bilal Yosef M. were arrested in March 2016 in an operation conducted by the police acting on an intelligence tip as the suspects were about to leave Turkey. A fourth man, a German national of Jordanian descent, was also detained in Turkey's western city of İzmir.
Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Russian national who was born in Kyrgyzstan, killed 14 people in a blast at the St. Petersburg metro on April 3, 2017. He went to Turkey in late 2015 and had spent a year there before he was deported on immigration violations in December 2016. Rakhmat Akilov, the Uzbek national who rammed a truck into a crowd in Stockholm and killed five people on April 7, 2017, also had spent some time in Turkey, tried to cross into Syria and was deported to Sweden. Salman Abedi, a British national of Libyan descent, killed 22 people at a pop concert in the northern English city of Manchester when he blew himself up on May 22, 2017. Before the attack, he was in Libya and returned to the UK via Turkey and Germany. He was believed to have been supported by accomplices in Turkey. Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers who killed eight on June 3, 2017, was detained in Italy in 2016 when he attempted to travel to Syria via Turkey. Zaghba had dual Moroccan and Italian citizenship.
The Erdoğan government was forced to take action against ISIS only after international criticism and pressure mounted on Turkey. That's what happened in the case of the Al-Faruq office as well. A crackdown on key ISIS operatives in Turkey forced ISIS to shift its operations to the Al-Sham office although the Al-Faruq office remained open. ISIS still manages to run its operations, raise funds and enlist new fighters right across the Turkish border in northern Syria including in territories that are under the control of the Turkish Armed Forces and its affiliated fighter groups.
The killing of ISIS leader Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Salbi on February 3 by US forces took place in the Atmah region, which is effectively controlled by Turkey. It was impossible for Turkish intelligence agency MIT not to have known about al-Salbi since Atmah, located near the Turkish border, is a MIT base for clandestine operations in Syria.
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. 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.
The Erdoğan government boasts that Turkey is the only NATO country that has fought ISIS on the ground while hiding the true nature of the supposed crackdown on the jihadist group. 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.
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.