The Islamist government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been thwarting efforts to obtain information on the number of convicted Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists in Turkey, invoking national security concerns to justify not releasing ISIS figures to the public.
The government has not responded to multiple questions submitted by lawmakers to the Parliament Speaker's Office, refusing to reveal the number of successful convictions in ISIS cases across the country. Similar attempts by citizens who used the Right Information Act to find out how many ISIS terrorists had been convicted and imprisoned also failed, with the Erdoğan government invoking national security concerns to justify withholding the information.
Turkish law enforcement agencies periodically round up ISIS suspects, but most of them are let go, either at arraignment or during trial proceedings, with very few convicted. Even many of those who were convicted by criminal courts were acquitted when the rulings were overturned by an appeals court.
The systematic failure of the criminal justice system in cracking down on the ISIS network is believed to be part of a government policy that instructs members of the judiciary to be lenient on ISIS suspects and use every procedural flaw to undermine cases brought before the courts. Compounding matters further is the lack of focus by the judiciary on such cases as it instead concentrates on stifling dissent and punishing critics and opponents of the Erdoğan government through an abuse of criminal procedure.
Turkish Law No. 4982, titled "The Right to Information Act," provides citizens the opportunity to ask the government questions on various issues, and the government is obliged to respond, except in cases that may compromise national security, violate privacy or jeopardize ongoing investigations. However, the number of convictions and trials concluded for a listed terrorist organization certainly do not fall within this scope.
In fact, partial information about ISIS was revealed by government officials in the past when it suited their purposes. The last time the Turkish public was informed about the number of ISIS militants in prison, convicted or still being tried as suspects, was on July 21, 2020 when then-Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül stated that there were 1,195 ISIS arrestees and convicts in prison as of December 16, 2019. Of these 791 were foreign nationals, he added.
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.
Since then, the government has not shared any figures on ISIS militants in prison and has adopted a new policy of not responding to either parliamentary questions submitted by opposition lawmakers in line with established procedures or citizens exercising their rights under the Right to Information Act.
In May 2022 a citizen petition seeking ISIS figures filed with the Presidential Communications Center (CİMER) under the Right to Information Act failed to obtain the desired response from the government, which cited the exceptions contained within the law concerning national security. The petition was referred to the Security Directorate General's (Emniyet) counterterrorism department, which monitors ISIS cells in Turkey. But the bureau refused to share any data on ISIS terrorists in prison, effectively saying that the matter is of national security importance and that the public has no right to know about jailed ISIS militants.
Then an opposition lawmaker brought this lack of transparency and response on ISIS figures to the parliamentary agenda by submitting a question to the justice minister on May 16, 2022. Alpay Antmen, a deputy from Mersin province, asked the government the following questions:
1 – How many attacks have been carried out by ISIS in Turkey so far, and how many people have lost their lives in the attacks?
2 – What is the number of criminal cases filed against ISIS members across Turkey? How many ISIS members are on trial for membership in the organization and how many were sentenced? How many people have been sentenced for attacks carried out by ISIS in Turkey?
3 – What is the number of ISIS members still being sought? Has the main [core case about the ISIS command structure in Turkey] case been filed against the ISIS organization? How many public officials have been prosecuted in connection with ISIS attacks, and how many of them have been sentenced?
4 – How many ISIS members are currently in prison? How many of them are imprisoned and how many are convicted? As of the date of the response to the question, how many ISIS members have been released so far? What is the number of people who were in prison on ISIS charges but later released?
According to Article 98 of the Turkish Constitution, Cabinet ministers are required to respond to parliamentary questions within two weeks. Yet Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ has not responded to any of these questions according to parliamentary records.
Behind this shroud of secrecy lies the motivation to hide the Erdoğan government's revolving door policy, which has been quietly implemented since 2014 across the criminal justice system. Prosecutors and judges get their instructions from Erdoğan's office on how to go soft on radical groups that are part of the hard core support base of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The man who is in charge of executing this revolving door policy is Erdoğan's personal lawyer, Mustafa Doğan İnal, who in the past represented notorious al-Qaeda suspects including Yasin al-Qadi, who was at one time designated by the UN and the US Treasury. With Erdoğan's political backing, İnal, a radical Islamist figure himself, also orchestrated the acquittal of all 52 suspects in the case of Tahşiyeciler, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Turkey led by radical cleric Mehmet Doğan (aka Mullah Muhammed), who openly declared his admiration for Osama bin Laden and called for armed jihad in Turkey.
The probe revealed that the terrorist group had sent close to 100 people to Afghanistan for arms training. In seized tape recordings, Doğan was heard calling for violent jihad: "I'm telling you to take up your guns and kill them." He also asked his followers to build bombs and mortars in their homes, urged the decapitating of Americans, claiming that the religion allows such practices. "If the sword is not used, then this is not Islam," he stated. According to Doğan, all Muslims were obligated to respond to then-al-Qaeda leader bin Laden's armed fight.
Erdoğan vigorously defended the indicted cleric, helping him get acquitted by his loyalist judges and prosecutors when he was arrested and tried; jailed journalists who criticized his radical group; and even launched an unsuccessful civil suit in the US against Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen for defaming the fanatic. The legal strategy for all of this was managed by İnal and his team.
In order to deflect international criticism on the lack of concrete action in cracking down on jihadist groups including ISIS, the Erdoğan government resorts to a tactic of inflating police detention figures, which do not translate into successful convictions and often end up in quick releases. That's why the figures on convictions of ISIS suspects are treated as a state secret in Turkey.
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.