According to recent data disclosed by the Turkish interior minister, Turkish authorities have been releasing a growing number of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) detainees this year compared to last year. This pattern highlights the lenient treatment of jihadist suspects within the criminal justice system, while the government continues to crack down on nonviolent, law-abiding government critics, opponents and dissidents.
In a message posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, on September 14, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya stated that the police had detained 440 ISIS suspects in the last three months, with only 106 of these detainees being formally arrested. In other words, three-quarters of the ISIS suspects were released by Turkish authorities after a brief detention.
This indicates that the rate of release for ISIS suspects has increased compared to figures from the previous year, which stood at two-thirds of all detainees released. On February 2, 2023 then-interior minister Süleyman Soylu said the police had detained 1,981 individuals on suspicion of links to ISIS the previous year, with over 600 of them being formally arrested, while the remainder was released.
This indeed confirms that the Turkish judiciary, under the significant influence of the Islamist government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tends to take a more lenient approach when addressing jihadist terrorism. It also highlights the continued existence of the government's unspoken "revolving door" policy, where militants are quietly released after a short period in a holding cell.
Furthermore, the Erdogan government continues to classify the number of ISIS convicts as a national security secret. Authorities have not shared the actual figures for how many ISIS members are currently incarcerated on terrorism charges since 2019. It is believed that this number is relatively low, given that a significant portion of ISIS suspects who were formally arrested at arraignment were subsequently released after a brief pretrial detention and often acquitted at the conclusion of their trials.
Indeed, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that a relatively small number of ISIS convictions have been upheld on appeal, leading to a decrease in the number of ISIS members currently incarcerated in Turkey.
The Erdogan government frequently highlights detention numbers as evidence of its commitment to combating the ISIS network in Turkey, all while keeping the actual conviction numbers concealed. This lack of transparency even prevents the government from sharing information when demanded by opposition lawmakers who have filed parliamentary questions seeking information on these convictions. Despite the legal obligation to respond within two weeks to such requests, the government has consistently remained unresponsive.
The last time the Turkish public received information regarding the number of ISIS militants in prison, whether convicted or still on trial, was on July 21, 2020. At that time, then-justice minister Abdülhamit Gül revealed that as of December 16, 2019, there were 1,195 ISIS arrestees and convicts in prison, with 791 of them foreign nationals. However, the statement did not specify how many were serving sentences as a result of successful convictions, since many ISIS suspects had either been acquitted or had their convictions overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
The consistent failure of the criminal justice system to effectively combat the ISIS network is believed to be part of a government policy that instructs members of the judiciary to adopt a lenient approach towards ISIS suspects. This policy encourages the use of procedural flaws to undermine cases presented to the courts.
Furthermore, the judiciary's focus appears to be primarily directed towards stifling dissent and penalizing critics and opponents of the Erdogan government through the misuse of criminal procedures rather than concentrating on addressing ISIS-related cases.
In May 2022 a citizens' petition requesting ISIS statistics filed with the Presidential Communications Center (CİMER) under the Right to Information Act did not receive the desired response from the government. The government cited exceptions in the law related to national security.
The petition was then forwarded to the Security Directorate General's (Emniyet) counterterrorism department, which monitors ISIS cells in Turkey. However, the department declined to disclose any data on ISIS terrorists in prison, effectively stating that the issue was a matter of national security and that the public did not have the right to access information about incarcerated ISIS militants.
This veil of secrecy appears to be driven by the desire to conceal the Erdogan government's "revolving door" policy, which has been discreetly implemented across the criminal justice system since 2014. It is believed that prosecutors and judges receive directives from Erdogan's office to adopt lenient stances towards radical groups that form part of the core support base of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
To deflect international criticism regarding the perceived lack of concrete action against jihadist groups, including ISIS, the Erdogan government appears to employ a strategy of inflating police detention figures. However, these figures do not necessarily lead to successful convictions and often result in rapid releases. This discrepancy is why the actual numbers of convictions involving ISIS suspects are treated as a state secret in Turkey, contributing to concerns about transparency and effectiveness in addressing such security threats.
There have been credible reports that certain ISIS cells in Turkey and Syria have affiliation or connections with Turkish intelligence agency MIT (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı). Some reports have even suggested that MIT could have been involved in supporting and directing certain operations to further the policy objectives of the Erdogan government, both domestically and abroad.
An intelligence report published earlier by Nordic Monitor revealed that İlhami Balı, the mastermind behind a string of deadly terrorist attacks in 2015 blamed on ISIS, was in fact working for MIT. The terrorist attacks helped Erdogan maintain his regime and regain the majority in parliament he had briefly lost in the summer 2015 elections.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Sweden-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.