Op ed in The Hill by ICSVE Director, Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. and Deputy Director Ahmet S Yayla, Ph.D. July 20, 2016
As the July 15 coup attempt was taking place in Turkey, Turkish-speaking ISIS social media lit up against the coup and against the overthrow of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. ISIS cadres knew if the coup succeeded, it would mean their end in Turkey.
Indeed, according to our interviews with dozens of Syrian ISIS defectors now hiding in southern Turkey, and Dr. Yayla’s experience as Former Chief of Counter-terrorism for the Turkish National Police, the Erdogan government has consistently turned a blind eye to tens of thousands of ISIS supporters using the Istanbul airport and porous Turkish border to cross into Syria to join ISIS.ADVERTISEMENT
ISIS recruitment of foreigners is unprecedented for any terrorist group. It’s known to have recruited 38,000 foreign fighters so far, starting with its potent online propaganda and ending with most recruits entering Syria through its shared border with Turkey. Likewise, the recent terrorist massacres in Belgium and Paris proved ISIS’ ability to cross through Turkey into Europe to carry out attacks.
Despite Erdogan’s claims that he is fighting ISIS, evidence indicates that he has been, and continues to be, deeply complicit in allowing ISIS to transport, not just recruits via Turkey, but also weapons and supplies. These chilling facts have been confirmed over and again during our ISIS defector interviews. A former emir [commander] told us that ISIS had been able to construct thousands of propane tank bombs from supplies they brought in through Turkey.
Erdogan, it appears, has been playing a double game because quietly supporting ISIS plays to his advantage. He needs ISIS as a tool to quell the PKK, the Kurdish rebel forces that are anti-Turkish rule, anti-Erdogan, and anti-ISIS. Erdogan’s temporary closing of the Incirlik airbase where U.S.-led Coalition jets (not to mention U.S. nukes) are based, curtailed Coalition planes from offering air support to Kurds fighting ISIS in Syria.
ISIS supporters in Turkey proclaimed certain victory over their mutual enemy. “The real power of the Islamic State was shown for the last two days as the Incirlik base was closed and the PKK lost air support. May Allah be our witness,” wrote one Turkish ISIS supporter in an ISIS chat room, “Without the air support PKK enjoys, we will wipe them out completely from the land of Sham [Damascus] in a month very easily,” reflecting much of the pro-ISIS Turkish chatter on social media. Operations out of Incirlik have since resumed but the future of the airbase is in question.
As experts discuss the fallout of the recent failed coup, Erdogan has been making mass arrests that will likely have a significant impact on Turkey’s counter–terrorism abilities. Over 3,000 military officers, around 10,000 police officers including police chiefs, and over 3,000 prosecutors and judges including two constitutional court judges and several high ranking judges were arrested as of July 18th, with more expected.
Among those arrested are judges and prosecutors appointed to the courts specializing in counter-terrorism, and elite military officers and police chiefs who form the backbone and forces of those charged with fighting terrorism — the Turkish Military and the Turkish National Police. Effective counter-terrorism requires commitment, ongoing training, and experience.
It will take years for new personnel to be trained and gain enough experience to address complex terrorism issues. Most of the high-level expertise and experience behind Turkey’s counter-terrorism efforts has been torn down as of these July 18th arrests. ISIS stands to benefit.
As does President Erdogan, who has also arrested hundreds of journalists and begun consolidating judicial, military and other state powers to himself—constructing a power vertical similar to how Vladimir Putin took over the newly emerging Russian democracy and became its de-facto dictator.
That ISIS members would cheer for Erdogan and his government and against the attempted coup, shows how much freedom they have been enjoying under Erdogan’s administration. From foreign fighters to traders of ISIS sex slaves, alleged perpetrators have been released from prison without trial.
In March 2016, the leader of ISIS in Turkey, Halis Bayancuk and his deputies, were suddenly released from prison though there was ample evidence of Bayancuk’s activities managing foreign fighter movement and logistical support for ISIS, including helping two French women travel from Istanbul to Gaziantep, a well known border town in southeastern Turkey, to join ISIS.
Similarly, a legal case against Gaziantep businessmen who were facilitating the sale of ISIS sex slaves over the Internet was abruptly closed in a manner unusual for Turkish courts.
As Erdogan has beaten the attempted coup and consolidated even more power to himself, it appears that ISIS also scored a big win. And it begs the question, should we expect more ISIS attacks if its cadres are able to more freely move people and supplies across the Syrian border via Turkey, ISIS’ gateway into Europe and beyond?
Ahmet S. Yayla is co-author of the book ISIS Defectors: Inside the Terrorist Caliphate and Deputy Director at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He is the former Chief of Counterterrorism and Operations Division for the Turkish National Police and Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.[annespeckhard.com] is the author of five books including the just-released ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate[amazon.com] which she co-authored with Dr. Yayla. She is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, Georgetown University, and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism,ICSVE[icsve.org].