On 1 July, AKP deputy head of Diyarbakır’s Lice district Orhan Mercan was shot dead in front of his house. “We tried to gauge how hardline they were by asking questions like whether they could be friends with people who didn’t carry out Islamic requirements”, a Turkish security official said. “Foreign fighters would come in with valid travel documents as ordinary tourists and countries of origin were not sharing information with us”, one official said. For the most part, the authorities rely on surveillance – monitoring those they believe may pose a threat – combined with short detentions designed to scare anyone whom they think is poised to join militant circles away from doing so. Salafi groups in Turkey strive for the restoration of “real Islam” based on a literal reading of the Quran and sunna (sünnet).
An interior ministry official gave this estimate in 2018 in an interview with a Crisis Group consultant. Intensive Turkish policing over the past few years appears to have disrupted potential attacks and helped keep in check those still committed to militancy. The authorities have made some attempts to assess risks that could offer a starting point for further analysis.
“Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism – Prison and Probation Interventions”, Radicalisation Awareness Network, 2018. 20 July 2017 marks the two-year anniversary of a collapsed ceasefire that previously held for two-and-a-half-years between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The newspaper did not disaggregate male and female returnees. Fatalities resulting from military operations rose in other south-eastern provinces, in particular Tunceli (28 confirmed militant deaths in February) and Bitlis (38 confirmed militant fatalities in May and June). “We are not there yet”, said one high-level ministry official. Short-term detentions usually target people who come into contact with individuals under surveillance. They said police had told them that unless a crime is committed, they had no role.
See Eroğlu, ISIS Networks, op. See Lorenzo Vidino et al., “Il carcere e il suo paradosso: bacino di reclutamento per aspiranti mujaheddin e garanzia di riabilitazione per i detenuti” in De-Radicalizzazione” [“Prisons and their Paradox: Recruitment Ground for Aspiring Mujahidin and Rehabilitation of Prisoners”], Journal of the Italian Intelligence Community (June 2018). [fn]“ISIS executioner who burned two Turkish soldiers alive in sick video is killed in a firefight in Syria”, Daily Mail Online, 4 July 2018.
In the run-up to the referendum both the PKK and the government used the threat of violence to rally their supporters. Turkish security forces "neutralized" at least four PKK terrorists in northern Iraq, the country's Defense Ministry announced Monday.
Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, January 2020, Istanbul. It does not seem to be a durable solution”. Still, scant data exists on the diverse trajectories of former ISIS members. Former Soviet Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev, father of current President Ilham Aliyev, said in 2002: “I tried to change demographics there […] I tried to increase the number of Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh and the number of Armenians decreased.” The collapse of the Soviet Union unsurprisingly led to the Artsakh War, which only ended after a ceasefire in 1994 when Armenian forces achieved a decisive victory. A direct Turkish attack on Armenia could activate the CSTO. [fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op.
[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Ankara and Istanbul, July-October 2019.Hide Footnote President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on 10 October 2019 that so far 17,000 people had been detained for suspected links with ISIS (it is unclear if this number includes duplicates, in that the same person is detained more than once in a given time period). [fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, July 2019; Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote ISIS networks are still present, officials say, but with degraded capabilities. “Türkiye’yi tehdit eden IŞİD’li 2 kez gözaltına alınıp serbest bırakıldı” [ISIS member who has threatened Turkey, was detained and released twice], TimeTurk, 21 January 2017. Ankara saw the referendum results as vindication of its hard-line approach: it interpreted the fact that the “Yes” camp received 10 per cent more votes in the south east than the AKP got in the 2015 elections as demonstrating support for its strategy to “eradicate” the PKK.
A source close to Salafis said “the concept of gaining religious credibility with time served in prison is common among Takfiri Salafi circles”.
Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, March 2018. [fn]“In Syria under ISIS they were more comfortable, as a couple, because all women wore the same attire, the full black khimar and niqab, while in Turkey they would be searched even if the metal detectors gave no signal”, said an investigative journalist who has conducted extensive research on Salafi groups in Turkey.
The women’s branch of PKK’s urban youth wing, YPS-Jin (Civil Protection Units-Women), claimed responsibility, alleging Mercan was spying for the state and trying to recruit Kurdish youths as spies. Crisis Group interview, local human rights lawyer, Adıyaman, July 2019.
Many states are struggling to assess the threat ISIS returnees could pose and how to respond. Most Turkish officials claim that “FETÖ”-linked police and prosecutors seeking to destabilise the country turned a blind eye to ISIS activity and that those officials’ dismissal strengthened Turkey’s counter-terrorist fight across the board. See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°37, Understanding Islamism, 2 March 2005. The U.S. appears to temporarily have helped curb risks of escalation by pressuring the PKK to rein-in attacks in Turkey’s densely-populated urban centres including in the west of the country and by remaining closely engaged with the YPG (including in some instances by co-locating its special forces). As Crisis Group argued in its latest report, the marginalisation of the legal Kurdish political movement could have long-term consequences, legitimising resort to violent means and driving up PKK recruitment. Starting from last week, Turkey and Azerbaijan have increased their campaign in claiming that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Baku, was operating in Artsakh. [fn]The prominent Turkish daily Hürriyet claimed in May 2015 that of the 2,700 Turkish citizen ISIS members who went to Syria and Iraq, 1,500 had returned to Turkey. Mid-level officials in Ankara express the need for options beyond security measures. From December 2016 to July 2017, around 50 per cent of all confirmed fatalities occurred in these four provinces, compared to around 70 per cent in the previous sixteen months (July 2015-November 2016). Crisis Group Skype interview, September 2019. This number included some 1,150 Turkish men and 50 women jailed for alleged ISIS-related crimes, some 28,000-30,000 for alleged “FETÖ”-linked activities and 8,000-10,000 for alleged PKK involvement.Hide Footnote Where possible, inmates are also grouped according to their seniority in their respective organisations. As of July 2019, it was most convenient for a Turkish citizen who wanted to come from Syria to cross back around Hatay. Other officials said a “Yes” vote would put an end to all terrorist activity in the country whether carried out by the PKK or by what the government calls the Fetullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), allegedly led by Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric living in the U.S. who the government blames for masterminding the 15 July coup attempt.
Europol has also highlighted the potential threat of returnees in relation to the reestablishment of logistical, financial and recruitment cells.
Turkey’s heavy focus on surveillance and periodic catch-and-release detentions is resource-intensive.
“Some who crossed back, including foreign nationals, and are hiding have formed two- to three-person dormant cells waiting to be activated”, a Turkish security official said. “Takfiri” is a pejorative term for Salafi-jihadists, playing up their takfir, or pronouncement of apostasy, upon Muslims whom they accuse of acts that “negate” Islam. See “The Alevis’ fight for recognition in Turkey”, Deutsche Welle, 26 January 2020; and “Turkey elections 2018”, TRT World, 27 June 2018. Crisis Group interview, Turkish presidency official, Ankara, October 2019. As the authorities stepped up counter-terrorism efforts, some returnees came under tight surveillance.
“Most of the families of those who joined ISIS I know had migrated from rural areas to cities in the last two decades. Crisis Group interview, researcher who conducted relevant field research in 2015-2016, Ankara, April 2019.