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A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks
A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Riot police fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators during a protest against the curfew in Sur district, in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, on 14 December 2015. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar
Briefing 77 / Europe & Central Asia

A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks

New clashes between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have deepened the country’s social cleavages, killed hundreds, and helped the Islamic State. Neither side can win militarily. To end the conflict, Turkey needs more than just a new ceasefire: a clearly defined peace process and, in parallel, a reform agenda addressing Kurdish rights.

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I. Overview

Locked in their deadliest violence in two decades, the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) should urgently resume peace talks. The return to a military-based approach to the conflict and domestic political polarisation, fuelled by a spillover of the Syrian conflict, have dismantled the achievements of peace talks undertaken during the 2.5-year ceasefire which collapsed in July 2015. Bloody urban battles in the south east have since then given the conflict a new, unpredictable momentum. The failure to secure peace has cost more than 550 lives – up to 150 of them civilian, including that of the well-known human rights lawyer and Diyarbakır bar association head Tahir Elçi on 28 November. Turkey faces a critical choice: to advance its military strategy against the PKK in a fight that is bound to be protracted and inconclusive, or to resume peace talks. Whichever course it chooses, however, a comprehensive solution to the Kurdish issue will necessitate addressing long­standing Kurdish rights demands.

With a new government in place after the 1 November election, now is the time to reverse the spiral of mistrust between Ankara and the disparate Kurdish movement, represented, at times interchangeably and without clear mandates, by the legal Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), now in the parliament, as well as the outlawed PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

The resumption of violence between the Turkish state and the PKK benefits the violently extremist Islamic State (IS). In Syria, Ankara worries that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, will transform its gains against IS into a contiguous land corridor along Turkey’s southern border. This perceived threat has at times overshadowed Ankara’s focus on the fight against IS. Since May, four alleged-IS attacks targeting pro-Kurdish activists in Turkey – including the country’s deadliest ever bombing, on a peace rally in Ankara – have strengthened the perception among Kurds that the state does not protect them. The debate on these incidents underscores the need for Ankara to widen its domestic crackdown against IS. It also reflects deepening social cleavages not only between Turkish and Kurdish communities, but also along other sectarian and cultural fault lines. If left unbridged, these may undermine Turkey’s fragile social cohesion.

The new government has declared that it will not restart talks with Öcalan. Its strategy is instead centred on fighting the PKK, particularly until its recently empowered urban structures are eradicated, while pursuing a unilateral, vaguely defined, reform agenda pertaining to Kurdish rights that minimises engagement with the Kurdish movement and its main legal political actor, the HDP. An approach that marginalises the HDP and its reform-minded constituency with an interest in resolving the Kurdish issue by legal means risks further channelling Kurdish nationalism into armed struggle.

After three decades of fitful deadly conflict, both sides understand a military confrontation will not secure victory but believe themselves in a strengthened position to maximise gains. They are focused on weakening the other as much as possible, while waiting for the Syria quagmire to settle before considering a return to a ceasefire and peace talks. Under pressure from the spillover of the protracted Syrian conflict, as well as the IS threat, they should urgently end violence in the country’s population centres and agree on ceasefire conditions.

Free from electoral pressures for four years, the new government needs to formulate a concrete reform agenda to address Kurdish rights demands – including decentralisation and mother-tongue education – that can be advanced within legal structures, political parties and parliament. To restore trust, it must also ensure the effective investigation of past and present human rights abuses and prevent recurrence. The PKK and Kurdish local authorities should cease making declarations of autonomy that only alarm Turkish public opinion and harden Turkish politicians.

Talks with the PKK should resume in parallel, with a view to obtaining the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey and agreement on mechanisms for amnesty and reintegration of those who, without arms, would like to stay or return. Öcalan has underlined the need for a more structured format for the peace talks that would also bring in other PKK figures and the HDP, as well as a monitoring mechanism. To achieve a mutually agreed roadmap and timeline, the government needs to clarify its position on institutionalising the process so that the cyclical effort to resolve the conflict does not resemble the mythical endless attempt of Sisyphus to roll a boulder to the top of the hill.

Turkey’s allies in the West, who remain primarily focused on the Syrian crisis and its regional security and refugee consequences, should not dismiss the risks posed by a swiftly deteriorating conflict in Turkey. In their own interests, they should encourage Ankara to reassess its approach to the Kurdish issue.

Their November summit, which was primarily geared to the migration crisis, committed Turkey and the European Union (EU) to re-energise their relationship and enhance political and financial engagement. It created momentum to follow through on difficult deliverables, including reducing the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe, progress toward visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals wishing to enter the EU and opening of new chapters in the negotiations for Turkey’s EU accession. At the same time, the flare up in the PKK-Turkey conflict has complicated the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against IS, especially because Turkey refuses to collaborate with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD. Ankara-PKK peace talks could create parameters for a more constructive relationship between Ankara and the PYD, enhancing the international anti-IS efforts.

Istanbul/Brussels, 17 December 2015

13 people, taken under custody for their suspected links to the terrorist organization Daesh, are sent to court beside an accused, captured in an operation carried out by Turkish National Intelligence and Provincial Security Directorate, in Mersin, Turkey Sezgin Pancar Anadolu Agency via AFP
Report 258 / Europe & Central Asia

Calibrating the Response: Turkey’s ISIS Returnees

Turkey, like many countries, must figure out how to handle thousands of citizens coming home from jihadist battlefields abroad. None has mounted a domestic attack since 2017, but the danger is not gone. Authorities should consider adding enhanced social programs to their law-and-order approach.

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What’s new? Turkey has to deal with thousands of citizens who travelled to join ISIS and have now returned. Of the few convicted, many will soon be released from jail. Others are under surveillance. The fate of the rest is murky.

Why does it matter? ISIS’s diminished stature and measures adopted by the Turkish authorities have spared Turkey from ISIS attacks for more than three years. But while the threat should not be overplayed, it has not necessarily disappeared. That Turkish returnees turn their back on militancy is important for national and regional security.

What should be done? Ankara’s approach toward returnees or others suspected of ties to jihadism relies mostly on surveillance and detention. The government could consider also offering support for returnees’ families, alternatives for youngsters at risk of being drawn into militancy and support for returnees released after serving ISIS-related jail time.

Executive Summary

Turkey, like many countries, faces a challenge in dealing with citizens who travelled to join the Islamic State (ISIS) and have now come home. Thousands of returnees have crossed back into Turkey. Some were involved in ISIS attacks between 2014 and 2017 on Turkish soil that killed nearly 300 civilians. As the authorities stepped up counter-terrorism efforts, some returnees came under tight surveillance. Some were prosecuted and jailed. Those who returned early on are more likely to have remained undetected. The collapse of ISIS’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq has sapped its ability to inspire and mobilise. Turkish clampdowns have also helped spare the country from ISIS attacks for more than three years. Still, scant data exists on the diverse trajectories of former ISIS members. Ankara’s reliance on surveillance and detention to disrupt ISIS is resource-intensive and may not be fool-proof. The government could explore supplementary policies that offer help for returnees’ families, alternatives for youths at risk of being drawn into militancy and support for those released after serving time for ISIS-related crimes.

The profiles of Turkish citizens who joined ISIS varied widely and so did their motivations. They included veterans of past wars, some of whom were key recruiters; ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims, drawn by the prospect of life under strict Islamic rule; Islamist Kurds pitted against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has carried out an insurgency in Turkey for more than 35 years and is designated a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union, and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG); and youth seeking glory, wealth or “purification” of petty crime or drugs. Some returned to the social circles from which they were recruited. Others, rejected by their old friends and families, blended into Turkey’s big cities.

Ankara’s reliance on surveillance and detention to disrupt ISIS is resource-intensive and may not be fool-proof.

Turkish authorities’ understanding of the ISIS danger has evolved. At first, like counterparts in other countries, they underestimated the threat that returnees could pose and in 2014-2015 remained largely ambivalent toward ISIS recruitment. That perception began to shift over 2016, especially after an ISIS attack in May that year on Gaziantep province’s police headquarters, one in a spate of sixteen attacks between 2014 and 2017 that cost hundreds of civilians their lives, but the first that appeared to target Turkish state institutions. The most recent ISIS attack on Turkish soil was a shooting at a nightclub on 1 January 2017 that killed 39 people. Since then, security agencies have kept ISIS in check, foiling plots through surveillance, detention and tighter border security. But the threat has not entirely disappeared, as Turkish officials themselves admit. Turkish policies may have pushed returnees and what is left of their networks further underground. Even a few individuals slipping through the cracks can be a serious menace if they recruit, finance or plan future attacks.

Turkey faces challenges with prosecuting and incarcerating returnees similar to those faced by other countries, but there are also unique aspects. Turkish officials still view ISIS as less threatening to national security than the PKK insurgency or what they call the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation” (“FETÖ”), a transnational movement Ankara accuses of infiltrating the Turkish bureaucracy and carrying out the July 2016 coup attempt. Suspects accused of affiliation with the latter two groups face tougher prosecution and sentencing. Prosecutors and judges largely assume that women who went to Syria or Iraq to live under ISIS’s rule were simply obeying their husbands and had little agency. Lawyers for the victims of some ISIS attacks suggest that with more resources, investigations might have uncovered the masterminds of the strikes, rather than just the foot soldiers who carried them out. If convicted at all, ISIS returnees tend to be jailed for three or four years for membership in a terrorist group. Hundreds are due for release soon. In prisons, some may have accrued connections and possibly also status in militant circles.

At the same time, Turkish state institutions have only recently begun contemplating what they call “de-radicalisation” or “rehabilitation” efforts – broadly speaking, policies designed to move former militants away from jihadist ideology and violence. 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. To the extent that other policies exist, their goals are vague, and the approaches of the ministries involved uncoordinated. Social workers, police, imams, prison wardens and local officials lack specialised training and guidelines on how to deal with returnees and their families. Civil society actors are largely absent and officials reluctant to work with outsiders. Mid-level officials in Ankara express the need for options beyond security measures.

Despite the lull in attacks, the evolution of the Syria and Iraq conflicts could yet present Turkey with new challenges related to returnees, particularly if ISIS resurges in either country or battle-hardened fighters cross back from war zones in Syria’s north.

A number of steps could help. First, Turkey should differentiate between ISIS, PKK, “FETÖ” and ultra-leftist groups, each of which poses a different type of challenge to the Turkish state. Lumping them together muddles policy and hinders efforts to design an approach tailored to the jihadist threat. The government should ensure that overstretched judges, courts and prosecutors have the resources to investigate crimes by ISIS recruiters and returnees. Prison authorities and other agencies might share information on convicts jailed for ISIS-related crimes before their release to ensure they get appropriate support as they adapt to life outside bars. The authorities should consider what help they can offer families who seek aid in deterring youngsters from turning to militancy. They might also offer those young people extracurricular activities or jobs as alternatives. It is true that such programs have a mixed and often contentious record in other countries. But if the authorities are responding to families’ demands and are sensitive to their concerns, policies along these lines might still be valuable.

Despite the lull in attacks, the evolution of the Syria and Iraq conflicts could yet present Turkey with new challenges related to returnees, particularly if ISIS resurges in either country or battle-hardened fighters cross back from war zones in Syria’s north. Turkey has kept the threat at bay for more than three years with an approach based largely on surveillance and detentions. But a strategy toward returnees that combines security measures with social programs helping former ISIS members steer clear of militancy and supporting their families might over time be more sustainable and relieve some of the burden on the security services.

Istanbul/Ankara/Brussels, 29 June 2020

I. Introduction

Since 2013, Turkey has been a leading source of recruits for ISIS and a hub for smuggling weapons, supplies and people across the Turkish-Syrian border.[fn]A 2015 report ranked Turkish nationality among the top five “foreign fighter nationalities” in Syria and Iraq, after Tunisian, Saudi Arabian and Russian. It counted 2,000-2,200 Turks who had already joined ISIS or other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq by November 2015. The report adds: “Turkish fighters (who joined violent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria) appear to return home in greater numbers than those from elsewhere”. “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”, The Soufan Group, December 2015.Hide Footnote  The number of Turkish citizens who left to live in ISIS-held territory is high, with estimates ranging from 5,000-9,000.[fn]Some studies have estimated that between 2013 and 2016, up to 9,000 Turkish citizens, including women, have gone to Syrian or Iraqi ISIS-held territory (some more than once, returning for certain periods). The methodology of such studies is often unclear. See Serhat Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler” [Turkey’s mujahidin fighting in Syria and Iraq], Al Jazeera Türk, 25 May 2015. Ahmet S. Yayla, “Turkish ISIS and AQ Foreign Fighters: Reconciling the Numbers and Perception of the Terrorism Threat”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 42 (July 2019). Other accounts in Turkish media and from Turkish political parties and officials hint at the number of Turkish citizens who joined. In June 2014, the Turkish daily Milliyet reported that ISIS had 3,000 Turkish members (without specifying whether this number included women). “3 bin Türk savaşıyor” [3,000 Turks are fighting], Milliyet, 13 June 2014. In February 2015, then Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said 1,000 youth of Turkish nationality (without specifying their gender) had joined ISIS. “Arınç: IŞİD’e Türkiye’den 1,000 kişi katıldı” [Arınç: 1,000 individuals from Turkey joined ISIS], Bianet, 23 February 2015; in March 2015, the Turkish daily Hürriyet reported that 2,307 Turkish citizens had joined ISIS (without specifying their gender). “Üç oğlu birden IŞİD’e katıldı” [All three of his sons joined ISIS], Hürriyet, 20 March 2015; a July 2016 field-based report prepared by Professor Ümit Özdağ for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), of which he used to be a member, concluded that between 5,200-9,000 had joined ISIS or the al-Nusra Front, excluding women and children, whom the report estimated made up around 40 per cent of the Turkish citizens who went. Report covered in “Türkiye’nin detaylı IŞİD raporu” [Turkey’s detailed ISIS report], Cumhuriyet, 1 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkey is thus one of the countries with the largest number of recruits in absolute terms, albeit not relative to its population of more than 80 million. In a 2015 nationwide poll, 3.2 per cent of Turkish respondents said they knew someone who had joined ISIS.[fn]“Metropoll IŞİD anketinden şaşırtan sonuçlar” [Striking results in Metropoll’s ISIS survey], Internet Haber, 15 October 2015.Hide Footnote  Still more may have planned to join but were foiled by circumstances and could harbour sympathy for the group while escaping state scrutiny. Thousands of recruits have now returned, many seemingly slipping undetected back across the border.

Turkey initially showed an ambivalent attitude to the flow of fighters across its southern border. In the Syrian civil war’s early stages, the Turkish authorities, like their counterparts in some other countries, adopted a relatively complacent view toward young people going to join rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°178, How the Islamic State Rose, Fell and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb, 24 July 2017.Hide Footnote  In 2013 and 2014, when Turkish families notified officials of sons and daughters tempted to join ISIS, the authorities did little to stop them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, returnee families, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish officials claim they were “caught off guard” in the war’s early years. “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.[fn]Turkish foreign ministry official, speech at workshop titled “Radicalisation, Terrorism and Foreign Terrorist Fighters: The Current State of Affairs and Future Steps”, Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM), Ankara, 2 May 2019.Hide Footnote  Western and domestic critics, however, accuse Ankara of turning a blind eye to militants’ movement across the border.[fn]Some Western officials and Turkish government critics argue that some in Ankara did not prioritise tackling ISIS because they viewed it as opposing common enemies, in that it was curbing the advance of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the YPG, and weakening the Assad regime. Crisis Group interviews, academics, lawyers and opposition party affiliates, summer 2019.Hide Footnote  Despite improved border security, illegal entry from Syria still takes place. There is also the risk of still more militants seeking to enter Turkey in the event of an all-out, Russian-backed regime offensive in Idlib.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°213, Silencing the Guns in Syria’s Idlib, 14 May 2020.Hide Footnote

While Turkey has suffered no attack claimed by or attributed to ISIS since January 2017, returnees were involved in earlier plots. The first deaths at ISIS’s hands on Turkish soil took place in March 2014, when foreign militants returning from Syria shot two security force members (also killing one civilian). The security forces had attempted to stop the vehicle carrying the militants at the boundary of the central Anatolian province of Niğde. In 2015 and 2016, Turkish ISIS members who had travelled to Syria and returned targeted pro-Kurdish movement and opposition groups (see Appendix A). From 2014 to 2017, 291 people died in sixteen attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIS.[fn]See the list of ISIS attacks and corresponding court cases in Appendix A.Hide Footnote  Turkish authorities stepped up policing efforts to crack down on ISIS after a suicide bombing at police headquarters in the province of Gaziantep in May 2016 and four strikes on tourist sites in Istanbul between January 2016 and January 2017. Ankara credits such efforts for stopping attacks for over three years, saying it has foiled more than 30 plots.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.
 Hide Footnote

Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.Hide Footnote

There is insufficient data to judge the risk that Turkish returnees remain connected to ISIS or could return to its ranks, but some social dynamics that enabled past jihadist mobilisation are still present.

The 2017 collapse of ISIS’s territorial “caliphate” significantly weakened the group’s capacity to mobilise but did not make it or global jihadism irrelevant. If new opportunities to join ISIS or a new transnational militant outfit emerge, returnees – including those soon to be released from prisons – arguably could do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Turkish officials and returnees, July 2019-May 2020. Europol has also highlighted the potential threat of returnees in relation to the reestablishment of logistical, financial and recruitment cells. “TE-SAT 2014: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report”, Europol, 2014. Hide Footnote “I still hold onto most of my previous convictions, elhamdulillah (praise be to God)”, a Turkish returnee told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, May 2020.
 Hide Footnote
 ISIS cells – pushed underground by Turkey’s security clampdown – may also serve as a rear support network for the group, were it to regain strength in Iraq or Syria. ISIS continues to publish videos of Turkish militants pledging allegiance to the group, shows some signs of increasing assertiveness in Iraq and has instructed its affiliates worldwide to exploit potential disorder caused by the COVID-19 crisis (though it remains unclear if those calls have had any concrete impact).[fn]See Crisis Group Commentary, “Contending with ISIS in the Time of Coronavirus”, 31 March 2020; and Sam Heller, “When Measuring ISIS’s ‘Resurgence’, Use the Right Standard”, Crisis Group Commentary, 13 May 2020.
 Hide Footnote

There is insufficient data to judge the risk that Turkish returnees remain connected to ISIS or could return to its ranks, but some social dynamics that enabled past jihadist mobilisation are still present. Veterans of past jihadist wars remain influential.[fn]For an account of influential Turkish jihadists who were active in al-Qaeda before joining ISIS, see Doğu Eroğlu, ISIS Networks: Radicalisation, Organisation and Logistics in Turkey (Istanbul, 2018), pp. 63-69 (Turkish).Hide Footnote  A large number of Turkey’s Salafis bitterly oppose the West, the PKK and the Kurdish movement more broadly, as well as Alevis, heterodox Muslims whom Salafis view as infidels. Such social tensions do not necessarily mean that people will turn to militancy but in the past have helped push some toward violence.[fn]Together, Alevis and Kurdish movement supporters make up around 25 per cent of Turkey’s population. While there are no official statistics, estimates of the number of Alevis range from 15 to 20 per cent of the population. Judging by the electoral support for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the proportion of Kurdish movement sympathisers ranges from 8 to 12 per cent. See “The Alevis’ fight for recognition in Turkey”, Deutsche Welle, 26 January 2020; and “Turkey elections 2018”, TRT World, 27 June 2018.Hide Footnote  The state offers little in the way of support for troubled youth. Less than 10 per cent, or some 450 Turkish citizens (around 30 of them female), of the estimated thousands who returned are imprisoned on ISIS-related terrorism charges – around half of those under arrest are awaiting trial.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish justice ministry official, July 2019. The pro-government daily Yeni Şafak reported that, of the Turkish citizens imprisoned on ISIS-related charges, 95 were convicted and 138 were convicted by the first instance courts but awaiting their final appeals, while 189 remained under arrest. “Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var” [ISIS members from 40 countries are in Turkish prisons], Yeni Şafak, 8 November 2019.Hide Footnote It remains unclear how those who have not been caught and have gone home or hidden elsewhere fare.

As many countries grapple with how to handle returnees, this report focuses on steps Turkey is taking toward its own nationals and offers recommendations for how to deal with returnees to forestall new cycles of recruitment. There is little research on the recruitment into ISIS of Turkish nationals or their return from Iraq and Syria. This report aims to start filling that gap. It focuses on Turkish nationals, rather than on the equally important challenge posed by high numbers of foreign ISIS-affiliated individual members in Turkey, some of whom say they are determined to make the country their home.

The report is based on interviews conducted by Crisis Group between April 2019 and December 2019 in Istanbul and southern and south-eastern provinces of Turkey, as well as remotely in the first half of 2020. Crisis Group spoke with returnees, as well as relatives, friends and a range of others in places where returnees are now living or from where they were recruited. Widespread fear among returnees of prosecution and the stigma attached to ISIS hampered field research, as did travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was difficult to speak to female returnees, so research related to women formerly linked to ISIS relied on interviews with relatives and neighbours, as well as lawyers who know them personally. The report also draws on interviews with Turkish state officials from all relevant ministries as well as diplomats and grassroots actors. It builds on Crisis Group’s prior reporting on Turkey, Syria, surrounding countries and ISIS activities in the region.[fn]For previous coverage of related issues, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°273, Averting an ISIS Resurgence in Iraq and Syria, 11 October 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°72, Steadying the New Status Quo in Syria’s North East, 27 November 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°197, The Best of Bad Options for Syria’s Idlib, 14 March 2019; and Crisis Group Europe Report N°252, mitMitigating Risks for Syrian Refugee Youth in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa, 11 February 2019.Hide Footnote

II. Recruitment and Return

Turkish authorities have been successful in preventing ISIS attacks since January 2017 but lack a full picture of their significant returnee population. A systematic and comprehensive assessment of Turkey’s returnees that accounts for dynamics in different parts of the country would be important to determine what measures may be needed. A one-size-fits-all formula is unlikely to work.

One key determinant of whether former ISIS associates can turn their backs on the movement appears to be the social networks in which they find themselves once back.

The authorities have made some attempts to assess risks that could offer a starting point for further analysis. In one early effort to profile ISIS affiliates in prisons, officials concluded that most were not die-hard. “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. “They had been moved by the ‘Muslims are being victimised’ line and were excited and adventurous types looking for [a] sense of cause”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish authorities should build on such assessments. Policymakers might look at factors such as why individuals joined ISIS, how long they stayed with the group, what they experienced under the “caliphate”, whether they returned by choice or necessity, and how connected they remain to past networks.[fn]For factors identified as relevant elsewhere, see Edwin Bakker, Christoph Paulussen and Eva Entenmann, “Returning Jihadist Foreign Fighters: Challenges Pertaining to Threat Assessment and Governance of This Pan-European Problem”, Security and Human Rights, vol. 11 (2014); “Focus on Returnees”, General Intelligence and Security Service (Netherlands), 2017.Hide Footnote “If we could have four or five categories based on likely risks returnees could pose, these individuals can be subjected to different rehabilitation programs, tailor-made for each category”, one Turkish security official told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish security official, Ankara, October 2019.
 Hide Footnote

One key determinant of whether former ISIS associates can turn their backs on the movement appears to be the social networks in which they find themselves once back. If ISIS returnees rejoin the circles that enabled their recruitment or simply maintain connections with friends who are involved with militancy, they can more easily resort to violence again.[fn]Evidence from elsewhere supports this conclusion. See Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle and John G. Horgan, “Returning to the Fight: An Empirical Analysis of Terrorist Engagement and Recidivism”, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 31 (2019); Badi Hasisi, Tomer Carmel, David Weisburd and Michael Wolfowicz, “Crime and Terror: Examining Criminal Risk Factors for Terrorist Recidivism”, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 35 (2019).Hide Footnote  Some Turkish ISIS returnees have found different lives once back in Turkey: some rejected by or themselves choosing to turn away from their past contacts, some fearing prosecution and leading hidden lives in Turkey’s big cities. Others have simply folded back into their old social networks, including in areas that in the past were fertile ground for recruiters.

A. Who Joined, and Why?

Crisis Group’s research suggests that while ISIS appealed to diverse Turkish citizens, most men fit one of four profiles, which are not mutually exclusive: veteran jihadists from previous conflicts; marginalised urban youths; ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims; and Islamist Kurds whose primary motivation was fighting the PKK/YPG. Most women, or at least those whose stories Crisis Group learned of, appear to be primarily from conservative Sunni backgrounds and were eager to live under strict Islamist rule; many left with husbands, though often remarried, sometimes more than once, after being widowed.[fn]Assessing the motives of women who left for Syria is hard. The difficulty of talking directly to these women means that any assessment must rely on the views of friends or associates of the women, but more usually of their family members or lawyers, who are often men. According to Onur Güler, a lawyer defending ISIS suspects: “Due to the culture of the pious communities, Turkish women were not prone to joining ISIS without their husbands. Instances of women making their own decisions to go without a husband appear very rare, though in one case in Konya a woman decided to divorce her husband because she began regarding him as an infidel since he was working as a police officer and, in her eyes, serving the tağut [false god] state”. Crisis Group telephone interview, May 2020. A man who said his brother had been “martyred fighting the Nusayris (the Syrian regime) on behalf of ISIS” and who had, after his brother’s death, gone to Syria to bring back his brother’s wife, told Crisis Group: “Turkish women did not join individually like European women. I don’t know of any Turkish woman there whose story was not husband-centred”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 14 June 2020.Hide Footnote  Security officials say recruitment was particularly high in certain suburbs of Istanbul, Ankara, Adıyaman, Bursa, Gaziantep, Adana, Kocaeli and Konya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Istanbul, fall 2019.Hide Footnote  Most recruits were aged between eighteen and 26 and often joined alongside friends and relatives.[fn]Most accounts of Turkish ISIS returnees Crisis Group came across during its field research said the individuals were in the 18-26 age group when they joined the jihadists. Other field-based accounts, Crisis Group interviews with Turkish officials and news reports corroborate this finding.Hide Footnote  Turkish ISIS recruiters, by contrast, were mostly older than 35. According to returnees’ acquaintances, recruiters sought to attract youths with promises of a richer, more pious and purposeful life under ISIS rule.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Adıyaman and Diyarbakır, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Among Turkish nationals who took up recruitment and propaganda roles for ISIS were seasoned fighters from previous conflicts in Turkey’s neighbourhood or linked to al-Qaeda attacks in Turkey in 2003.[fn]Four al-Qaeda attacks in Istanbul in November 2003 targeted two synagogues, the British consulate and HSBC bank. Fifty-eight people were killed and 753 injured. Ely Karmon, “The Synagogue Bombings in Istanbul: Al-Qaeda’s New Front?”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 18 November 2003.Hide Footnote  Some had fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the 1990s, some mobilised to join the wars in Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo. A stream of Turkish pan-Islamist militants travelled from Afghanistan to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academics, Ankara, July 2019. Also see Serhat Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  ISIS seems to have exploited pre-existing networks in Turkey that had rallied people to join the insurgency against the U.S. occupation in Iraq.[fn]Aaron Stein, “The Islamic State in Turkey: a deep dive into a dark place”, War on the Rocks, 6 April 2016; Aaron Stein, “Islamic State Networks in Turkey”, Atlantic Council, October 2016.Hide Footnote  From 2012-2013, some of these veterans journeyed to Syria to participate in ISIS’ state-building project, while others played key roles as ISIS recruiters in Turkey itself.

The vast majority of Turks joining ISIS were, however, young – under 26 – and not seasoned fighters. Many reportedly hailed from rural families who had migrated to cities in the past two decades or lived in former countryside swallowed up by urban sprawl.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, academics, lawyers, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır and Şanlıurfa, summer 2019. “Most of the families of those who joined ISIS I know had migrated from rural areas to cities in the last two decades. … I would estimate that 70-80 per cent of those who joined from Bursa were children of families who migrated there from the majority-Kurdish east and south east of Turkey, so most were ethnically Kurdish, possibly with sympathies for the Kurdish Hizbullah”. Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  One of the world’s most rapidly urbanising countries, Turkey had one quarter of its population living in cities in 1950, a proportion that rose to three quarters by 2015.[fn]See Stephen Karam et al., “Rise of the Anatolian Tigers: Turkey Urbanization Review”, World Bank, April 2015.Hide Footnote  In the south-eastern province of Adıyaman – a recruitment hub for ISIS in 2014-2015 – much of the majority-urban population has moved to the city from rural villages over the last two decades.[fn]Crisis Group interview, mayor of Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

While social, economic and psychological grievances do not fully explain why youths joined ISIS – the vast majority of youngsters in deprived areas did not do so – they appear to have been contributing factors that made some young people more susceptible. People who had recently migrated to Adıyaman city felt looked down upon and uprooted, saying they missed their tightly knit villages; youth in particular struggled.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  “When they moved into the cities, families lost the social protection nets of rural life and didn’t have a status in urban life”, one local human rights worker said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Unemployment in the majority-Kurdish province is high and wages are low, with yearly per capita income of $4,771, less than half the national average of $9,693 in 2018.[fn]Data compiled by the Turkish Statistical Institute.Hide Footnote  “Some of those we caught returning from Syria at the border had up to $10,000 on them. Some men from the Black Sea region went like ‘seasonal workers’ to make money”, a Turkish security official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote Officials also voice concern that youths who are abusing drugs – cheap narcotics are readily available across Turkey – are more vulnerable to ISIS recruitment pitches.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adıyaman, July 2019. A single pill of the synthetic drug referred to as “ecstasy” costs 5 Turkish lira (75 cents) in Şanlıurfa and 20 lira ($3) in Istanbul. It is much cheaper than alcohol, which is heavily taxed. Crisis Group field observations, July 2019.Hide Footnote

In Turkey, ISIS recruiters appear to have appealed to prospective members’ desire to live under strict Islamic rules and escape what they described as state harassment.

Socio-economic ills were certainly part of the narrative spun by recruiters. Adıyaman locals referred to youths turning toward ISIS as “Cumasızlar” (those absent from Friday prayers) after they stopped attending the state imam’s sermons, viewing him as an “infidel” (kafir).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Male recruits were reportedly lured by promises of payments, polygamy and adventure.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, returnees, May 2020; Crisis Group interview, expert on ISIS recruitment and networks in Turkey, April 2019.Hide Footnote  According to telephone wiretaps of those charged with ISIS-related crimes, youth with criminal records or alcohol and drug problems sometimes saw joining as a second chance, describing it as “purification” (arınma) of past sins.[fn]See Eroğlu, ISIS Networks, op. cit., pp. 32-33. A lawyer defending individuals detained on ISIS-related terrorism charges estimated that 10-15 per cent of them had a history of petty crime or drug abuse. Crisis Group telephone interview, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  A local butcher is blamed by relatives for using such appeals to recruit over twenty youths in a few Adıyaman neighbourhoods.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, acquaintances of Turkish returnees, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  One such youth, Orhan Gönder, was sentenced to life in mid-December 2019 for a bombing in June 2015 at a Diyarbakır People’s Democratic Party (HDP) rally that killed five. Alevi by birth, he told his family at age sixteen that he was joining ISIS to learn the “real Islam”, his mother said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, mother of Orhan Gönder, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  His cousin, Ercan, who visits him in jail, said recruiters had told Gönder “his feelings of emptiness can only be overcome if they become part of a larger cause”.[fn]Crisis Group field research, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

ISIS also recruited among Salafis.[fn]Salafi groups in Turkey strive for the restoration of “real Islam” based on a literal reading of the Quran and sunna (sünnet). They object to modern Islamic practice that, in their view, has incorporated novel elements over time that distance it from the Prophet Muhammad’s example. Sometimes that translates into intolerance toward adherents of other strains of Islam, including Sufism and heterodox sects. Salafists differ among themselves over how to demonstrate their beliefs. Some “quietist” Salafists eschew political participation and focus instead on propagating Islam and perfecting their faith. Other “activist” (haraki) Salafists believe in participating in politics to achieve what they see as a more Islamic society and state. And “jihadist” Salafists abhor what they consider un-Islamic, tağut (false god) states and believe it necessary to topple them using violence, in order to eventually establish an Islamic state. See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°37, Understanding Islamism, 2 March 2005.Hide Footnote  Indeed, many returnees whose stories Crisis Group pieced together came from Salafi circles, sometimes having joined only a short time before leaving for Syria or Iraq. Most Salafis – in Turkey as elsewhere – are law-abiding. Moreover, the diversity of beliefs among those considered Salafis in Turkey is so wide that it would be hard to draw general conclusions about the relationship between Salafism in the country and violent jihad.[fn]More than 100 organisations that can be broadly categorised as Salafi are legally registered in Turkey as “associations” or “foundations”. Crisis Group interview, Turkish presidency official, Ankara, October 2019. An interior ministry official estimated the total membership at well over 60,000. An interior ministry official gave this estimate in 2018 in an interview with a Crisis Group consultant.Hide Footnote  Still, Turkish authorities admit that they keep a close watch on Salafis, some of whom in turn say they feel unjustly targeted.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish presidency official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  In a sign of the suspicion with which Ankara views Salafis, a 2016 Turkish police intelligence report estimated that 10,000-20,000 Turkish citizens were, in the report’s words, “radical Salafi/Takfiri”.[fn]“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.Hide Footnote  The report did not define what it meant by that term but noted that these people constituted a “potential threat to our country”.[fn]İsmail Saymaz, “İşte Emniyet’in selefi raporu: Türkiye tabanları 20 bine ulaştı, bu bir tehdit” [The Turkish National Police’s Salafi report: their supporter base has reached 20,000, this is a threat], Hürriyet, 25 April 2016. “I would characterise only a fraction, maybe 3,000-5,000, of Salafis as being close to resorting to violence as a means”, said a lawyer defending ISIS suspects. Crisis Group telephone interview, 30 May 2020.
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In Turkey, ISIS recruiters appear to have appealed to prospective members’ desire to live under strict Islamic rules and escape what they described as state harassment, including searches of women wearing the ultra-conservative full body and face covers.[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. Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, March 2019.Hide Footnote They reportedly sought recruits at gatherings around Salafi “travelling preachers” (gezici vaiz) at teahouses, bookstores and unofficial madrasas. “I went to live the Islam of our Prophet and his companions (sahabe)”, one Turkish ISIS returnee who lived in Raqqa for two years told Crisis Group. “I was literally hypnotised by the great way of life that we had there when I first arrived. I lived the real Islam”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, returnee, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote Especially in the civil war’s earlier phases, this desire to migrate resonated broadly among a segment of ultra-conservative Turkish citizens, many of whom were slow to react when the caliphate turned out not to be the utopia they had expected.

A last group, Islamist Kurds, joined to fight the YPG/PKK, whom they viewed as atheist. Some supported the Hüda-Par (Free Cause Party), a political offshoot of the Kurdish Hizbullah, a predominantly Kurdish Sunni Islamist militant group.[fn]See Eroğlu, ISIS Networks, op. cit., p. 229.Hide Footnote  The PKK and YPG were the most mentioned issue on Twitter by Turkish-speaking ISIS supporters, according to an analysis of more than 2,500 accounts and 787,400 tweets shared between 2013 and 2015.[fn]“Twitter Social Network Analysis on Turkish-speaking Daesh Supporters”, ORSAM, August 2016. This report’s methodology was based on J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and Describing the Population of ISIS Supporters on Twitter”, Brookings Institution, March 2015.Hide Footnote  The ISIS siege of the Syrian town of Kobani in September-October 2014 became a rallying cry. “We saw videos of fellow Muslims slaughtered by ‘the anarchists’ [the YPG/PKK]. This motivated many of us to join to defend our brothers”, one Kurdish male returnee said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote  In October 2014, Kurdish Hizbullah sympathisers clashed with pro-PKK Kurds protesting Turkey’s failure at the time to protect Kobani from ISIS; more than 50 people died over three days.[fn]“6-7 Ekim’in acı bilançosu 50 ölü” [Bitter consequence of 6-7 October protests: 50 dead], Hürriyet, 6 November 2014.Hide Footnote A cousin of another returnee from Diyarbakır tried to dissuade him from going, but said his cousin “was convinced that if we did not go fight the PKK they would soon finish off the rest of us [referring to Islamist Kurds]”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyarbakır, July 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Returning from the Caliphate

The fate and location of a significant portion of Turkish ISIS militants and their varyingly affiliated wives and children are unknown. Fearing the stigma of being associated with ISIS, some families have kept deaths secret, holding night-time burials.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local human rights lawyer, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Some analysts estimate that between 1,000-2,000 Turkish citizens, most of them males, died fighting in ISIS’s ranks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Diyarbakır and Adıyaman, July 2019. Estimates of the number of Turkish men killed fighting with ISIS vary: in May 2015, Serhat Erkmen estimated – based on his count of funerals in Turkey – that some 900 Turkish citizens had been killed fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit. In a July 2019 article, Ahmet Yayla said around 2,000 ISIS members of Turkish nationality were likely killed in combat. Yayla, “Turkish ISIS and Al-Qaeda Foreign Fighters”, op. cit. In June 2016, a Turkish foreign ministry representative was cited stating that 500 militants of Turkish nationality fighting in the ranks of ISIS or al-Nusra were killed in Iraq and Syria. Cited in Monica Marks, “ISIS and Nusra in Turkey: Jihadist Recruitment and Ankara’s Response”, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, June 2016.Hide Footnote  A smaller number defected to other insurgent groups, including jihadist militias, while hundreds of others have been detained in Syria or Iraq.[fn]Around 100 Turkish ISIS fighters and a few hundred Turkish women remain in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled camps. Crisis Group field observations, north-eastern Syria, June and October 2019. Around 400 Turkish women, mostly wives of ISIS fighters, remain imprisoned in Iraq. “Türkiye’ye getirilen IŞİD’lilerin 250 çocuğu travma tedavisine alındı” [250 children of ISIS families brought back to Turkey receive trauma therapy], T24, 14 August 2019. Ankara repatriated around 200 children of ISIS families held in those Iraqi prisons in mid-2019. “‘Her eyes were full of fear’: Turkey repatriates children of ISIS followers”, The New York Times, 27 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Thousands appear to have returned to Turkey from ISIS-controlled territory.[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. The newspaper did not disaggregate male and female returnees. Cited in Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Even some potential recruits who did not make it to Syria or Iraq arguably could pose a danger. “We should also worry about those who wanted to go and didn’t make it”, a Turkish official told Crisis Group. “Some of those who came back are still dangerous, but the point is, it is not just them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey experienced three waves of returns by citizens disillusioned, forced out by ISIS military defeats or loss of territory, or readying to take on other roles with ISIS elsewhere.

Part of the uncertainty owes to the once porous 911km border between Turkey and Syria. Turkish officials seem to have only a vague notion of how many people returned prior to 2016 before they tightened security.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Illegal crossing decreased due to stricter policing along the border after 2016, but, with the help of smugglers, people continued to cross back from Syria for a fee of $500-$2,000.[fn]The cost of crossing fluctuates according to smugglers’ success rates. Those with workable arrangements with bribed border guards charge more. As of July 2019, it was most convenient for a Turkish citizen who wanted to come from Syria to cross back around Hatay. Crossing in this area is relatively easy because authority is not clear-cut on the Syrian side of the border: refugees, rebels and aid workers can all blend together. If regime-affiliated people want to cross, they would enter through the westernmost point of Hatay, around Samandağ, because there is a small slice of regime-controlled territory on Turkey’s border with Syria there. Border controls at provinces bordering territory held by the SDF, the armed units dominated by the YPG, were stricter. Crossing through the Turkey-controlled Euphrates Shield area is also harder because Turkish security control is intense on the Syrian side. Also see “IŞİD’lilere 4 bin dolara sınırdan VIP geçiş” [VIP crossing for ISIS members costs $4,000], T24, 24 May 2019.Hide Footnote An investigative journalist said some of the 500 ISIS affiliates on whom he conducted research in 2014 and 2015 “were ‘part-time jihadists’ – they came and went a few times”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, March 2018.Hide Footnote  A new wall and beefed-up border security after mid-2018 further restricted movement to varying degrees, depending on where one intended to cross, but smugglers continued to find routes across with ladders, extracting a higher fee.[fn]“Suriye sınırı ‘akıllı’ sistemle daha güvenli” [Syria border more secure with ‘smart’ system], Hürriyet, 5 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey experienced three waves of returns by citizens disillusioned, forced out by ISIS military defeats or loss of territory, or readying to take on other roles with ISIS elsewhere. The first wave came back toward the end of 2014 and early 2015, after short visits to the caliphate; some were in Tal Abyad and escaped YPG-ISIS fighting there. Many militants also appear to have left for other countries around that time. The second surge in returns to Turkey came during the eight-month Operation Euphrates Shield against ISIS in 2016-2017, and the third during the battle for Raqqa in late 2017.[fn]Crisis Group field research, border provinces of Turkey, June 2018 and July 2019.Hide Footnote In smaller numbers, people have continued to return since then. One Turkish returnee from Bursa returned, for example, from Idlib in mid-2018 after joining the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) for a time there.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Turkish returnee, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Others who had been in Idlib were detained attempting to cross at the western end of the Syria-Turkey border in January 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, January 2020, Istanbul.Hide Footnote The circumstances of return to Turkey are varied, and offer only an incomplete picture of returnees’ motivations, but further study could help authorities understand the phenomenon.

Many ISIS members who returned to Turkey appear to have little contact with state authorities.[fn]A number of Turkish officials Crisis Group interviewed between July and October 2019 confirmed that many returnees, especially in the earlier waves, came back undetected.
Hide Footnote
Unlike some other countries, Turkey did not criminalise travel to designated ISIS-held areas in Syria and Iraq – although individuals can be charged with being members of a terrorist group if the state can prove they joined ISIS. Hundreds of Turks travelled to Syria to support rebel factions, providing cover for people wanting to join ISIS. Of the returnees Crisis Group spoke to directly or learned of through their acquaintances, many were never interrogated on their return.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, returnees or their acquaintances, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır, July 2019; and by telephone, May 2020.Hide Footnote  “A boy from here who went to Syria, came back secretly and is now working in a hotel in Antalya”, a shop owner in Adıyaman who knew the youth said.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Adıyaman, July 2019; Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote  Others were questioned and released. Turkish security officials say they are monitoring returnees, even if police have not interrogated all of them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Istanbul, fall 2019.Hide Footnote Many women who returned, sometimes with children, live with relatives and have little interaction with the outside world.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  In some cases, widows (including foreigners) are cared for by the families of their late husbands.[fn]“We know of at least seven foreign brides who are here in Adıyaman whose Turkish husbands were killed in Syria and the husband’s families accepted the women into their homes”. Crisis Group interview, cousin of a Turkish citizen returnee, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Gauging whether returnees remain committed to ISIS ideology or to violence more broadly is difficult. In media interviews and police interrogations, returnees often express remorse, saying they took no part in violence and left because ISIS failed to live up to their vision of life under Islamic rule.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, high-ranking police officer, Ankara, May 2019; and journalist, Istanbul, July 2019.Hide Footnote Crisis Group’s own interviews with returnees indicate that some still carry positive memories of living in the caliphate and are willing to link back up with ISIS or another similar group, while others returned disillusioned. “If a new caliphate was established, depending on circumstances, … I would consider joining again”, one individual who went to Syria in 2017 and returned nine months later told Crisis Group. Another returnee, who lived in Raqqa for more than two years before making his way back to Turkey in 2016, leaving his Syrian wife and daughter behind, said:

The first year under Dewle in Raqqa was great. We had everything, we were rich and getting very good salaries. In time, the weaker Dewle got, the harsher its methods to punish sinners and infidels in public squares became. I realised this was not what I had hoped for.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, September 2019. In Crisis Group interviews, Turkish returnees referred to ISIS as “Dewle”, which means “state” in Arabic.Hide Footnote

Some returnees escaped prosecution by telling officials that while in Syria they fought in Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups or were engaged in charitable or humanitarian work.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, relatives of returnees, Diyarbakır and Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Officials told Crisis Group that ISIS trains people to obscure their links to the group, and they continued monitoring “suspicious individuals”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, October 2019; Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Women often tell officials or researchers that their husbands coerced them into joining and they had long been seeking a way home.[fn]See Başak Yavcan and Gülriz Şen, “Assessing the Role of Women in Fighting Radicalisation”, Improving Capacity against Radicalization and Extremism for All (icare4all), March 2020.Hide Footnote  It is often hard to assess how genuine such claims are.

At least some returnees appeared to remain connected to their former ISIS network, referring in interviews to the current circumstances of others whom they had known in Syria and Iraq. One family told Crisis Group of locking up sons and confiscating their mobile phones to prevent them from remaining in contact with former fellow ISIS members or leaving for Syria again. Having joined and fought for ISIS remains a source of pride in some circles. “There were even some who had nothing to do with what was happening in Syria who congratulated me for going”, a man who joined at the age of 20 and returned to his hometown Bursa in 2018 told Crisis Group. “I received only few negative reactions”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Among Kurdish Salafis in Turkey’s east and south east, some ISIS returnees reportedly received from their religious circles so-called sayyid [Muslim claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad] certificates for fighting for ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher who conducted relevant field research in 2015-2016, Ankara, April 2019.Hide Footnote  The reputational gains of those who have fought for ISIS are well documented in other countries, including among imprisoned ISIS members.[fn]Studies find that the prestige and increased credibility of returning fighters mean that they are better able to recruit new members. See B.M. Jenkins, “When Jihadis Come Marching Home”, RAND Corporation, 2014; “Handbook for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism”, Council of Europe, 1 December 2016.Hide Footnote

III. Turkey’s Strategies Toward Returnees

Many states are struggling to assess the threat ISIS returnees could pose and how to respond. While many obstacles are shared, there are also unique aspects to Turkey’s efforts. Turkey’s focus on short-term detention, criminal investigation and prosecution appears to have disrupted attacks but has its limits: insufficient evidence complicates prosecution while mass surveillance is resource-intensive and far from failsafe. In some cases, “hard” security measures may even have unintended consequences. A closer look at some of the challenges Ankara faces in policing, prosecuting and detaining returnees might help Turkey determine whether and how to build out fledgling measures to help returnees reintegrate into society and deter recidivism, which would ease the burden on the security services.

Other countries have complemented security measures with “softer” policies, usually focused on “de-radicalisation”, ie, efforts to change former militants’ beliefs, “disengagement” – steps to move them away from a violent group or from using violence even if they retain some of those beliefs – or a blend of the two. Programs range from teaching peaceful interpretations of Islam to vocational training. They tend to be complex, costly and hard to evaluate, and have sometimes been controversial as well. They can require coordination among an array of stakeholders including security agencies, prison staff, religious scholars, community leaders, psychologists and specialised NGOs. In some countries, they have come in for criticism, especially for stigmatising communities targeted, tainting public servants, who arouse suspicion for being involved in state surveillance, or for distorting valuable social programs for counter-terrorism ends.[fn]For a comprehensive review of criticisms of de-radicalisation programs in Europe, see Lore Colaert (ed.), De-radicalisation: Scientific Insights for Policy, Flemish Peace Institute (Brussels, 2017).Hide Footnote  Still, some governments see them as a way to guard against jihadist recruitment and engage with returnees such as minors or those who cannot be charged for lack of evidence.

Turkey’s justice ministry, interior ministry and Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanet) – the state-run Muslim religious authority – have no fleshed-out policies along these lines for ISIS affiliates. Embryonic initiatives that do exist do not distinguish among affiliates of ISIS, the PKK, “FETÖ” or ultra-leftist militant groups.[fn]“Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü” (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation), or “FETÖ”, is a moniker used by the Turkish state since 2016 to refer to followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic preacher heading a transnational movement. Ankara accuses “FETÖ” of illicitly infiltrating state institutions and holds it responsible for the 15 July 2016 coup attempt. Followers refer to the movement as the Gülen, or Hizmet, movement, and to Fethullah Gülen as their spiritual leader.Hide Footnote All these groups represent different challenges to the Turkish state; lumping them together can make efforts confused and unfocused. While politicians and top officials seem content with what Ankara is now doing, mid-level officials in the interior and justice ministries and the Diyanet express a desire for greater guidance on dealing with ISIS returnees who have been detained or are being monitored and, indeed, for other Turks who did not join but might want to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, state representatives, Ankara and Şanlıurfa, July 2019.Hide Footnote Clarifying the aims of existing initiatives would be a good start. The Turkish state might also try out modest, additional social policies, such as after-prison release programs and support for families worried about relatives turning to militancy. Ankara should see these policies as a complement to the current approach, not a substitute for it.

A. Threat Perception

ISIS attacks in 2016 on Turkish soil prompted officials to step up efforts to police the group, and they now say they have the threat under control.[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.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  They say the group is organising in smaller cells, with more autonomous structures, geared toward carrying out attacks that require limited means and skills. “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.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.; and statements made by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on television in August 2019. “Türkiye’nin Nabzı – 20 Ağustos 2019 (İçişleri Bakanı Süleyman Soylu)” [Turkey’s Pulse – 20 August 2019 (Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu)], Habertürk, 20 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Following an April 2019 video in which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who was killed by U.S. special forces in late October 2019) holds a file labelled “Turkey Province”, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu publicly acknowledged that they assessed ISIS had become more active in Turkey and that Turkish intelligence and security units were “on alarm”.[fn]“In the company of the leader of the faithful”, Al-Furqan Media, 29 April 2019 (Arabic). “İçişleri Bakanı Soylu: Türkiye’de DEAŞ bir hareketlilik içerisinde” [Interior Minister Soylu: ISIS has become more active within Turkey], T24, 17 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey’s involvement in Syria and its support to certain rebel factions could com-plicate its domestic counter-terrorism efforts, particularly given the apparent fluidity among the membership of various jihadist groups.

Nonetheless, Ankara ranks “FETÖ” and the PKK as graver threats.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, April, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  All three groups are designated as “terrorist”. But the designation is applied more broadly for those charged with PKK or “FETÖ” links, including those who would be regarded simply as sympathisers rather than terrorists themselves in countries with narrower definitions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of both victims and defendants of ISIS cases, as well as Crisis Group examination of court cases, summer 2019-spring 2020.Hide Footnote  Lawyers for both the victims of attacks and individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes say the state puts higher priority on investigation and prosecution of “terrorism” cases linked to “FETÖ” or PKK than ISIS ones.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of both victims and defendants of ISIS cases, Ankara and remotely from Istanbul, July 2019 and April 2020.Hide Footnote  As little as a phone call or social media post can lead to a jail sentence for suspects accused of links to the PKK or “FETÖ”, while ISIS suspects are more often released for lack of evidence. “They dig deep to find some sort of evidence in order to establish a link between suspects of FETÖ or PKK affinity; it’s not the same for ISIS”, a lawyer for one of the five victims of a bombing of an HDP rally in June 2015 said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyer of a victim, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey’s involvement in Syria and its support to certain rebel factions could complicate its domestic counter-terrorism efforts, particularly given the apparent fluidity among the membership of various jihadist groups. Turkey does not deem rebel factions opposed to the Syrian regime as a threat. Although it officially designates the former al-Qaeda affiliate HTS as terrorist, this group fights in north-western Syria alongside Turkish-backed forces against the Syrian regime and thus benefits indirectly from Turkish aid.[fn]HTS is the latest iteration of Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front; the group had previously been Syria’s avowed al-Qaeda affiliate, but it has since cut ties with that organisation’s transnational leadership.Hide Footnote  HTS controls Idlib’s main border crossing with Turkey and, in rebel-held areas in that province, coexists with Turkish forces deployed to observation points.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Silencing the Guns in Syria’s Idlib, op. cit.Hide Footnote  While authorities do not view HTS and most other rebel groups as a danger to Turkish domestic security, were relations between Turkey and those groups to sour, militants might turn on Ankara.

Turkish officials tend to view ISIS returnees as less threatening than agencies in other countries do. Authorities say Turkish citizens faced lower barriers to joining ISIS and were driven by the pursuit of adventure and personal gain rather than by ideology. “We found that more ‘ordinary’ people had gone from Turkey compared to the mostly already fundamentalist-thinking people that joined from Europe”, one interior ministry official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 1 October 2019.Hide Footnote  “Picking up to go from Turkey was easier”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, October 2019.Hide Footnote  By the same logic, Turkish officials believe that the majority of returnees have an easier time returning to their previous life, an assumption that likely explains the lack of systematic effort at assessing the threat posed by returnees and helping them reintegrate.

A wide spectrum of Turkish state actors, from Ankara to front-line practitioners, are sceptical that ISIS members who strongly adhere to its ideology can ever be disabused of their convictions. While some officials think every effort should be made to win over hardline militants, most argue that they are a small minority of returnees and that the only option is monitoring them for life. As a result, and perhaps also due to the widespread view that most returnees are not ideologically committed, Turkish officials have not developed systematic programs to deal with those who might be. Most officials think they should focus on prevention, that is, stopping individuals from turning to militancy in the first place.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, authorities from five state institutions, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  That said, few state policies are actually geared toward prevention – let alone systematic monitoring of the effectiveness of existing efforts.

Foreign militants transiting through or migrating to Turkey are a greater source of concern to authorities. Officials say it is harder to assess the risk they pose.[fn]Crisis Group interview, state official, Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Monitoring and translating from foreign languages is a strain on the security services. While Turkish nationals may return to their former lives, officials assume, foreign nationals often lack the families and social circles that could help them leave ISIS and turn over a new leaf.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group’s open-source tracking suggests that, as of late 2019, there were at least 446 foreign nationals among the 955 ISIS-linked detainees mentioned in the Turkish media. Of those in prison over ISIS-linked charges, 750 (62.5 per cent) are foreign nationals reportedly from 40 different countries (22 of them female).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish justice ministry representative, Ankara, July 2019. “Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var”, op. cit. This conviction, paired with frustration that EU nations have left Turkey to deal with individuals they deem too dangerous to repatriate, motivated Ankara to step up its efforts to deport foreign ISIS-linked individuals to their countries of origin. Turkey deported a total of 778 foreigners suspected of ISIS affiliation in 2019 alone.Hide Footnote

As Turkey’s perception of the threat posed by ISIS has evolved, so, too, has its approach to policing and prosecution, including online. A two-year state of emergency put in place after the failed military coup in July 2016 allowed law enforcement agencies to step up efforts to combat ISIS “by granting authority for more serious operations”, a high-ranking security official said.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Cyber units within the Turkish police have deleted or blocked thousands of allegedly ISIS-linked social media accounts.[fn]“Turkey’s Fight against Daesh”, Turkish Interior Ministry, July 2017, p. 53.Hide Footnote  They have also blocked access to ISIS’s main Turkish-language propaganda outlets, though content remained accessible through VPN proxies.[fn]ISIS propaganda targeting Turkey and its leadership intensified in July 2015, in particular, with the publication of the second issue of the Turkish-language magazine Konstantiniyye. Six issues of Konstantiniyye appeared between June 2015 and May 2016.Hide Footnote

Turkish officials say cooperation among key state agencies (such as national police, gendarmerie and military intelligence) has improved since the coup attempt. 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. Turkish officials say they foiled ten major ISIS attacks in 2018 alone, seizing bomb-making materials, suicide vests, hand grenades and other weapons.[fn]Details shared in a book titled 2018’de Türkiye (Turkey in 2018), published by the pro-government SETA foundation (Istanbul, 2019).Hide Footnote Critics of the governments argue that in reality, Ankara simply did not count ISIS as a major danger before 2016. It was only then that attacks began to take a toll on the Turkish economy and, in the case of the May 2016 attack on a Gaziantep police station, to target state institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, lawyers and opposition party affiliates, Ankara and Istanbul, summer and fall 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Turkey’s Response

1. Policing

Law enforcement officials rely on widespread surveillance of known ISIS operatives and two- to four-day detentions (which can be extended to up to twelve days under certain conditions). Short-term detentions usually target people who come into contact with individuals under surveillance. Turkish security services say short detentions of individuals deemed susceptible to overtures by ISIS deter them from engaging with the group.[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]“DEAŞ’a en büyük darbe Türkiye’den” [Turkey country to deal biggest blow to Daesh], TRT Haber, 12 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Officials say the detentions send a clear warning to those contemplating violent acts that they can be caught at any time.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish security official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  “It has proven effective to intimidate people who are just making first contact and are not yet entrenched”, an adviser to the interior ministry said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, theologian working closely with interior ministry, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Whether this contention is accurate is hard to assess.

Turkey’s heavy focus on surveillance and periodic catch-and-release detentions is resource-intensive. It rarely leads to prosecution, and risks aggravating grievances and feeding persecution narratives among some groups.[fn]“While it is true short-term detentions deter engagement in violence, they also increase grievances among the broad set of groups the Turkish state is targeting. Their anti-state feelings are pent up as a result. It does not seem to be a durable solution”. Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  “The sense of being watched all the time fuels anti-state sentiments and increases anger”, a lawyer representing individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes said.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  One mid-level official warned that surveillance and short-term detentions also risk pushing some individuals further underground.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, April 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkey’s interior ministry should review their effectiveness.

2. Prosecution

The number of prosecutions related to ISIS links has increased in recent years but remains a fraction of the estimated returnee population.

A lack of evidence is a challenge in Turkey, as it is elsewhere, though Turkey has some advantages in obtaining evidence due to its forces’ presence in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote Evidence gathered by intelligence agencies is only admissible in court for terrorism-related cases and then only if additional, legally obtained evidence exists.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, lawyer based in Istanbul, 22 January 2020; lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  A lawyer defending individuals accused of ISIS-related crimes said overstretched cybercrime police units have rarely processed digital evidence against clients in time for trials, particularly in the months after the July 2016 coup attempt.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, 3 April 2020 and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Pictures and video clips on seized telephones that his clients feared would be used against them rarely make it to court, although they have appeared more frequently in the last two years.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, 3 April 2020 and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Prosecutors in Turkey do, however, have an easier time than counterparts in other countries finding witnesses from among returnees to testify against defendants.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  They can also sometimes gain access to ISIS-issued identification documents seized at the border or in Turkey and draw upon testimony collected at police stations in areas in Turkish-controlled northern Syria.

Lawyers of both defendants and victims in ISIS attack cases claim that prosecutors in the past – particularly during the 2015 attacks – were not diligent in investigations.

Most ISIS returnees who go on trial are sentenced to between five and ten years for membership in a terrorist organisation – although in practice many serve only three or four years behind bars.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote Sentences can be reduced by a year or two during prosecution if the judge believes the defendant shows remorse or for other mitigating factors. Inmates may also be released early for good behaviour after serving three quarters of their sentence.[fn]See Mehmet Gün, “New criminal execution law: for reform or COVID-19?”, Yetkin Report, 14 April 2020Hide Footnote Other returnees receive softer sentences of one to six months in jail or a fine for crossing the border illegally; between one and five years on charges of possessing illegal arms; or between one and eight years for possessing hazardous substances or providing support to or promoting a terrorist group. “Those calling the shots behind the scenes and carrying out recruitment/indoctrination work are usually not targeted because it is difficult to connect their activity to the criminal act committed”, one lawyer said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, one of the lawyers of the victims of the ISIS bombings in Suruç and Ankara, Istanbul, July 2019.Hide Footnote In some cases, ISIS suspects are given reduced sentences under an “active remorse” clause if they agree to share information.[fn]A person accused of terrorism can be acquitted if after being caught, provided there is no evidence of a crime committed, he/she expresses remorse and agrees to share valuable information that helps security services catch other members of the organisation or dismantle it. An acquittal decision can also be made if there is evidence of a crime committed and the individual turns himself/herself in and shares information on the organisation’s structure and its criminal activities. If a person involved in criminal activities agrees to cooperate after being caught by security services, his/her sentence can be reduced by one third to three quarters. See Turkish Penal Code.Hide Footnote

Lawyers of both defendants and victims in ISIS attack cases claim that prosecutors in the past – particularly during the 2015 attacks – were not diligent in investigations, whether due to a lack of resources, a focus on higher-priority cases or a desire to protect informants or glean further intelligence from suspects let loose.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Ankara, July 2019; and by telephone, 3 April and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote Lawyers for one defendant and for several victims in the trial of Turkish citizens involved in the attacks on the Kurdish movement have accused prosecutors of not using their discretion to investigate the suspects’ links to other alleged ISIS militants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Ankara, July 2019 and October 2019.Hide Footnote  Both said the attacks’ true masterminds could have been arrested with deeper investigation.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Lawyers for victims in the trial of Orhan Gönder (and four other suspects) for the June 2015 Diyarbakır bombing said prosecutors took years to comply with their request to admit evidence consisting of footage of the bombers’ movements before the attack.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyers of victims, Istanbul, September 2019. For details of the case, see “Suruç davası: Mahkeme ‘tanık’ imam hakkında suç duyurusunda bulundu” [The Suruç case: Court files criminal complaint against ‘witness’ imam], Artı Gerçek, 7 August 2019.Hide Footnote They also accuse prosecutors of failing to act on requests to bring charges against a local imam, Abdullah Ömer Aslan, against whom a judge eventually filed a criminal case, after his deposition in court as a witness in the case.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The relatively low number of prosecutions of ISIS suspects increases the number of individuals under watch by security agencies, but some Turkish officials see this tactic as effective policing – a way to cast a wider net. A Turkish security analyst said releasing ISIS suspects can be an effective way to track ISIS networks, identifying other suspects by monitoring the individual.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst with extensive experience studying al-Qaeda and ISIS, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish local police keep tabs on suspects if no court ruling requires more extensive surveillance.[fn]Crisis Group interview, interior ministry official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote A court can authorise stepped-up surveillance, for up to six months, with monthly extensions after the first two months.[fn]See Turkish Criminal Procedures Code.Hide Footnote In practice, however, police can ignore this rule and extend surveillance when it comes to terror suspects, and judges may use discretion in admitting evidence in cases linked to national security.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer based in Istanbul, 22 January 2020.Hide Footnote

The success of this approach appears mixed. Releasing suspects in the hope that they will reveal ISIS networks may be effective, if suspects can be properly monitored. In the words of the same security analyst: “Flies will come to the sugar”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst with extensive experience studying al-Qaeda and ISIS, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Other official sources make the same argument.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Istanbul, fall and winter 2019.Hide Footnote But there have been cases in which key figures were released and fled to Syria. Hasan Aydın, for example, was briefly taken into custody in 2015 while trying to take military equipment, including a drone, from the southern province of Hatay into Syria. He later appeared on the 2016 video in which ISIS militants in Syria burned two Turkish soldiers alive.[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. “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.Hide Footnote In another high-profile case, Musa Göktaş, the first person to be convicted for being part of ISIS in Turkey in May 2015, returned to Syria after being released for “good behaviour” after his conviction (which was awaiting appeal). He is suspected of helping plot the October 2015 Ankara railway station bombing.[fn]“‘İyi hal’den tahliye olan o IŞİD’li yeniden örgüte katıldı” [ISIS member released on ‘good conduct’ joined the organisation again], Internet Haber, 19 November 2017. “Türkiye’de tutuklanan ilk IŞİD’li, tahliye edildi, tekrar örgüte katıldı” [The first ISIS member arrested in Turkey, was released and rejoined the organisation], Duvar, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote Particularly among opposition segments, such cases lowered public confidence in the authorities’ judgment of the threat posed by released ISIS operatives.[fn]In interviews, lawyers representing victims of ISIS attacks expressed how such cases had fuelled the already deep mistrust toward the state among clients and their circles. Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of victims of ISIS attacks, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

The judiciary has taken a more lenient approach toward ISIS-affiliated returnee women due to a widespread perception that women simply follow men’s orders and have little agency. As of the end of 2019, only around 50 women – including both Turkish nationals and foreigners – were in prison on ISIS-related charges.[fn]“Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Most of those detained are subsequently released pending trial, and few are ultimately sentenced. The court’s verdict in the trial of the wife of dead ISIS Gaziantep emir Mehmet Kadir Cabael is emblematic of this thinking. A panel of three judges in the Kayseri 4th Heavy Penal Court acquitted Fadile Cabael on charges of belonging to ISIS in April 2019, saying that “DEAŞ does not accept women as group members. On the contrary, it sees them as goods, the only job of women is housekeeping, raising children and serving their husbands”.[fn]“Turkish court acquits ISIL emir’s wife in Gaziantep attack”, Hürriyet, 19 April 2019. Turkish authorities usually use the acronym “DEAŞ” in referring to ISIS.Hide Footnote Only in a few rare high-profile cases were the wives of ISIS members involved in attacks in Turkey charged with “membership”, “knowingly and wilfully aiding an armed terrorist organisation” or “failure to report crime”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.
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While women’s roles as prescribed by ISIS were largely domestic, the full picture is more complex. While rare in Turkey, examples of women making their own way to ISIS or playing roles in plotting attacks in Turkey suggest that judicial officials should not assume they are simply foils for their husbands. A former police chief in the Şanlıurfa border province said he had electronically monitored a Turkish woman who was “waiting for her child to reach six years old, and then would carry out a suicide attack”.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote In reality, women are not a homogeneous group and have various reasons for joining and diverse roles within ISIS. While it is true that militant circles are male-dominated and patriarchal, women returnees can play supportive roles in propagating the group’s ideology and recruiting upon return. The authorities need not take a more draconian approach to women if they correct the faulty assumptions. But Turkey’s justice ministry could help raise awareness about the diversity of women’s roles among judicial professionals dealing with ISIS cases.

That overstretched courts and difficulties collecting evidence hamper prosecution of ISIS suspects could mean that militants who slip through the cracks of the justice system subsequently commit attacks. As described, that has happened in the past. In 2014-2015, ISIS operatives who were released by courts pending trial – rather than being tried while remanded – later joined ISIS in Syria and played key roles for the group in Turkey.

When, after 2016, the security services took a tougher approach to ISIS, prosecutors followed suit with more detailed investigations and more caution regarding releases pending trial. While longer sentencing is not necessarily the answer, case-by-case risk assessments from police and prison officials on the threat level ISIS affiliates pose could help inform criminal justice decisions. An April 2020 amendment to Turkey’s penal execution law requires that more detailed assessments be made to evaluate the “good behaviour” of inmates, including through interviews with other inmates and prison wardens, before granting early release. It also affords more authority to enforcement judges (infaz hakimi) to gauge inmates’ attitudes and behaviours in deciding on early release.[fn]“İnfaz kanunu: İyi hal de yeniden düzenleniyor” [Criminal execution law: Changes will also apply to clauses on good behaviour], Duvar, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote

This change mirrors efforts in other countries that have put in place new models for prison authorities to communicate with probation officers and law enforcement when people they regard as dangerous are released on probation. Italy’s prison agency, for example, provides such reports to judges, law enforcement and other authorities in advance of a militant’s release, which helps inform decisions about allocating additional police resources or potentially, if the person is a foreigner, deportation on national security grounds.[fn]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).Hide Footnote

3. Prisons

Halting the spread of ISIS networks in prisons, where around 1,150 men and 50 women are being held for ISIS-related crimes, is a major concern for Turkish officials, as it is for counterparts abroad. Inmates may form relationships, even during short detentions, and accrue status in prison. “People from different parts of the country whose chance of knowing each other was otherwise low are thrown together in the same cell”, said a lawyer who regularly visits ISIS-affiliated clients in prison.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes in Turkey, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Many ISIS members cast time behind bars as medrese-i Yusufiye, a school for learning the virtues born of trials that may improve one’s prospects in the afterlife, referring to the prophet Yusuf, whose tale of unjust imprisonment appears in the Quran.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019. 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 telephone interview, June 2020.
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 (This conceptualisation of time in prison is not particular to ISIS or other militant groups, but is also adopted by peaceful Islamic movements.) ISIS inmates see any state attempt “to get them to do social activities or rehabilitation in prison as [an] effort to detach them from DEAŞ and diminish their positive afterlife prospects”, a Turkish justice ministry official said, alluding to the difficulty of meaningful state interventions in prison.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

There are dangers both in isolating ISIS-linked convicts and in not doing so.

Over the last decade, Turkey has isolated suspects or offenders entering prison on charges of terrorism from other prisoners. They are placed in separate wings of high-security prisons, to the extent that capacity allows, in one- to ten-person cells with other inmates linked to groups that share the same ideology. Members of organisations with different ideologies (mainly PKK, “FETÖ” and ISIS) are separated to “prevent contagion and avert potential physical violence between them”, according to a Turkish justice ministry official.[fn]These cells usually have a kitchen upstairs and a small courtyard accessible during certain hours of the day. Crisis Group interview, justice ministry officials, Ankara, July 2019. As of the end of 2019, out of a total prison population of around 300,000, some 41,000 inmates charged with terrorism-related crimes (convicts or arrestees pending trial) were imprisoned in Turkey. 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.[fn]This decision is taken either by respective courts or by prison managers after observations in the prison (through cameras or intelligence officers in prisons). Crisis Group interview, justice ministry officials, Ankara, September 2019.Hide Footnote In prisons with limited space, ISIS inmates are placed in larger cells of 20-25 people.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, returnees, May 2020.Hide Footnote Due to overcrowding, officials say, this containment policy is not always possible.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Women’s prisons often have only twenty-person cells, and women held for ISIS-related crimes are often mixed in with others.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019; lawyer, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote That said, the release of around 90,000 prisoners (out of a total of 300,000) in mid-March 2020 due to COVID-19 risks may have created more space. No one charged with terrorism was let go.[fn]“Turkish dissidents remain jailed as thousands of inmates are released to avoid prison epidemic”, Washington Post, 22 April 2020.Hide Footnote

There are dangers both in isolating ISIS-linked convicts and in not doing so. Separating them from the larger prison population might help prevent the propagation of their ideology. “Many regular inmates turn to Islam for consolation when they are incarcerated. Being exposed to extremist interpretations at that stage could lead to bigger problems”, the above-mentioned justice ministry official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Isolating ISIS inmates in small-group cells carries its own risks, however. Jailing like-minded individuals together can foster bonds, lead to more ideologically committed members influencing less devoted ones, and make it more difficult for inmates to resocialise upon release.[fn]Of the incarcerated perpetrators of the Suruç attack, a few of the young men were merely fixers, arranging transport and accommodation for the bomber. But because the indictment notes them as charged with an ISIS-related crime, they are placed with the ISIS militants in prison. Crisis Group interview, lawyer of convicted perpetrator Orhan Gönder, October 2019, Ankara. One NGO network outlines the following disadvantages of the containment approach: new and stronger bonds forged among prisoners; eroded trust between staff and prisoners; entrenched oppositional mindset; perceptions of unfairness reinforced; labelling effects/stigmatisation; status associated with being in a special unit; all violent extremists assumed to be of equal risk; difficulties finding staff; high financial cost. “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism – Prison and Probation Interventions”, Radicalisation Awareness Network, 2018. Also see “Handbook for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism”, Council of Europe, 1 December 2016.
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Either option can harden the beliefs of either the ISIS convict or his or her fellow cellmates.

Beyond containment measures, imams are made available to inmates but only on a voluntary basis. Diyanet has 600 imams, 70 of them women, on duty at prisons to teach, lead prayer and officiate at funerals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, justice ministry and Diyanet officials, Ankara, July-September 2019.Hide Footnote Their effectiveness at countering narratives that promote violence is limited by a lack of specialised training and because in ISIS inmates’ eyes they are extensions of the tağut state.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Turkish returnees who were imprisoned for a period of time, May 2020.Hide Footnote Most militants reject any form of religious counselling.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Turkish returnees who were imprisoned for a period of time, May 2020; lawyer of ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote For those who are open to discussion of religion, the state could design programs involving specialised psychosocial workers alongside vetted Islamic scholars, perhaps with support from former militants, whom evidence from elsewhere suggests can more easily build trust with ISIS inmates.[fn]In Indonesia, for instance, the prison program is run by former inmates who may not have much religious knowledge but are nevertheless regarded as “credible”, if not “charismatic”, by many of the prisoners, in particular those they had personally recruited or trained. See, for instance, Cameron Sumpter, “Countering Violent Extremism in Indonesia: Priorities, Practice and the Role of Civil Society”, Journal for Deradicalization, vol. 11 (Summer 2017) pp. 112-147.Hide Footnote Authorities might also look into programs that can help inmates acquire new professional skills. Investing in day-to-day staff-inmate relationships has proven to be key in dealing with jailed jihadists in other places.[fn]See “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism – Prison and Probation Interventions”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The justice ministry should coordinate with the family ministry to explore whether and how to design programs aimed at preventing former militants from returning to ISIS after their release.

Turkish authorities have taken other initiatives to ensure that inmates convicted for terrorist offenses are held in conditions that mitigate rather than exacerbate the danger they pose. A two-year EU-funded Twinning project brings together Spanish and Turkish officials to develop systematic rehabilitation services for inmates under arrest for or convicted of terror-related crimes.[fn]The two-year Twinning project’s aim is to develop counter-radicalisation measures in Turkish prisons. An adviser to the project said: “The project has four components: alignment of Turkey’s legal framework (which is already quite good); dissemination of a concept called ‘dynamic security’; a treatment program and risk assessment tool; and training for correctional officers and prison managers”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019. The project was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.Hide Footnote The project includes a needs analysis phase during which participants review legislation and develop risk assessment tools for training correctional officers and prison managers. Turkish officials involved welcomed the project but were sceptical that foreigners were sufficiently versed in local realities to offer recommendations. The different demographics of inmates and the different ways diverse militant groups recruit make it hard to transplant policies from one context to another. The Turkish government should, however, continue dialogue with European capitals, who have an interest in improving conditions in jails where many of their own citizens who joined ISIS are held, to exchange best practices.

The justice ministry should coordinate with the family ministry to explore whether and how to design programs aimed at preventing former militants from returning to ISIS after their release.[fn]Justice ministry representatives themselves told Crisis Group that they felt the need for such collaboration. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote How incarceration influences the risk of recidivism for offenders remains an area of debate and is understudied in Turkey. Where appropriate, the family ministry could carry out visits to families to help evaluate whether they can be helpful, on a voluntary basis, in reintegration. It could also offer guidance on how to best communicate with relatives behind bars during regular visitations and after their release. If such programs do take place, they should rely on baseline studies and be piloted.

4. Social policy

Outside the prison system, different ministries say they lack clarity about which should take the lead on efforts to help returnees reintegrate and prevent them, or indeed others, from turning or returning to militancy.

Overseeing the work of all legally registered mosques and imams in the country, the Directorate for Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, promotes Islam as a religion of peace, which it says is important for countering jihadist narratives. It also publishes anti-ISIS messages in books, pamphlets, seminars and Friday sermons. In the words of one Diyanet official: “Our mandate is enlightening society about Islam; therefore, everything we do shields against terror organisations that exploit religion”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyanet representatives, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Diyanet officials add that their advocacy of family values is in itself a prevention mechanism, in that strong family bonds can provide some protection from militant recruitment. They have no defined policy intervention for returnees or their families. The Diyanet also groups “FETÖ” and ISIS together in one basket as “terrorist organisations exploiting religion”.[fn]See, for instance, “Dini İstismar Eden Terör Örgütleriyle Mücadele Seminerleri” [Seminars on Fighting Terrorist Organisations That Exploit Religion], video, Diyanet TV, n.d.Hide Footnote Conflating the two would hinder efforts to devise more targeted policies, were the ministry to undertake them.

The Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services (FLSS) is tasked with dealing with women and children returnees, but by law has no mandate to extend support to adult men. Even with women and children it gets involved only when security agencies invite it to do so. “We are not there yet”, said one high-level ministry official. “We are at the security response stage”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, deputy FLSS minister, Ankara, October 2019.
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The ministry is charged with mental health support and other initiatives for some 200 children of ISIS-affiliated adults repatriated from prisons in Iraq in mid-2019.[fn]The Maya Foundation partners with the FLSS ministry to work with Syrian children to this end, but no such arrangement has been possible for Turkish citizens. Crisis Group interview, Maya Foundation representatives, Istanbul, September 2019. While some NGOs have been developing know-how in dealing with war trauma and extremist indoctrination working with Syrian refugee children in Turkey, they need significant capacity building in this respect. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish NGO representatives of professional psychosocial services who have witnessed FLSS ministry social workers in action, September 2019, Istanbul.Hide Footnote It does not divulge details of those programs.

In the absence of official guidance, families of returnees of all ages have found ways of coping. Children have often ended up with extended families. Some families have kept relatives’ involvement a secret; others rejected those who had joined ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local authority, Istanbul, November 2016. This official said he personally knew a few families who had spurned children returning from ISIS-held territory. The youths had to move to other cities. “These people are going to be trouble for the country in the future, because their family did not take them back”, he added.Hide Footnote “We took away his cell phone and web access”, said the cousin of a Diyarbakır-based returnee, who had worked as a state imam before going to Syria. “We are watching him but don’t really see any signs of him becoming less radical”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyarbakır, July 2019.
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The Diyanet and the FLSS ministry could consider some of the “soft measures” other countries have developed to deal with returnees. In particular, they might test whether imams and social workers, who often have better access to returnee families than other state authorities, could play more of a role. To be sure, there are potential pitfalls in their doing so. State imams may not be the best placed to pull young people away from militancy. If they and social workers do get involved, they would have to guard against being suspected of surveillance on the state’s behalf: Turkish officials across ministries appear to recognise that the interior ministry would likely have to coordinate any additional policies toward returnees both locally and at the national level.[fn]Belgium provides one example of how central and local coordination could be structured: Belgian authorities work through the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment (CUTA), which deals with the evaluation and coordination of a threat. The line ministry in charge of CUTA is the interior ministry. CUTA has about 80 staff members from different ministries and works with local task forces that include social workers. When authorities identify people who leave Belgium to fight in jihadist wars, they inform CUTA. When the fighters come back, CUTA decides on a case-by-case basis which measures to take. For each returnee, CUTA determines whether the police, justice or intelligence are in charge. Local mayors and social workers are consulted in decisions on case-by-case approaches. For more information, see “What is the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment?” on CUTA’s website.Hide Footnote Still, in some instances, families have sought imams’ or other local religious leaders’ support. Diyanet and interior ministry officials argue that imams should develop expertise in engaging people who reference the Quran to justify violence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Diyanet and interior ministry officials, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Outside the prison system, different ministries say they lack clarity about which should take the lead on efforts to help returnees reintegrate and prevent them.

The ministry already has a program, called Informing and Preventing Activities (abbreviated as BÖF in Turkish), focused on stopping youth from joining groups the Turkish state designates as terrorist. Under this program, Turkish officials say, police work with social workers and psychologists to offer “off-ramps” to youths reported by their families or flagged by security services. In other words, they provide opportunities for extracurricular activities, jobs or psychosocial support that might help prevent them from joining militant groups.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, former interior ministry official, September 2019.Hide Footnote The program has, however, primarily been geared toward preventing PKK recruitment. Overall, its success appears to have been limited.

Whether such programs could be applied to those vulnerable to ISIS recruitment is an open question. Some families, who in 2014 saw their sons and daughters being drawn into ISIS-linked circles, told Crisis Group they had reported their children to police but received no support. They said police had told them that unless a crime is committed, they had no role. The interior ministry could consider what programs designed to provide vulnerable youth alternatives to militancy might look like and whether they would give families who approach the authorities worried about kin being recruited by jihadists the support they need. Efforts along those lines might be more effective than locking people up for a few days in the hope that jail deters them. They would need to thoroughly assess the effectiveness of the BÖF program and identify neighbourhood-level actors who might have the necessary influence and could usefully be involved.

IV. Conclusion

Thousands of Turkish citizens have returned from ISIS-held territories in Syria and Iraq. Intensive Turkish policing over the past few years appears to have disrupted potential attacks and helped keep in check those still committed to militancy. But maintaining that so-far successful effort will require the Turkish state’s sustained attention and investment. The jihadist landscape’s evolution outside Turkey’s borders could affect militancy inside the country. If ISIS gains ground in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, for example, or other jihadist groups fighting in Syria, such as HTS, turn against Turkey, returnees are among the most likely to mobilise against the state. The risk could grow further if a regime offensive in Syria’s last rebel-held bastion in Idlib prompts many more militants to cross into Turkey, stretching the capacity of security services monitoring domestic and foreign ISIS returnees. Those in Turkey who were thwarted in their plans to join ISIS may also pose a lingering threat. Authorities should develop policies across the board aimed at ensuring that returnees refrain from violence and reintegrate safely into society.

Appendix A: List of ISIS Attacks in Turkey and Corresponding Court Cases

The list is available here.