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The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
European Challenges in Confronting the Fate of ISIS Returnees
European Challenges in Confronting the Fate of ISIS Returnees
Workers repair the damaged parts of the terminal building at Turkey's Istanbul Ataturk airport on 29 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid

In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

Turkey has blamed the so-called Islamic State (IS) for the triple suicide gun and bomb assault on Istanbul airport on 28 June that killed 45 people. Some of the gunmen had family links to Russia’s troubled North Caucasus, from where many people have moved to and through Turkey. More broadly, the assault brings into the open a struggle with IS that Turkey had hoped it could avoid. In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

How much do we know about the North Caucasus jihadists who carried out the Istanbul attacks and their links to Turkey?

Turkish police declared that two of the bombers are Russian citizens, at least one of them with links to the North Caucasus. According to the Turkish media, one or more had travelled to Turkey from Raqqa, one of the main strongholds of IS in northern Syria. It is not yet clear if they previously resided in Turkey.

The raid’s organiser is thought to be Akhmed Chataev (also known as Akhmad Shishani), a highly positioned Chechen in IS. Chataev had previously fought against Russia in Chechnya, where he was injured and lost one arm (for which he is better known as “One-handed Akhmed”), and subsequently fled the country in 2002. A year later he was granted asylum in Austria.

In 2007, he became a “representative”, recruiter and fundraiser in Europe for the newly founded Caucasus Emirate, a group loosely associated with al-Qaeda which used terrorist methods during operations in the Russian North Caucasus. In 2013, Chatayev swore allegiance to IS and reportedly played an important role in the incorporation of the North Caucasus jihadist groups into IS.

Since the nineteenth century, Muslims from the North Caucasus and other areas under Russian rule have moved or were forcefully resettled to Turkey in significant numbers. In the last decade, thousands more moved to Turkey to escape pressure from the Russian government. Most are North Caucasus Salafis, believers in a purist Sunni orthodoxy. The overwhelming majority of them are non-violent.

Why would persons from the North Caucasus take part in a terrorist attack against a mainly Turkish target like Istanbul airport?

There are many signs of rising Muslim radicalisation in the former Soviet space, not just in the North Caucasus but also in Russian cities and in Central Asia. This has resulted in young people travelling to IS, prompted by a wide array of grievances and motivations. These are not just fighters, but individuals and families seeking a different way of life.

For North Caucasians, ultra-radical ideology feeds on memories of brutal wars in Chechnya over the past two decades, heavy subsequent counter-insurgency operations across the region, unresolved intra-confessional and ethnic conflicts, social inequality, corruption, failing social services and lack of democratic procedures.

Istanbul became the main transit hub for jihadists who wanted to go to Syria. A first sign that this posed dangers to Turkey came when a female Dagestani suicide bomber staged an attack in Istanbul in January 2015, killing one police officer. After the attack on Istanbul airport, neighbourhood searches and arrests are now under way targeting North Caucasus and Central Asian communities all over the country.

Do you think the IS choice of attackers with links to the North Caucasus was deliberate?

The attackers’ identity could be coincidental, that is, the Russian-speakers could be just implementing the plan of IS commanders, without additional calculations. But in many places IS appears to be deliberately aggravating and exploiting divisions between communities. In Turkey, it has been working hard to radicalise the Russian-speaking communities, and has won over some, including several leaders. North Caucasus fighters are also highly valued in IS ranks.

The tactic of staging attacks with the aim of provoking state repression, which will then be a push-factor for new recruits – a common purpose of terrorist attacks in many places – has been used by jihadist groups in the North Caucasus for years. After the wave of arrests that followed the 2015 suicide bomb attack by a Dagestani woman, there was a new wave of recruitment to jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.

In recent months, Russia has reportedly given Turkey the names of those whom they suspect of fighting in or links with jihadist groups in Syria. Human rights organisations have received numerous complaints from the Russian Muslims in Turkey that Russia puts them on wanted lists on suspicion of involvement in the Middle East conflicts, but that they have never crossed the Syrian border. Turkish authorities have arrested a number of people from these lists, for instance when they came to extend their residence permits in Turkey. As a result many in North Caucasian communities in Turkey are afraid to extend their permits, which means they will become illegal and hence more vulnerable to recruiters. If Turkey starts to deport suspects to Russia, there could be a significant outflow from these communities to Syria.

How open is the conflict between Turkey and IS?

This is a conflict that Turkey did not want, but is becoming steadily more violent. Since July 2015, Turkey has also suffered six major bombings blamed on IS that have killed around 200 people. According to official figures, in the first five months of 2016, 989 individuals in Turkey were detained on suspicion of having links to IS, of whom 228 were arrested. The numbers were not broken down by national origin.

Also since January, apparent IS rocket attacks on Turkey’s border province of Kilis have killed more than twenty people. In response, the Turkish military has in recent months also engaged in heavily shelling of IS positions across the Syria border.

Since Turkey officially joined the coalition against IS in August 2015, it has become an explicit target of domestic IS mobilisation, IS leaders’ rhetoric and IS publications. In January, IS hardened its position toward Turkey, branding it as an “infidel” Muslim nation because of its secular democracy, calling its ruling pro-Islamic party a “hostile regime”, and using the word tağut to demonise a state that had supposedly “transgressed” the path of true faith. IS social media campaigns #tağutnedir (“what is tağut?”) and #tağut are in circulation since last September, and have recently focused on top officials like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Even so, Turkey remains a critical, informal logistical base for IS. One reason IS has not made claims of responsibility for its apparent attacks in Turkey may be that the group hopes to dodge or mitigate Turkish reactions, and to give more space to a small minority of Turkish Sunni Muslims who may support or sympathise with it. It needs to protect its access to the outside world as it faces mounting challenges on its southern fronts. According to Turkish intelligence reports, sermons delivered in IS controlled mosques in Syria reveal that the Turkish towns and provinces of Gaziantep, Nizip, Karkamış and Kilis are among IS’s primary targets.

IS’s official propaganda magazine in Turkish, Konstantiniyye (“Constantinople”, an Ottoman-era name for Istanbul), has targeted the Turkish security forces. January’s edition opened with a section called “The Pharaoh’s Soldiers” that called members of the security forces “blasphemous”. Posts on the Konstantiniyye Twitter account have emphasised that IS will take action against soldiers or employees at any level of the Turkish military apparatus.

In Konstantiniyye’s April edition, IS adroitly tried to find favour in Turkish public opinion, which is traumatised by the past year’s upsurge in the three-decade-old conflict with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It highlighted what it said was a Turkish policy that “sacrifices soldiers to support the PKK in Syria” in the name of its Western allies while waging war against the PKK within its own borders. “There will be no rest for Turkey until the establishment of the Islamic State [in the country]”, the magazine said.

Turkey has seemed reluctant in the past to put all its resources in the fight against IS. Its main effort has been to eliminate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a principal domestic threat. Do you think this will change?

During the early years of the Syria war, Turkey tolerated many kinds of people transiting its territory to Syria, partly because it believed volunteer fighters would speed the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. Even if there was no active assistance from Ankara, this situation made life easier for IS.

Another reason for Ankara’s lack of overt hostility was that IS was locked in combat with Syrian Kurdish groups loyal to the PKK. Ankara perceives the PKK as its main enemy, especially since a ceasefire and peace talks broke down a year ago. Since then, fighting related to the PKK insurgency has killed at least 1,600 people, according to Crisis Group’s open source casualty tally.

For sure, the Istanbul airport attack is notable for being the IS action most directly aimed at Turks or a Turkish institution so far. But if Turkey is going to turn toward an all-out focus on IS, it has not happened yet. In the days after the attack, there was still as much focus on PKK as on the IS in Turkey’s official statements. Ankara’s discourse about the two terrorist organisations being the same is unchanged, with consistent criticism of its Western allies for applying double standards in urging a negotiated resolution to the PKK conflict. Turkey has even tried to use the international sympathy generated by the IS attack as a platform to draw attention to PKK-related attacks.

Given that some of the attackers may have links to Russia, what impact will the Istanbul airport attack have on the apparent warming of relations between Ankara and Moscow?

Since 2012, Moscow and Ankara have had deep differences over Syria. Russia firmly supports President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey resolutely opposes him. The relationship soured further in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border, and Russia reacted by imposing bans on trade and once-popular visits to Turkey by Russian tourists.

The two sides had already begun a rapprochement before the Istanbul airport attack, and the trend is likely to improve strongly. This is evidenced by a condolence call after the outrage from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Erdoğan and an end to Moscow’s Russian tourism ban. Russia is Turkey’s principal supplier of natural gas and a major trading partner, so this is a gain for Ankara, but wariness toward its historic regional rival will not disappear anytime soon.

It may be that IS chose suicide bombers from these nationalities to send a message to Ankara not to join Russia’s alliance with the regime in Damascus against them. But given Turkey’s feud with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that would be a long shot. Privately, officials are signalling that Ankara’s hard line against Assad may be changing, but this will be limited and not go so far as allying itself with Russia.

Where does the Istanbul airport attack leave Turkey?

The speed that Istanbul airport got back up and running symbolises the resilience of a country accustomed to crisis and conflict. But this comes after several years in which several pillars of Turkish prosperity have been badly damaged.

Political differences within Europe, democratic regression in Turkey and other factors have gravely undermined faith in Turkey’s European Union accession process, once a major locomotive of reform. The Syria war has tested both its longstanding alliance with the U.S. and also its formerly strong commercial partnership with Russia. Foreign investment and tourism have plummeted as turmoil has spilled over its borders with the Middle East. At the same time, Turkey has had to deploy massive resources to offer refuge and support to several million of people fleeing the conflict in Syria and beyond.

In short, Turkey will need all the hardiness it can muster to withstand the new front IS has opened against it.

Contributors

Former Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus
Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel
Analyst, Turkey
BerkayMANDIRACI

European Challenges in Confronting the Fate of ISIS Returnees

1,450 ISIS-affiliated European nationals are being held in camps in Syria, where they suffer from squalor and violence. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU member states to take responsibility for their nationals and bring them home – starting with children and women.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

For nearly a year, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella force including Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians led by the Kurdish People’s Protections Units (YPG), have guarded roughly 13,500 detained foreign women affiliated with ISIS and children in makeshift camps in Syria’s north east. A smaller number of male foreign fighters – perhaps 2,000 – are held in a separate prison network. These individuals wound up in the camps and prisons of north east Syria in the aftermath of the battle of Baghouz in early 2019, when thousands of ISIS-affiliated families and fighters fled or were captured following the militant group’s defeat at the hands of the SDF and the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition. Nationals of EU member states account for roughly 1,450 men, women and children within this population, with the largest numbers from France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The majority resides in the squalid al-Hol camp, lacking basic health services and suffering sexual abuse and endemic violence.

Although Turkey’s incursion into north east Syria in October 2019 has not caused as much upheaval with respect to these camps and prisons as some feared, it demonstrated how precarious security is in the region. The SDF retains control of the facilities for now, but that could change. If renewed Turkish attacks compel the SDF to redeploy its forces, Damascus could press into SDF-held areas, including camps and prisons, seizing them or possibly agreeing to manage them jointly with the SDF. This could make conditions for camp residents yet worse; the regime is notorious for its abuse of prisoners

The squalid al-Hol camp [lacks] basic health services and [the inhabitants suffer] sexual abuse and endemic violence.

Notwithstanding humanitarian and security concerns, European governments have tended to deal with their nationals detained in north east Syria by looking away. Given the potential implications of allowing the situation to fester, EU member states should shift their approach, take responsibility for their nationals, and begin bringing them home, with support and encouragement from EU leaders and institutions as appropriate. Rather than allowing the political sensitivities surrounding repatriations to keep them from moving forward:

  • Member states that are politically hamstrung when it comes to bringing home nationals who are male fighters should start instead with women and children, whose repatriation is likely to be less controversial. Women form a diverse group of detainees – some have renounced militancy and are far from being high threat individuals – and children appropriately benefit from a presumption of innocence. Both groups are also highly vulnerable to abuse while they remain in detention.
  • Until they are ready and able to bring their nationals home, member states should take all feasible steps to provide for them to be housed in humane and secure conditions in the region, a task that has only become more difficult with the Turkish incursion and a new UN resolution restricting aid delivery.
  • With the long view in mind, member states and the European Commission should also work with humanitarian agencies, the UN and the SDF to facilitate eventual repatriation and, in the meantime, protect vulnerable detainee women and children from trafficking, including by preserving relevant documentation proving identity and family relations.

Squalor, Risk and Repatriation

As Crisis Group has separately reported, conditions at al-Hol camp – by far the largest of the holding facilities for women and children in the north eastare abysmal. Violence is rife, with regular breakout attempts and confrontations among women living in the camp, and between women, camp officials and aid staff. Women who now reject militancy are forced to live intermingled with committed jihadists in conditions that enable abuse and intimidation. Accounts of disappeared and detained male children taken away to separate “deradicalisation” facilities persist, and aid groups have documented sexual abuse of women and sexual violence against children. The situation, if anything, has become worse since the Turkish incursion, which saw a pullout of cross-border aid groups operating there and a steep decline in already limited services. Some of these groups are now exploring the return of their expatriate staff to the area, as most will be making up for lost time and major gaps in service provision to a vulnerable population whose needs have grown more acute in the interim.

Aid groups have documented sexual abuse of women and sexual violence against children.

Proponents of repatriation argue that, beyond the humanitarian responsibility that European governments bear for removing their nationals from the squalor and dangers of north east Syria’s camps and prisons, there is a security rationale for doing so. French judge David De Pas, who works on antiterrorism cases, has argued that it would be safer for France to bring French national fighters home where Paris would have them “on hand” rather than leave them in the field – where presumably they could escape or be freed and pursue their designs outside government control.

On the whole, however, European governments are much less sanguine. Among other things, they are concerned about the challenges of prosecuting foreign fighters who return – including the difficulty of gathering the evidence required to win a conviction for crimes committed on a foreign battlefield. Moreover, even for those fighters who are convicted, European sentencing regimes may deliver prison terms of seven years or less. Officials worry about a scenario in which returned fighters first head for short stints to prisons where they can propagate jihadist ideology and network with other inmates, and then are released, unreformed, into the general public – creating a major burden for overtaxed security services.

Linked to these security concerns are political ones. Some European officials fear that allowing returns would galvanise far-right and populist groups, which are likely to exaggerate both the threat posed by returnees and the burden they impose on state resources. Additionally, on the international front, many European states are reluctant to deal with the SDF or its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). In exchange for facilitating returns, the SDF and SDC have pushed for meetings and photo opportunities with visiting foreign officials to intimate a degree of European political recognition of SDC-led autonomy. Europeans are wary of according them legitimacy that outstrips their status as a non-state actor and alienating Turkey – which regards the SDF’s leading Kurdish faction as an extension of its nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Against this backdrop, member states have resisted pressures, including from families and sometimes from within their governments, to accept even the lowest risk returnees. Although some courts (in the UK, Germany and Belgium) have weighed in to require governments to repatriate children, these narrow decisions have not changed overall policy.

Taking Responsibility

Notwithstanding the formidable challenges involved with repatriation, EU member states cannot responsibly wash their hands of their nationals in north east Syria. They should start the process of repatriating their nationals in earnest, communicating to their publics the combination of humanitarian and security considerations that underlie their actions, and starting with the most vulnerable. They should emphasise that turning away from the situation gives short shrift to governments’ obligations toward their citizens – including innocent children held in horrific conditions at al-Hol – while also deflecting the burden of protecting, providing for, and securing their nationals onto others. To do so would be irresponsible under any circumstances, but particularly in a region that is already bowed under the costs of a long-running war.

[The] governments should start by focusing on repatriating women and children.

In cases where member states consider it politically impossible to agree on the return of individuals who have a violent or militant past, that should not become a pretext for inaction. For purposes of making quick progress, governments should start by focusing on repatriating women and children, who are likely to be less controversial than male fighters. Taking into account the political tumult in Norway that accompanied the recent repatriation of an ISIS-affiliated mother and her children, they should make clear to their publics that they are focusing on highly vulnerable children and women who pose the least security risk, working to identify this subset based on their own often considerable information about their nationals, and cooperating with others to close gaps in their intelligence.

What to do about the remaining group of women with operational experience and male combatants is a more vexing problem. Governments that refuse to repatriate these individuals – so far, nearly all of them – will need to develop other options to provide for both the short- and longer-term needs of these individuals. The longer-term options that European authorities seem to prefer do not appear promising. A nascent deal some European officials have discussed with Baghdad, under which Iraqi courts with European assistance would try foreign fighters, appears to have stalled. Prospects for overcoming European legal and policy requirements relating to the non-application of the death penalty, humane treatment of detainees, and fair trial safeguards do not seem high, and the chaos that has unfolded in Iraq since October 2019 cannot have helped. Another idea that has been discussed – supporting the construction of new or improved facilities inside Syria – also seems fraught, including that it would likely encounter obstacles tied to Western governments’ refusal to undertake new construction in Syria absent a political solution to the wider conflict. It would also require faith that the territory on which any new facility sits will not change hands as dynamics among the SDF, Ankara and Damascus ebb and flow.

Against this backdrop, it will be important for European governments, supported by EU humanitarian institutions, to find ways to assure that their nationals are being held in safe, humane conditions while they develop a longer-term solution. They will in particular need to focus on ensuring the flow of resources to UN and humanitarian groups, whose aid provision has already been severely disrupted by Turkey’s incursion, and will be further hampered by the UN’s updated resolution on cross-border aid delivery to the north east, which carries new restrictions that will impact delivering crucial medical services. They should also support steps that will facilitate repatriation if and when other options prove unworkable, including family tracing and genetic testing for children, and the orderly preservation at the camps of European nationals’ civil documentation (identity cards and passports). The latter is also important for the protection of women, who are at particular risk of human trafficking, and who may gain a measure of protection through access to copies of their documentation.