Jefferson Morley | October 30, 2019
Beyond Baghdadi: Turkey’s Discreet Relationship With ISIS
[This article first appeared in The New Republic, October 30, 2019]
The elimination of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi amid the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria is exposing an enduring and underappreciated reality of the Middle East: the Islamic State has always had a special relationship with Turkish National Intelligence Office, known by its Turkish acronym, MIT.
Two intelligence services publicly took credit for tracking down Baghdadi, who was killed Saturday in a U.S. Special Forces raid in northern Syria—but the MIT wasn’t one of them, despite the fact that the ISIS founder was living just three and a half miles from the Turkish border, in an area controlled by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
The death of Baghdadi set other spy services to public bragging: CIA officials told The New York Times that the discovery of the ISIS leader’s location came after the arrest and interrogation of one of his wives and a courier this summer. Kurdish officials, who said back in April that Baghdadi was in Idlib, told the Washington Post they had provided intelligence for the operation. Iraq’s national intelligence service also boasted of giving Baghdadi’s location to the Americans after “constant monitoring and the formation of a specialised task force over an entire year.” Turkey’s spies claimed no such role.
The MIT was not always so reticent: In the aftermath of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul embassy last year, MIT chief Hakan Fidan shared audio intelligence of the killing with Turkish press and foreign intelligence services. But after Baghdadi’s death, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan instead drew the same moral equivalence he’s been offering for years, equating ISIS with the Kurdish forces who had partnered with the U.S. against ISIS until Trump’s sudden pullout.
On Turkey’s role in the Baghdadi operation, Erdogan’s spokesman would only say that “the night when the operation was conducted… there was intense diplomacy between our military authorities” and the U.S.’s. Turkey’s Defense Ministry gave the American operation faint praise, calling it “within the spirit of alliance and strategic partnership” in the fight against terror.
The spirit of that alliance is mutual suspicion: The U.S. military, fearful that info on its move against Baghdadi would leak, only told Turkish officials that an operation was planned in Turkish-held territory, but did not identify the target, one American official told Foreign Policy. “Turkey did not provide any assistance in this operation, and he was located right next to their border,” the official said. “That shows you how little they do on countering ISIS.”
Baghdadi’s location “surprised his American pursuers,” The Times reported, “because it was deep inside a part of northwestern Syria controlled by archrival Qaeda groups.” Like Osama bin Laden, who took refuge in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in the mid-2000s, Baghdadi was living under the nose of his ostensible enemies. Just as reporting once connected bin Laden’s hideout and the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, suspicions are running strong that Baghdadi enjoyed some tacit Turkish protection.
A year ago, the Turkish justice minister reported that the government was holding 1,150 suspected ISIS fighters. But that was a small figure compared with the 9,731 people jailed for alleged links to the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, which Turkey’s regards as a terrorist organization—or the 31,442 people in prison for allegedly following the dissident movement of U.S.-based Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen.
Outside experts say those numbers reflect Erdogan’s priorities. Last year, intelligence authorities in the Netherlands issued a public report stating that the Islamic State uses Turkey as “a strategic base” to reorganize, threatening the security of Europe. “From here, ISIS can recover, reorganize and further shape the underground struggle in the region,” the report said. Turkey has taken action against ISIS and Al Qaeda, the report stated, but Erdogan’s primary focus on fighting Kurdish groups has afforded the Islamist groups “sufficient breathing space and freedom of movement.” “The fact that Turkish interests do not always correspond with European priorities in the field of combating terrorism is problematic,” the report concluded.
That intelligence assessment and Baghdadi’s ultimate location raise questions about whether Ankara tolerates or coordinates with elements of ISIS—and “if Turkey’s MIT and ISIS did have a relationship in the past, do they continue to collaborate,” David Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, told me in an interview. Turkey “has some explaining to do,” Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy for the global anti-ISIS coalition, wrote in a Washington Post column Sunday. “It is telling that the U.S. military reportedly chose to launch this operation from hundreds of miles away in Iraq, as opposed to facilities in Turkey, a NATO ally, just across the border.”
Since 2013, when Ankara officials declared ISIS a terrorist organization, Islamic State attacks have killed 315 people and injured hundreds more in Turkey, according to the country’s largest English-language newspaper. Yet Ahmet Yayla, a former Turkish counterterrorism police officer, said in an interview that Erdogan and the MIT have “consistently helped ISIS, directly or indirectly.”
As ISIS gained global prominence in summer 2014, Yayla says, Turkey supported the group in a bid to destabilize Syria and hasten the overthrow of its president, Bashar al-Assad. That October, Vice President Joe Biden told a Harvard University audience in 2014 that Turkey’s president had claimed a share of responsibility for the ISIS’s growth. “Erdogan told me, he’s an old friend, said, ‘You were right. We let too many people [including foreign fighters] through,’” Biden said. “Now they are trying to seal their border.” (Erdogan denied saying it, and Biden subsequently apologized “for any implication that Turkey or other Allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL.”)
Yayla says he saw the MIT-ISIS relationship up close. During his time with Turkish National Police, Ayala worked closely with MIT officers on the Syrian border. In 2014, he learned that Fidan, the MIT chief, had created a special unit just to deal with ISIS supporters, unbeknownst to the police. “I would ask the MIT guys, ‘What are you doing with these guys?’ They would say, ‘Nothing,’” Yayla told me. “But we had all the investigative tools and we followed them to meetings. We saw the terrorists meeting with our own service. It was extremely upsetting.
“Now, there are thousands of ISIS supporters hiding in Turkey among the Syria refugees,” Yayla says. “They are not a priority for Erdogan.”The death of Baghdadi was undoubtedly a blow to ISIS, but probably not a fatal one. The group is resilient, not least because of its ability to operate within Turkey, enabled by Erdogan, the MIT, and—no doubt inadvertently—by Trump.
With or without Baghdadi, Turkey and ISIS remain the prime beneficiaries of the president’s chaotic U.S. withdrawal. Turkey is now freely doing what it could not with American troops on the ground: driving the Kurds out of their stronghold in northern Syria. That, in turn, gives ISIS sympathizers relief from the most effective fighting forces in the area. Erdogan’s forces are in rapid motion, but not against the terrorists that have held the U.S. and Europe in thrall for half a decade. Said Yayla: “I do not foresee any Turkish movement against ISIS.”