Erdoğan gov’t has released hundreds of ISIS prisoners from Turkish jails


Turkey has released hundreds of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) prisoners from Turkish jails in the last year and a half, according to Nordic Monitor’s review of various official figures provided by Turkish leaders. 

The most recent figure on ISIS prisoners, which included both those convicted and others who were in pretrial detention, was given as 1,163 on October 24, 2019 by Turkish Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül, who shared the figure with reporters during a visit to the Turkish border town of Akçakale, across from Tel Abyad in Syria. 

Gül, whose portfolio includes prisons and detention facilities in Turkey, had stated in February 2018 that there were 1,354 people affiliated with ISIS incarcerated in Turkish prisons, meaning that around 200 ISIS prisoners have been released by the government since then.

However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on October 10, 2019 that there were around 5,500 ISIS members in Turkish prisons, of which half were foreigners. Eight hundred fifty-one were already in repatriation centers, awaiting deportation, Erdoğan added. If that is figure correct, thousands of ISIS prisoners must have been released between October 10 and 24.

Text of Erdoğan’s speech on October 10. Source: Directorate of Communications of the Turkish Presidency.


Similar contradictory statements were made last year by Turkish officials as they scrambled to rebut widespread international criticism that Turkey has been aiding and abetting jihadist groups including ISIS.

Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül (L), former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım (C) and President Erdoğan.

During a speech at his party’s meeting in parliament on November 6, 2018 President Erdoğan said the total number of ISIS members in jail was 2,000. More interestingly, during a February 2018 Munich Security Conference, then-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım stated that there were 10,000 ISIL militants behind bars in Turkish jails. However, as of the same month in 2018, Justice Minister Gül said there were 1,354 people affiliated with ISIS in Turkish detention facilities.

The significant disparity in numbers is not limited to jailed ISIS members. Erdoğan in the same speech mentioned that Turkey had arrested around 17,000 ISIS suspects since 2016, whereas Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported on October 29, 2019 that 13,696 people had been arrested in the same time period. The figure Anadolu presented seems to have been based on an official study or statistics that are not available to the public. The question then arises as to what sources Erdoğan’s speechwriters are using given the huge difference in numbers.

Assuming that politicians inflate the numbers to impress the public, using the justice minister and state agency’s figures as a reference, it is clear that only 10 percent of detained or arrested ISIS suspects are currently in prison. This means either malpractice on the part of the Turkish security forces in detaining an excessive number of people in order to be seen as waging in strong battle with ISIS, or that ISIS suspects are mostly released pending trial or are acquitted. Given the fact that the Turkish Penal Code prescribes at least five years in prison for conviction of membership in a terrorist organization, the courts appear to be acting as a revolving door for jihadists, letting them go after time spent in pretrial detention, as many experts critical of Turkey’s fight against ISIS claim. 

The Turkish government deliberately withholds the number of ISIS militants who were actually convicted since it represents a only small percentage of those who were detained.

It is no secret that prior to international summits or Erdoğan’s visits to the US, the pro-government Turkish media publish a number of stories detailing how Turkish police or gendarmes carry out ISIS operations. A similar roundup of ISIS suspects has been taking place across Turkey in recent days ahead of the Turkish president’s scheduled visit to Washington, D.C., on November 13 to meet with US President Donald Trump. 

It is worth noting that the Ministry of Interior, which in 2018 had published on a monthly basis the number of persons detained in counterterrorism operations on its website, stopped sharing that information as of January 1, 2019 for unknown reasons.

Another discrepancy is seen in the number of ISIS fighters in Syria who have been “neutralized” by Turkey. Anadolu claims that number is only 1,018, explaining that Turkish authorities often use the term “neutralized” in statements to imply the terrorists in question either surrendered or were killed or captured. However, Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, repeatedly said the Turkish army neutralized more than 3,000 ISIS fighters in northern Syria alone since Turkey started its cross-border military operations in 2018. Likewise, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on October 23 that Turkey had killed 3,069 ISIS fighters. Last month Justice Minister Gül said 168 ISIS suspects were in prisons in northwestern Syria, which was controlled by Turkey long before its last incursion into Syria in October.


State news agency Anadolu published an infographic including ISIS figures on October 29, 2019.


Meanwhile, the case of foreign ISIS fighters captured by Turkey is controversial. A presidential decree exempt from parliamentary scrutiny or judicial adjudication authorized Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) to use non-Turkish prisoners in swaps or exchanges during international operations in the wake of a state of emergency declared following a coup attempt in July 2016. The Constitutional Court in January 2016 had cancelled a regulation that enabled MİT to use foreign prisoners under any circumstances.

In 2014 the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul, Iraq, was attacked by ISIS, with 46 staff and family members including the consul general taken hostage. The terrorist group held the Turks hostage for more than 100 days. Although it was never officially confirmed, It is believed that a number of ISIS prisoners in Turkey were exchanged for the Turkish hostages. Then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said at the time that their release was the result of the Turkish intelligence agency’s “own methods.” It was widely discussed that neither MİT nor the Turkish government had the authority to exchange prisoners. The presidential decree in 2017 could be interpreted as an effort to legalize what MİT was already doing in dealing with ISIS.

Nordic Monitor reported this week that during a secret meeting in May 2014, ISIS asked the Turkish government to release its militants from jail and facilitate their travel to Syria in exchange for ironing out difficulties the Turkish military had been experiencing in sending replacements and logistical supplies to some 40 Turkish troops guarding the tomb of Süleyman Şah — the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire – which was located in Syrian territory some 30 kilometers from the Turkish border.

Turkey’s lack of transparency in the fight against ISIS is fueling fears that ISIS could rise again in the region, particularly after the Turkish military operation that followed the withdrawal of US troops and the escape from prison of a number of ISIS prisoners who were previously guarded by Kurdish forces.

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