Contending with Turkey’s Islamic State Returnees
Once a month, since being detained sneaking back across Turkish border from Syria two years ago, Hamza (all names used are pseudonyms) must check in at his local police station as he awaits his court appeal to a 6-year jail sentence. He hates having to do so and is thankful he has little other contact with Turkish state officials he calls “kafir,” or infidel.
“I still hold on to my previous convictions elhamdülillah…. My views of the Turkish state have not changed,” Hamza said in comments that echoed those of other returnees we spoke with for a new report published by the International Crisis Group. Turkey is among many countries grappling with how to deal with citizens who left for Syria and Iraq. A small fraction of them, like Hamza, have been convicted on charges of membership in a terrorist group. Many others were killed in Syria and Iraq. The fate of the rest remains murky.
Enduring interest in living under a caliphate doesn’t in itself mean Hamza or other returnees are poised to strap on a suicide vest, but it may speak to the dangers of future recruitment or mobilization cycles. “I would consider joining again if a new caliphate was established,” Hamza said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
ISIL’s diminished influence and the Turkish state’s security measures have helped prevent new attacks for over three years. But while the threat should not be overplayed, it has not necessarily disappeared. Were ISIL to gain ground again, or other jihadists fighting in Syria — for example, the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham — to turn their sights on Turkey, some returnees could potentially mobilize. Many of those behind bars will soon be released. More militants may cross into Turkey from Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held bastion.
To disrupt ISIL’s recruitment efforts, Ankara relies on resource-intensive surveillance and short-term detention. It has been slower than some other nations to develop social programs to help returnees go back to lives as civilians. Ankara should explore whether and which soft measures can complement its hard security approach to ensure returnees turn their backs on jihadist militancy and safely reintegrate.
Given that Turkey since 2013 has been a transit route for weapons, supplies, and people across the Turkish-Syrian border, it is critical for national and regional security that Turkish returnees turn their back on militancy. It is also a matter of some concern for Western European governments, given Turkey’s role as a transit country, the fact that some of their nationals that travelled to Iraq or Syria likely pass through, and that it is plausible they interact with Turkish militant networks.
While most Turkish citizens who joined ISIL did so early on in the conflict in 2014-2015, Hamza travelled to Idlib province in June 2017. Then 20 years old, he had been introduced to pro-ISIL circles in Turkey through a friend, sharing ISIL propaganda videos of life under Sharia in Raqqa and other places. He said he did not have much to lose. He had dropped out of university and said he didn’t have a vocation that would enable him to make a living or develop a career. “I was very excited,” he said, remembering how he felt just before he and his friend crossed the border with the help of smugglers on both sides.
By then, however, the group had suffered territorial defeats and Hamza instead joined former al-Qaeda affiliate Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham. Barely a year later, he was detained by Turkish authorities trying to make his way back to Turkey. He told us he had grown disillusioned with infighting among different jihadist groups there and feared for his life: “A week after I arrived the area had turned into a witch’s cauldron.”
Turkey formally designated Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham a terrorist group in August 2018, but the group continues to control Idlib’s main border crossing with Turkey and, inside Idlib, the group coexists with Turkish forces on the ground.
After his arrest, Hamza was held for 4 months in Turkey’s southernmost province of Hatay with other inmates suspected of affiliation with groups with designated as terrorist in Turkey – including al-Qaeda, Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham, and ISIL. Usually prison management tries to separate inmates who hold clashing ideologies, to prevent contagion or physical violence. However, prison overcrowding often does not permit this containment. “When we first entered prison, there was a single cell for al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, [ISIL], the Free Syrian Army, other Turkmen groups. All of them were in the same cell,” Hamza said. “There were five different groups who had declared each other infidels. They were praying separately and were talking behind each other’s backs.” He described the experience as “eye-opening”, because he saw the futility of the fierce wrangling over these polemical accusations.
It was precisely this kind of infighting that had caused him to leave the battlefields of Idlib. His time behind bars reinforced his disillusionment. But others grow more hardline behind bars. Among the 20 inmates sharing his cell, Hamza said those who remained longer had become more rigid in their outlook, more committed to both jihadist ideology and enmity toward those they deemed infidels.
The Turkish religious authority (Diyanet) has 600 imams on duty at prisons with whom inmates can interact should they so choose. However, their efforts to “de-radicalize” ISIL-affiliates in prison have been unsuccessful. The vast majority of these prisoners view the Diyanet as an extension of the Turkish state and rejects any interaction with its officials. While the Diyanet says they are best placed to change the minds of people who reference the Quran to justify violence, they have little success to point to in this regard.
Foreigners are some of the fiercest among them, according to both Turkish returnees and officials. Some 600 foreigners charged with ISIL-related crimes are currently jailed in Turkey. Like their Turkish counterparts, many are soon to be released.
Turkish returnees have recourse to an “active remorse” clause that allows for acquittal or reduced sentences if they give up useful intelligence. Even if they don’t use the active remorse clause, convicts sentenced for membership in a terrorist organization can be released on probation after serving three quarters of their sentences. Hamza, who was charged with membership to Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham, pled not guilty and refused to cooperate, is among a smaller number of individuals likely to serve at least three to four years.
Little is known about returnees who were not caught and interrogated upon return. In some low-income urban neighborhoods almost everyone knows a young cousin or neighbor who joined ISIL. Some were recruited by older veterans of past wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. When in 2014, parents went to the police to stop their sons and daughters from being drawn into ISIL, they were told their children were adults who had not committed a crime, so there was no role for law enforcement.
In some cases, where sons and daughters returned to parents and homes they had fled a couple of years earlier, families told us they had improvised their own strategies to keep relatives from going back to Syria –going so far as to lock in and keep watch over relatives. Families said they had nowhere to apply for guidance about how to deal with the challenge of keeping their children from going to Syria to join ISIL. Some appealed to respected community elders or local imams to convince their children. “[ISIL] had brainwashed them with wrong interpretations of Islam,” the father of one returnee who joined at the age of 16 told us.
Hamza, who was freed in July 2018 while awaiting an appeal hearing in his case, has returned to his hometown. Once a village, now it is a conservative town swallowed by the urban sprawl of the industrial province Bursa, in western Turkey. He has married and found a job, and says he is looking forward to having children soon.
Other Challenges for Turkey
Returnees are not the only challenge. A well-informed official in the security bureaucracy told Crisis Group that those who didn’t join also could be motivated should the opportunity arise: “Some wanted to go, but couldn’t. Maybe someone from their family or the state stopped them, maybe their mother got sick and they postponed, maybe they were waiting for a wedding date…. They can be more dangerous than those who went, got disappointed and came back.”
Turkish authorities believe they have the problem under control. Following a spate of attacks that killed nearly 300 individuals on Turkish soil in 2015 and 2016, security officials say they have an eye on potentially dangerous returnees and monitor anyone who comes into their orbit. They claim to have cultivated informants within ISIL, including cross-border smuggling networks. They have benefitted not only from information traded by returnees in exchange for reduced sentences, but also from documents seized during raids in Turkey or at the Syria-Turkey border as well as information obtained by security units in areas in northern Syria under Turkish control. The authorities are less concerned with the fate of an unknown number of other returnees, who don’t appear to have come into contact with individuals currently being monitored.
Unlike in most Western countries, Turkish officials have only recently started contemplating social programs aimed at helping former militants settle back into civilian life. The belief that many returnees who joined ISIL were not ideologically committed, and they had no difficulty folding back upon return may have contributed to the Turkish social ministries’ lack of action. But more generally this is simply a feature of the Turkish state. Security responses have developed far more than social measures in dealing with people who have taken the route of violent extremism.
The initiatives of the Diyanet have focused on broad information-sharing activities and promotion of conservative family values that they argue shield against extremism. But the Diyanet has not devised programs tailored to the reintegration of returnees. Civil society initiatives in this area are also largely absent.
Hamza’s story offers a glimpse of the challenge Turkey and other nations face in developing policies toward returnees, especially given the fluidity between allegiance to ISIL and to other jihadist groups. While he appears to have returned to a normal life and have become disillusioned with the existing transnational militant jihadist factions, the fact that he mellowed can seem almost accidental. There have been no social services involved with ensuring his mental health or opportunities. If he had happened to bump into a jihadist outlet that attracted him, he could have gone down a different track.
Overestimating the risk can be as counterproductive as underplaying it. In any case, hard security measures will be needed to keep under check those most committed. The track record of so-called “rehabilitation” or “deradicalization” efforts is patchy in other countries. Many of these efforts have come under criticism for involving social workers, teachers and other civil servants in surveillance or stigmatizing communities as potential terrorists. But in some cases, soft measures may have the potential to help ensure returnees, including those who have yet to cross the border from Idlib, steer clear of militancy for the longer haul.
Ankara could explore initiatives in specific areas, such as prison after-release programs and support for families who themselves identify children at risk. Indeed, some may turn out to be more effective than locking people up briefly in the hope that jail deters them. While Hamza’s brief time behind bars appears to have deterred him, he has not rejected violence entirely. His case is only one of thousands in Turkey.
Besides the uncertainty as to the feasibility of rehabilitation or deradicalization, Turkey’s approach to returnees from battlefields in Syria is complicated by the fluidity between the various armed groups and by Ankara’s tactical relations with some of those groups based on its own interests there. Choosing which returnees to leave to their own devices and which to prosecute and/or rehabilitate will continue to be complicated.
Nigar Göksel has been the Turkey Project director for Crisis Group since April 2015. Based in Istanbul, she researches, produces reports and conducts advocacy on regional and internal security issues in Turkey, and between Turkey and its neighbors. She formerly worked as editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly and as senior analyst for the European Stability Initiative.
Berkay Mandıracı joined Crisis Group in June 2015 and currently works as Turkey analyst based in Istanbul. He previously worked in the areas of judicial and security sector reform for the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and the German Foundation for International Legal Cooperation (IRZ).