A review of hundreds of secret wiretap records obtained from confidential sources in the Turkish capital of Ankara reveals how the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has enabled ― and even facilitated ― the movement of foreign and Turkish militants across the Turkish border into Syria to fight alongside jihadists in the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS or Daesh). Records, some of which were revealed in a hastily closed ISIL case in August 2018, indicate that an implicit agreement existed between ISIL and Turkish security officials that allowed traffickers to operate freely on both sides of the porous 511-mile (822-kilometer) Turkish–Syrian border without repercussions from the Erdoğan government. The agreement also permitted ISIL to run logistical lines across the border and to transport wounded fighters back into Turkey for medical treatment.
Recorded conversations between ISIL operatives reveal a different story from the one the Erdoğan government tells publicly; they suggest the government has provided political cover, without which it would be impossible for ISIL to operate and evade prosecution. The wiretap records, obtained by authorization from the courts, were part of an ISIL legal investigation launched in 2014 by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office. However, with the exception of information related to another ISIL court case being tried in Ankara, they were never fully made public. In fact, the wiretapping of key ISIL operatives was halted on April 27, 2015, and some of the wiretap records were destroyed by police on prosecutor’s orders, under the pretext that there was no criminal activity detected.
The Man in the Middle
At the center of the ISIL smuggling operation is a 36-year old Saudi-born Turkish national named İlhami Balı. With a long, black beard that stands in sharp contrast to his closely trimmed hair and moustache, Balı ― also known by the code name Ebu Bekir (Abu Bakr in Arabic) ― has become a powerful border chief, facilitating and orchestrating the movement of large numbers of foreign and local militants back and forth along the Turkish–Syrian border. Official records show he was registered as a resident of the border town of Reyhanlı in Turkey’s southeastern Hatay province, and is currently believed to be in the north of Syria. Balı has long been under surveillance by Turkish authorities, and his phone has been regularly wiretapped on the order of criminal courts. Turkish courts previously convicted him — in an investigation predating the 2011 Syrian crisis — on charges of belonging to al-Qaeda, and sentenced him to three years in jail. Balı moved to Syria in 2012.
The wiretaps expose Balı’s central role in directing smuggling operations along the border, including picking up militants from airports and bus terminals in Turkey’s southeastern provinces and arranging meetings with smugglers to move ISIL aspirants across the border to Syria. They also reveal that Balı moved goods across the border for ISIL, ranging from shoes and clothing to handcuffs, drone parts, binoculars, tents, a spotlight projector and even a boat. Additionally, the wiretaps show the Turkish government knew the names and locations of 33 Turkish nationals who pledged to work as drivers in ISIL’s smuggling network.
Balı was incarcerated in pretrial detention between April 2 and September 19, 2012 on al-Qaeda charges, but Turkish authorities let him go. When he was convicted in this case in November 2015 and sentenced to six years and three months’ jail time, he was nowhere to be found in Turkey as he had moved to Syria. In the same case in which Balı was tried on charges of al-Qaeda membership, the court convicted and sentenced his co-defendant, a man named Hasan Aydın, to the same sentence of six years and three months in jail. Authorities had apprehended both men on the same day during an al-Qaeda sweep, but like Balı, they let Aydın go on December 3, 2012. He, too, fled to Syria.
A court in Turkey’s southeastern province of Gaziantep issued an arrest warrant for Balı on December 16, 2014 after several people were detained at the border while they were trying to join ISIL in August 2014. According to indictments filed by Turkish prosecutors, Balı is accused of being the mastermind behind three deadly 2015 terrorist attacks in Turkey’s capital city, Ankara, that claimed the lives of 142 people. A year later, a criminal court issued another warrant for Balı’s arrest for his alleged role in a suicide bomb attack ― the deadliest in Turkey’s history ― on October 10, 2015 in Ankara. The explosion killed 105 civilians, including the two suicide bombers, as ISIL militants targeted NGOs and the supporters of left-wing and pro-Kurdish parties, who were holding a peace rally outside the city’s main train station weeks ahead of the November 1, 2015 snap elections.
Despite the fact there have been several outstanding arrest warrants against Balı, and the wiretaps indicated authorities knew his exact location and movements, this dangerous ISIL militant has managed to evade Turkey’s law enforcement agencies and criminal justice system. As of today, none of the arrest warrants against Balı were executed by the government of Turkey. In the meantime, he has continued to move freely in and out of Syria.
Wiretap records map out how ISIL ran a jihadist highway through Turkey using hot lines and a communication center to vet, route and pick up militants who wanted to join the war in Syria. ISIL leadership operated a phone line from the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad. Recordings show Balı routing incoming calls from foreign jihadists to ISIL’s communication center for clearance. Balı directed militants to call the center to register and promised to provide pickup and transport across the border. Once the communication center cleared the ISIL aspirants, Balı had the green light to move them into Syria.
Wiretaps also reveal ISIL operation patterns such as how ISIL arranged drops and what methods they employed to organize meeting points between jihadists and their traffickers and handlers. In one wiretap, Balı received a call from a cell phone registered under the Georgian name Lasha Nadirashvili, illustrating that ISIL traffickers distribute phones to foreign jihadists. In this case, the caller told Balı that four people were awaiting pickup at a shopping mall in Gaziantep, a Turkish city an hour’s drive from Turkey’s southern border with Syria. Balı advised them to take a cab to a designated drop-off point where he would pick them up for the cross-border journey. In another wiretap dated November 20, 2014, Balı received a call from Russian national Oleksandr Pushchuk requesting transport for a group of 11 people from in İstikbal Hotel Gaziantep to Syria.
Records further reveal ISIL used gas stations, mosques and even a football field as rendezvous points to evade detection. Its operatives also knew to select Gaziantep hotels where staff did not request valid Turkish IDs or passports at check-in, a contravention of Turkish regulations. Turkish hotels live-feed their guest registries to a police database to identify wanted individuals, allowing police to apprehend them during their stays. ISIL even restricted the amount of luggage ISIL aspirants could carry to avoid attracting attention while crossing the border, as they are often required to walk a kilometer (0.6 mi.) or more along muddy roads.
Head Count for Jihadists on The Move
Intercepted communications show Turkish government authorities are aware of precisely how many jihadists traffickers like Balı transport across its border. During his November 8, 2016 courtroom cross-examination, ISIL suspect Yakup Şahin, who was being tried for purchasing ammonium nitrate to make bombs, told an Ankara court “the [Turkish] state knows very well who went to Syria.”
In other wiretaps, Balı is heard discussing exact tallies of individuals he and his accomplices help move across the border. In fact, Balı submitted monthly reports to ISIL’s leadership for reimbursement based on head counts in smuggling activities. (On average, in a single day at one crossing point, ISIL smuggles anywhere from 50 to more than 100 militants across the Turkish–Syrian border according to wiretaps, bringing yearly conservative estimates to well over 15,000 smuggled individuals.)
In a one-month period between October 17 and November 18, 2014, 1,440 militants crossed the Turkish border into Syria through Balı’s smuggling network, and wiretaps reveal that an additional 469 crossed between November 18–25. During the same time period, ISIL smuggled 87 militants back into Turkey. Another tally, reported on December 18, 2014, saw 1,301 jihadists entering Syria and 272 exiting. A later intercept recorded 111 people entering Syria on a single day in March 2015. These numbers reflect cross-border traffic exclusively within the Elbeyli district of Turkey’s southeastern Kilis province, which Balı controls on behalf of ISIL. There are other crossings ISIL and its jihadist operatives use to move militants across the border, and these, too, may be monitored, and their trafficking volumes known to Turkish authorities.
Support and Medical Care for ISIL in Turkey
While cross-border smuggling flows primarily into Syria from Turkey, at times jihadists, especially the wounded, cross back into Turkey for medical care. ISIL has apparently enlisted Ankara-based hospital consultancy M.I.S. Danışmanlık to help treat wounded ISIL militants. Transcripts from a November 24, 2014 wiretap, intercepting a call between Balı and M.I.S. Danışmanlık owner Savaş Doğru, reveal the two men discussing arrangements, and a $62,000 payment for medical care for 16 ISIL militants in Turkish hospitals. In another conversation, Doğru complains of unpaid bills of as high as $150,000 for surgeries for ISIL militants smuggled into Turkey. Doğru admits keeping these militants in private hospital rooms, sometimes for months, to hide them from prying eyes. Hotel accommodation alone, he says, would cost $40,000. Other records describe ISIL ordering jihadists to shave their beards when crossing back into Turkey to avoid attracting attention.
There is evidence the government also witnessed Balı visiting hospitalized ISIL militants and coordinating hospital transfers. During one October 19, 2014 operation, Turkish police tracked and photographed Balı’s movements, but did not detain him. In a separate surveillance operation in Gaziantep between June 4 and November 4, 2014, police intercepted and recorded 997 phone conversations among ISIL suspects. Wiretap documents further reveal that ISIL not only funds jihadists, but also provides aid to families left behind in Turkey, sending thousands of dollars to cover expenses for food and rent, as well as paying the salaries of individuals hired to run the smuggling network. When families raised complaints about insufficient funds, Balı responded that jihadists were fighting in Syria for Allah, not for the benefit of their families. ISIL also established family courts in Syria to oversee issues like divorce. One intercept discusses a Turkish woman’s efforts to obtain a divorce from her jihadist husband and move back to Turkey.
ISIL Had Inside Help
Wiretap evidence suggests Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), the body responsible for collecting intelligence on threats from internal and external sources, may also be aiding Erdoğan’s policy to empower jihadists in Turkey and abroad, and even providing information to help jihadists evade the scrutiny of local police forces. MIT, which is headed by Hakan Fidan, an Islamist and close confidante of Erdoğan, was directly implicated in January 2014 after local police intercepted arms-laden trucks bound for Syria and escorted by MIT officers. The Erdoğan government responded by rushing a bill through Parliament to protect MIT agents from criminal prosecution.
A wiretapped conversation of September 5, 2014 records a Turkish soldier addressing Balı as “Şıhım,” a local dialect version of “Şeyhim,” which translates to “my Sheikh” in English, a term expressing reverence and respect. In response, Balı tells the soldier he will provide him with whatever he needs. The two agree no harm should come to either side, and Balı confirms ISIL has issued an order to avoid causing any harm to Turkish security guards. The soldier notes that Turkish security forces had not encountered any problems with ISIL until an incident on September 1, and says they are intent on keeping it that way. Balı also tells the soldier that Turkish authorities are calling him every day seeking his help on various issues.
Records also reveal ISIL was able to arrange lawyers for foreigners detained by Turkish police, usually managing to secure their freedom. Turkish nationals en route to Syria were typically released after a brief detention and quickly smuggled out of Turkey by ISIL. An intercepted communication dated December 21, 2014 reveals ISIL hired two lawyers to help 18 foreign jihadists detained by Turkish police. One Spanish national, an aspiring jihadist, was deported while ISIL lawyers assured Balı that they could get the others released within 10 days. Balı revealed he had already smuggled all detained Turkish nationals back to Syria, except one under arrest for murder charges in Turkey.
As part of its evasive tactics, ISIL transfers jihadists to Syria in small groups, breaking them into teams of five to 10 people. Still, at times more people than expected show up in border provinces, putting additional demands on smugglers. In a wiretap dated December 25, 2014, a Turkish national called Balı to request an escort for 30 people, 10 of whom were Uyghur Turks from China’s Xinjiang region.
These communication intercepts lay bare how Turkish police do not clamp down on ISIL smugglers in border provinces. They also provide insight into how the Erdoğan government tolerates the ISIL smuggling network, and even appears to welcome al-Qaeda and other jihadists groups joining the war in Syria if this helps to escalate the conflict against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and replace it with a friendly Islamist government.
An incident that occurred on January 5, 2015 further illustrates how Turkish police could have cracked down on the ISIL network had they wanted to. On that day, ISIL smugglers received clearance to move two women and children into Syria. One of the women was the ex-wife of a Turkish police officer who worked in the region. She was moving to Syria with her children to marry a jihadist, thus separating them from their father. In a show of solidarity, police began detaining smugglers and jihadists at the border in an attempt to force ISIL to send the children back to Turkey to be reunited with their father. Records show Turkish police told the smugglers: “We want the children back. We do not want the woman. If you do not deliver, we won’t let them [the detained jihadists] go, and we won’t let you keep working. We know what kind of business you guys are doing, but we’re not saying anything about it.”
Balı is even heard discussing the matter on the phone with a man named Demir to try to come up with a solution. Demir ordered Balı to do nothing, saying police were simply trying to scare off the smugglers, but there was nothing police could do about the situation. Demir, who was likely working for MİT, Turkey’s Intelligence organization, had perhaps been assured protection by higher authorities in Turkey, allowing him to brush aside the threats leveled by local police. Records show that after the detention of jihadists in Şanlıurfa and Gaziantep provinces that included Russian nationals, Balı asked his contacts in the Turkish government to take care of the problem. They advised him to call Ebu Mansur, who appears to be a well-placed government official. Balı also shared information on a Turkish police officer and his ex-wife, who joined ISIL with the editor of an ISIL Turkish website, perhaps hoping he would run articles to put pressure on the Turkish government and mobilize Islamist supporters of Erdoğan’s regime.
Turkey Burns ISIL Asset to Ease Pressure
In February 2015, three teenaged British schoolgirls (Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana) arrived in Istanbul on a Turkish Airways flight from London and boarded a bus to the city of Gaziantep. Mohammad Al Rashad, a Syrian national and ISIL trafficker, met them there. A dentist by profession, Al Rashad, also known as “The Doctor,” brokered the transfer of the girls to ISIL handlers, who later shuttled them across the border into Syria. Al Rashad’s connections can be traced back to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group openly supported, funded and armed by Turkey. His main mandate was to pick up ISIL aspirants flying into Istanbul and arrange overland transport to the border provinces. In Gaziantep, Al Rashad was the person who delivered these foreign visitors to Balı’s cross-border smuggling network.
Al Rashad was known to Turkish law enforcement officials. They had been monitoring his human-trafficking activities since 2013 when he first arrived in Turkey, but until the incident with the British schoolgirls, had done little to stop him. This time was different. Erdoğan’s government came under intense criticism from Britain, the United States and other anti-ISIL coalition partners for not doing enough to stop ISIL trafficking networks through Turkey. The case of the British schoolgirls presented an opportunity for the Turkish government to counter this criticism by directing Turkish intelligence to expose Al Rashad. However, the government turned the tables on its allies, claiming that Al Rashad had been in contact with French, British and Canadian officials, and was regularly informing them about foreign jihadists, and yet these countries had done nothing to stop militants from traveling to Turkey.
After police detained Al Rashad, details of his purported testimony — one in line with the Turkish government’s narrative that Western allies were culpable in supporting ISIL — were leaked to pro-government Turkish media. This included the A-Haber news TV network, which is owned by Erdoğan’s family. In further efforts to shift the blame to Turkey’s allies, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu gave an exclusive televised interview on Al Rashad’s arrest, claiming he had been working for an anti-ISIL coalition country, later identified as Canada in leaks that reportedly came from government circles. He was even portrayed as a spy who worked for both Canada and the UK in some reports published in the pro-government media. Despite the international uproar, the Erdoğan government did not go after Balı as Al Rashad’s contact responsible for smuggling in the border provinces.
A March 13, 2015 wiretap reveals that a man using a phone registered in the name of Mohamed Moustafa called Balı, informing him that Al Rashad was video-recording their trafficking activities. The man recounted how he and his aide had picked up the British girls from Al Rashad in Gaziantep and had transported them to the Syrian side of the border. Balı and the man agreed to deny any involvement in the transfer of British girls to Syria.
ISIL Helped Erdoğan Regain Parliamentary Control
A case can be made that ISIL and jihadist groups serve as useful proxies to advance Erdoğan’s political goals in Turkey. Following the October 2015 terrorist attack in Ankara, then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the popularity of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) had increased in the aftermath of the incident. Court documents about the attack reveal the government knew the key culprits involved in planning and subsequently executing the suicide vehicle bombings, but did not apprehend them in advance. Appearing on public television, Davutoğlu said the government could not arrest suicide bombers until they acted, even though the government had a list of names of potential suicide bombers.
Indeed, the attack worked for the benefit of the ruling AKP party. Many voters who had defected from Erdoğan’s party in the June 2015 election — robbing the AKP of its parliamentary majority for the first time — returned to the party driven by fear, thus helping Erdoğan regain a parliamentary majority. A report by the European Union’s official intelligence body, EUINTCEN, has suggested that the suicide bombing may even have been committed on the orders of Turkey’s AKP, led by Erdoğan.
In fact, there are convincing arguments for why the government might have facilitated such an attack. Before the bombing took place, there were 62 intelligence reports warning of a possible ISIL attack in Turkey; these were transmitted to the intelligence bureaus of police departments nationwide. On September 14, 2015, the Police Anti-Terror Department dispatched a separate and very detailed intelligence alert in which it stated that a special ISIL team was being trained in a camp located in Deir ez-Zor, a city in eastern Syria; their mission was to stage a sensational suicide attack targeting a large meeting in Turkey, or possibly to hijack a ship or plane. Yet this alert was not transmitted to the governor of Ankara, its police chief or the security section of the Ankara Police Department responsible for security measures in the capital during meetings or rallies, and at important locations.
As if that is not evidence enough, police checkpoints at entry points into Ankara were abruptly removed on the night preceding the attack, allowing ISIL militants to drive their cars freely into the city without screening. The preliminary investigation report prepared by Interior Ministry inspectors on February 25, 2016 found this odd, but they did not provide any explanation about why the checkpoints had been removed, despite ISIL having recently been implicated in two suicide attacks in Turkey ahead of the deadly October 2015 attack. The first was a bombing at a pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) pre-election rally on June 5, 2015 in Diyarbakır that left four people dead, and the second was a suicide attack in Suruç on July 15, 2015, that left 33 dead.
The inspection report also revealed that the Ankara police department initially assigned 2,044 police officers to be on duty the day of the meeting in Ankara, but at the time of the attack, only 76 officers were stationed around the meeting place. It appears a secret hand in Erdoğan’s government cleared the way for ISIL to fulfill its suicide mission by removing most barriers in advance. The report did not say who had ordered the drastic reduction in the security personnel or why, but the Ankara court indictment lists İlhami Balı as the man who ordered both suicide attacks in Ankara and Suruç.
Impunity for ISIL Facilitators in the Turkish Government
During the trial against ISIL suspects in the Ankara train station attack, the government tried to suppress information coming out of the proceedings, and prevented the investigation of government officials in police, intelligence and other agencies that played a role in allowing ISIL to stage Turkey’s deadliest terror attack. Despite pleas and motions from attorneys representing the victims and their families, the government did not respond to court requests for more information, and judges did not allow new avenues to investigate more deeply. The judges in the case often turned down motions from plaintiffs while ignoring hard evidence that exposed the role of authorities in the bombing. The Constitutional Court of Turkey even rejected a complaint filed by family members of victims who lost their lives in ISIL attack, stating that the government did not violate fundamental rights by restricting access to the prosecution file for defense during the investigation.
According to Turkish law, criminal prosecution of public officials requires government approval if the alleged crime is committed while these officials are performing their duties. In the case of the Ankara attack, the government protected police chiefs who failed to take necessary measures to thwart it. Hüseyin Özgür Gür, commander of the C-Unit, an anti-terror unit that monitors radical religious groups, did not share the intel alert on a possible attack in Ankara. Although Interior Ministry investigators concluded Özgür Gür and others should, at the very least, be prosecuted for dereliction of duty, Erdoğan rejected that recommendation. Subsequently, the government turned down the prosecutor’s request to launch investigations into Ankara Police Chief Kadri Kartal, Former Deputy Intelligence Chief Cihangir Ulusoy, Anti-Terror Unit Head Hakan Duman, former Public Security Department Chief Executive Adem Arslanoğlu and C-Unit Commander Özgür Gür. The Office of the Chief Public Prosecutor did not even bother to appeal the government’s decision in administrative court, electing instead to close the case. Nine low-profile suspects were convicted in the case and sentenced to aggravated life sentences, but the real masterminds remained at large, and the government officials who played a role in the attack were shielded.
The case is emblematic of how cases involving ISIL, al-Qaeda and other armed jihadist groups are being investigated, prosecuted and tried in Turkey. The astonishingly low number of convictions in ISIL cases illustrates how the government is unwilling to successfully prosecute ISIL cases.
Erdoğan’s Government Downplays ISIL Figures
The Turkish government is not forthcoming when it comes to sharing information on the number of ISIL militants in Turkey, and either downplays or ignores crucial data on how many ISIL members have been successfully prosecuted, convicted and sentenced in Turkey. Government officials have also, at times, provided conflicting numbers on ISIL’s presence in Turkey. The opposition political parties in the Turkish parliament submitted about a dozen motions, asking for the establishment of inquiry commissions to investigate ISIL and other jihadist terror groups, but all of them were defeated by the votes of members of President Erdoğan’s ruling party AKP, which controls the majority in the assembly. Therefore, legislative reviews of the government’s actions were thwarted, especially in the aftermath of deadly ISIL attacks.
The last count on jailed ISIL militants provided by President Erdoğan was 2,000 during a speech at his party’s meeting in parliament on November 6, 2018. The president did not mention how many of these were convicted, as in most cases the courts act as a revolving door for jihadists, letting them go after time in pre-trial detention. Erdoğan’s figure contradicted the one provided by Turkey’s then-Prime Minister and current Parliamentary Speaker Binali Yıldırım, who, during a February 2018 Munich Security Conference, stated that there were 10,000 ISIL militants locked up behind bars in Turkish jails.
The question is, what happened to the other 8,000 ISIL militants in the intervening eight months? Perhaps Erdoğan’s confidante Yıldırım made up the figures to impress the audience at the security conference, because a week prior to the Munich address, Turkish Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül stated that 1,354 ISIL members were in jail, although he did not specify how many were convicted and how many were in jail awaiting trial. The last time the Turkish government shared data on actual convictions of ISIL suspects was in 2017, when Justice Minister Gül responded to a parliamentary question by opposition lawmaker Gamze Akkuş İlgezdi. The government said there were only 28 ISIL militants convicted on charges of terrorism, while 470 suspects were incarcerated pending completion of their trial proceedings. In other words, there were less than 500 ISIL militants in Turkish jails as of March 2017. The figures for 2016 were even worse, as the number of convicted ISIL militants was seven as of July 19, 2016, as opposed to 513 ISIL militants who were jailed pending trial. Of these, 274 were foreigners.
The evidence conclusively demonstrates that today’s Turkey is a country undergoing an intense transformation from a secular and parliamentary democracy to an Islamist regime. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is bent on building the country in his own image, and is keen to export his jihadist ideology beyond Turkey’s borders. It is alarming to see Turkey becoming another Iran in a troubled region of the world, with Erdoğan similarly using armed radical religious groups as proxies to advance his personal political goals. The institutions that are crumbling under the pressure of Erdoğan’s rule are still showing signs of resistance, albeit faint ones, finding ways to bring evidence such as secret wiretaps and court cases to light.
The way the government uses the criminal justice system and law enforcement mechanisms in different situations tells the tale of what is happening in Turkey today. When it comes to going after legitimate critics from all walks of life including journalists, human rights defenders, academics, members of the Gülen and Kurdish political movements, and others, the Erdoğan government doesn’t hesitate to invoke anti-terror laws in prosecuting critics who are simply exercising their right to dissent peacefully and express their opinions in a civil manner. On the other hand, the government severely limits the courts’ ability to crack down on real terrorist groups and violent jihadist networks. The fact that, in many cases, detained ISIL and al-Qaeda members have been let go with a mere slap on the wrist can only be explained by the political cover and protection provided by the government.
The remarks of then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on October 12, 2015, two days after the attack, sum up the approach of the ruling AKP government: “You cannot hold a person without reason. There is a certain list of people who may conduct suicide bombings in Turkey. You monitor them. However, if you do something before the point that they are about to stage the [terror] act, you face a protest.”
The protest Davutoğlu was referring to is the one the government would face from its core Islamist base if the regime was to act against jihadists, even if the security services had identified them as potential suicide bombers. He has also been an apologist for ISIL, trying to justify its existence by stating that ISIL, even though it is recognized as a radical and terror entity, exists as a result of frustration and anger among Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds.
Unfortunately, this is the mindset of Turkey’s Islamist rulers when it comes to jihadist groups. The same government has jailed 235 journalists on terrorism charges because they expressed views critical of the Erdoğan government, including exposing damaging information on corruption scandals to the government’s clandestine operations in aiding and abetting jihadists. Nor does the government appear to apply the definition “terrorist” to the radical groups it favors.
There are abundant tools available and at the disposal of the criminal justice system in Turkey to crack down on potential suicide bombers and other ISIL militants, but what is lacking is the political will to go after them. Since President Erdoğan has consolidated his grip on Turkey’s judiciary, police, military and intelligence agencies, there is little hope of seeing real action against jihadist groups unless Erdoğan changes his ideological perspective, which is highly unlikely. On the international stage, he may be singing a different tune in response to growing criticism and pressure from Turkey’s allies, but Erdoğan’s heart and mind are aligned with the cause championed by jihadist groups. In fact, when one compares the narratives of ISIL and al-Qaeda ideologies and what Erdoğan has been saying at public rallies, one cannot help but notice many similarities.
Without responsible leadership within the Turkish government, it will be difficult to address long-term repercussions from violent jihadist ideologies, both within Turkey and outside of it. The Erdoğan government is not a constructive partner in the fight against terrorism, and in fact the evidence indicates Ankara has often behaved as a double-dealing and unreliable actor in this battle. Perhaps the worst is yet to come, given the fact the government has been retooling public education in Turkey to reinforce the ideological underpinnings that nurture jihadist fervor in this predominantly Sunni nation of 80 million citizens.
The government has also reformatted media outlets to amplify hostile anti-Western messages, as well as funded and politically supported Islamist groups in Turkey and other countries. At times, the Turkish government has even armed Islamist groups, as in the cases of Libya and Syria. As such, the government of President Erdoğan represents a dire threat not only to Turkey, but also to its Middle Eastern and European neighborhood and beyond.