Calibrating the Response: Turkey’s ISIS Returnees
International Crisis Group, REPORT 258 / EUROPE & CENTRAL ASIA 29 JUNE 2020
Turkey, like many countries, must figure out how to handle thousands of citizens coming home from jihadist battlefields abroad. None has mounted a domestic attack since 2017, but the danger is not gone. Authorities should consider adding enhanced social programs to their law-and-order approach.
What’s new? Turkey has to deal with thousands of citizens who travelled to join ISIS and have now returned. Of the few convicted, many will soon be released from jail. Others are under surveillance. The fate of the rest is murky.
Why does it matter? ISIS’s diminished stature and measures adopted by the Turkish authorities have spared Turkey from ISIS attacks for more than three years. But while the threat should not be overplayed, it has not necessarily disappeared. That Turkish returnees turn their back on militancy is important for national and regional security.
What should be done? Ankara’s approach toward returnees or others suspected of ties to jihadism relies mostly on surveillance and detention. The government could consider also offering support for returnees’ families, alternatives for youngsters at risk of being drawn into militancy and support for returnees released after serving ISIS-related jail time.
Turkey, like many countries, faces a challenge in dealing with citizens who travelled to join the Islamic State (ISIS) and have now come home. Thousands of returnees have crossed back into Turkey. Some were involved in ISIS attacks between 2014 and 2017 on Turkish soil that killed nearly 300 civilians. As the authorities stepped up counter-terrorism efforts, some returnees came under tight surveillance. Some were prosecuted and jailed. Those who returned early on are more likely to have remained undetected. The collapse of ISIS’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq has sapped its ability to inspire and mobilise. Turkish clampdowns have also helped spare the country from ISIS attacks for more than three years. Still, scant data exists on the diverse trajectories of former ISIS members. Ankara’s reliance on surveillance and detention to disrupt ISIS is resource-intensive and may not be fool-proof. The government could explore supplementary policies that offer help for returnees’ families, alternatives for youths at risk of being drawn into militancy and support for those released after serving time for ISIS-related crimes.
The profiles of Turkish citizens who joined ISIS varied widely and so did their motivations. They included veterans of past wars, some of whom were key recruiters; ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims, drawn by the prospect of life under strict Islamic rule; Islamist Kurds pitted against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has carried out an insurgency in Turkey for more than 35 years and is designated a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union, and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG); and youth seeking glory, wealth or “purification” of petty crime or drugs. Some returned to the social circles from which they were recruited. Others, rejected by their old friends and families, blended into Turkey’s big cities.
Turkish authorities’ understanding of the ISIS danger has evolved. At first, like counterparts in other countries, they underestimated the threat that returnees could pose and in 2014-2015 remained largely ambivalent toward ISIS recruitment. That perception began to shift over 2016, especially after an ISIS attack in May that year on Gaziantep province’s police headquarters, one in a spate of sixteen attacks between 2014 and 2017 that cost hundreds of civilians their lives, but the first that appeared to target Turkish state institutions. The most recent ISIS attack on Turkish soil was a shooting at a nightclub on 1 January 2017 that killed 39 people. Since then, security agencies have kept ISIS in check, foiling plots through surveillance, detention and tighter border security. But the threat has not entirely disappeared, as Turkish officials themselves admit. Turkish policies may have pushed returnees and what is left of their networks further underground. Even a few individuals slipping through the cracks can be a serious menace if they recruit, finance or plan future attacks.
Turkey faces challenges with prosecuting and incarcerating returnees similar to those faced by other countries, but there are also unique aspects. Turkish officials still view ISIS as less threatening to national security than the PKK insurgency or what they call the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation” (“FETÖ”), a transnational movement Ankara accuses of infiltrating the Turkish bureaucracy and carrying out the July 2016 coup attempt. Suspects accused of affiliation with the latter two groups face tougher prosecution and sentencing. Prosecutors and judges largely assume that women who went to Syria or Iraq to live under ISIS’s rule were simply obeying their husbands and had little agency. Lawyers for the victims of some ISIS attacks suggest that with more resources, investigations might have uncovered the masterminds of the strikes, rather than just the foot soldiers who carried them out. If convicted at all, ISIS returnees tend to be jailed for three or four years for membership in a terrorist group. Hundreds are due for release soon. In prisons, some may have accrued connections and possibly also status in militant circles.
At the same time, Turkish state institutions have only recently begun contemplating what they call “de-radicalisation” or “rehabilitation” efforts – broadly speaking, policies designed to move former militants away from jihadist ideology and violence. For the most part, the authorities rely on surveillance – monitoring those they believe may pose a threat – combined with short detentions designed to scare anyone whom they think is poised to join militant circles away from doing so. To the extent that other policies exist, their goals are vague, and the approaches of the ministries involved uncoordinated. Social workers, police, imams, prison wardens and local officials lack specialised training and guidelines on how to deal with returnees and their families. Civil society actors are largely absent and officials reluctant to work with outsiders. Mid-level officials in Ankara express the need for options beyond security measures.
A number of steps could help. First, Turkey should differentiate between ISIS, PKK, “FETÖ” and ultra-leftist groups, each of which poses a different type of challenge to the Turkish state. Lumping them together muddles policy and hinders efforts to design an approach tailored to the jihadist threat. The government should ensure that overstretched judges, courts and prosecutors have the resources to investigate crimes by ISIS recruiters and returnees. Prison authorities and other agencies might share information on convicts jailed for ISIS-related crimes before their release to ensure they get appropriate support as they adapt to life outside bars. The authorities should consider what help they can offer families who seek aid in deterring youngsters from turning to militancy. They might also offer those young people extracurricular activities or jobs as alternatives. It is true that such programs have a mixed and often contentious record in other countries. But if the authorities are responding to families’ demands and are sensitive to their concerns, policies along these lines might still be valuable.
Despite the lull in attacks, the evolution of the Syria and Iraq conflicts could yet present Turkey with new challenges related to returnees, particularly if ISIS resurges in either country or battle-hardened fighters cross back from war zones in Syria’s north. Turkey has kept the threat at bay for more than three years with an approach based largely on surveillance and detentions. But a strategy toward returnees that combines security measures with social programs helping former ISIS members steer clear of militancy and supporting their families might over time be more sustainable and relieve some of the burden on the security services.
Istanbul/Ankara/Brussels, 29 June 2020
For the full report, visit: https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/western-europemediterranean/turkey/258-calibrating-response-turkeys-isis-returnees