Is Islamic State regrouping in Turkey? Experts believe so

Pushed out of Syria and Iraq, jihadi militants seek haven in NATO member state

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ISIS suspects, Turkey
People suspected of ISIS ties taken into custody in Turkey, November 2019
(Sezgin Pancar/Getty)
Last Updated:
March 13, 2020 - 8:22am

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A dispossessed Islamic State aims to reassemble in Turkey, western officials, have told Just the News.

“They lost their hold in Syria and Iraq,” said one Tampa, Florida-based analyst. “They want an operating base, and we’ve tracked them extensively in Turkey.”  

“The move to Turkey started under al-Baghdadi,” said a Turkey-based agent, referencing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who blew himself up in October while being pursued by American special operations forces. “It continues to pick up.”

Neither official is authorized to speak to the press. Both talked on condition of anonymity.

An Islamic State move to the Anatolian peninsula nation seems logical, region experts say.

“Based on sheer geography, it makes sense for ISIS to move assets into Turkey,” said author Colin Clarke, a political scientist at RAND Corporation. “Turkey is a logical staging ground for ISIS.”

The militant group knows that the United States, which struck hard against it in Syria and Iraq, will not attack an enemy hiding inside a NATO partner nation, Clarke said.

“The U.S. won’t strike the Islamic State at all in Turkey,” Clarke said. “We won’t violate Turkish sovereignty.”

Whether the militants formally establish a base in Turkey has little impact on ISIS operations, one expert said.

“They lost the battle to the coalition forces,” said Ahmet Yayla, a former counterterrorism police chief in Turkey. “Thousands of them fled to Turkey, and they’re still there.”

Most current ISIS operations are carried out via Turkey, said Yayla, now a professor in the United States. “There are thousands of cells there.”

The cells’ activities include money transfers, the U.S. government has found. In September, the Treasury Department placed a number of foreign exchange bureaus and jewelry stores on a sanctions list for handling money for the Islamic State. 

“It’s really tough to do the forensics,” Clarke said. “ISIS has a lot of money still in the bank.”

The money, he said, helps ISIS use Turkey as a staging ground.

The United States has asked the government in Ankara to drive out the militant jihadis, Clarke said. 

“When ISIS pokes the hornet’s nest, Turkey acts,” Clarke said, but not to the degree the United States would like.

“Turkey is more focused on anti-Gulen efforts,” the Tampa analyst said, referring to Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. The 78-year-old Gulen, who lives in exile in the United States, is wanted in Turkey in connection with a failed 2016 coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But the Islamic State also has a direct appeal to Ankara, others indicate.

"Turkey doesn’t consider ISIS a threat,” Yayla said. “In Turkey, ISIS fights against Erdogan’s enemies. Attacks by ISIS are mostly against the Kurds.” Since 1978, Turkey has battled the group that hopes to form an autonomous Kurdistan inside Turkish territory. 

Hence, experts say, Turkey to a degree tolerates ISIS.

“Turkey will tell the world they are doing something, but they are doing nothing,” Yayla said. “They won’t do anything.”

When asked for comment by Just the News, the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. at first responded with a press release about a coronavirus patient, and did not follow up on the assurance that it had directed questions about ISIS to the appropriate official.