Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is angrily opposing Sweden and Finland’s bid for NATO membership, claiming that the countries are a “hotbed of terrorism.”
The irony of his claim was not lost on many, especially in light of the fact that since the start of the Syrian war in 2011 Turkey has become a transit point for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists.
The Turkish government claims Sweden and Finland host many senior members of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the armed group that has been fighting against Turkey for an independent Kurdish state in the southeastern part of the country. The United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union list the PKK as a terrorist organization, especially since more than 40,000 people have lost their lives because of PKK terrorism since 1984.
The PKK has been carrying out a bloody campaign in Turkey’s Southeast for decades. Its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the de facto semi-autonomous administration of northern Syria, violates human rights in the areas it controls. On the other hand, the Erdoğan regime backs al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups and many other terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq to counter the PKK-PYD, and claims have been made that Erdoğan’s Turkey has ties to terrorist groups in many parts of the world including Africa and Central Asia.
Firstly, Turkey has been dragging its feet in the fight against ISIL as Turkish officials argue that major EU members and the United States back armed Kurdish groups against Turkey in Iraq and Syria. Hence, Turkey resisted Washington’s pressure to join a US-led international coalition in attacking ISIL in the Syrian border town of Kobani in 2014. Turkey only allowed some Kurdish peshmerga fighters from northern Iraq through its territory into Syria. Turkey’s agenda in Syria differs from that of the US’s ultimate goal of defeating ISIL. Ankara’s main concern is preventing a Kurdish corridor along about 900 kilometers of its border with Syria. Moreover, the Islamist Erdoğan’s conservative voter base is sympathetic to ISIL fighters. However, the United States and its allies’ main focus is to eliminate ISIL in the region, and they do not show any hostility toward the Kurdish forces fighting in Syria. Instead, they support them as they see Kurdish groups as courageous allies against ISIL.
Nordic Monitor reported extensively how Erdoğan and Turkey’s controversial interior minister’s figures on jailed ISIL members contradict Turkish media reports and official statistics.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said Turkey had arrested 1,453 ISIL members in 2017, but the state-run Anadolu news agency stated that only 739 people were arrested the same year, and Erdoğan announced on Oct. 10, 2019 that there were around 5,500 ISIL terrorists in Turkish prisons. However, then-Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül said on July 21, 2020 that 1,195 ISIL members were in prisons either as convicts or suspects in pretrial detention.
The reports showing Turkish authorities’ conflicting numbers have raised questions about whether Turkey wants to fight against ISIL or is utilizing these jihadists against Kurdish armed groups.
The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) revealed in a statement on May 9 that Adnan Muhammad Amin Al-Rawi, as an ISIL facilitator, had materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support for — or goods or services to or in support of — ISIL, Arab News reported.
According to a confidential Turkish government file dated Nov. 2, 2021 and obtained by Nordic Monitor, Turkish militant Defne Mohammad Abumallal, whose Jordanian husband killed seven CIA officers in a suicide attack in Afghanistan, was allowed to travel to Syria to join ISIL after a brief detention in Gaziantep in April 2015. And the Turkish government released a convicted ISIL fighter, citing COVID-19 pandemic risks, allowing him to return to Syria to resume his activities on behalf of the terrorist organization.
American journalist Lindsey Snell, who was arrested by Turkish authorities on Aug. 6, 2016 and imprisoned for 67 days after she crossed back into the country from Syria, criticized NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg for saying that “Turkey is an important ally and played a key role in the fight against [ISIL].” Snell, who covers conflict and crises in the Caucasus, Middle East and North Africa, mentioned in a tweet on May 24 that “Turkey was ISIS’ chief enabler. Tens of thousands ISIS members and supporters crossed to Syria from Turkey. Supplies and weapons coming from Turkey sustained the group. And NATO and the West stood by and watched.”
The Erdoğan regime backs hardline Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham, the National Liberation Front, the Chinese Uighur-dominated jihadist group Turkistan Islamic Party, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the most powerful group in the only remaining area still held by rebels in northern Syria, and several groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). “We believe there are about 30-40,000 foreign fighters mainly Uighur, Tajik, Uzbek, Turks, and others from 103 nationalities — many with their migrated families,” Syrian MP Fares Shebahi told BBC in February 2020.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) accuses Turkey of deploying jihadist groups and ISIL members of various nationalities to support the Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), from Syria to Libya. Najla al-Manqoush, the foreign minister of Libya’s interim government, urged Turkey to repatriate more than 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya, and African Union members also called on Turkey to remove its mercenaries from the country.
Erdoğan accuses Finland and Sweden of becoming a safe haven for Kurdish militants and opposes their NATO membership, but ISIL members and many other radical fighters remain comfortably in NATO member Turkey and continue to carry out their attacks in many parts of the world.