June 7, 2022

IntelBrief: Turkey has Long Been an Important Support Base for Islamic State

AP Photo/Halit Onur Sandal

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Late last week, Turkey announced the capture of a high-ranking member of Islamic State (IS) in Istanbul, initially believed to be the new leader, though that is now uncertain.
  • Since its rise in 2014, IS financiers and logisticians have cultivated and maintained robust support networks throughout Turkey, but now, it seems that senior leadership is active there, as well.
  • If it does turn out to Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi that was arrested, it would indeed be significant, especially as the new IS leader has engineered major changes within the broader global enterprise.
  • Turkey offers terrorist groups many advantages, given the country’s connections to the licit financial system, its modern communications and transportation infrastructure, and its role as an international and regional hub.

Late last week, Turkey (or Türkiye) announced the capture of a high-ranking member of Islamic State (IS) in Istanbul. Some initially believed the captured individual to be the group’s new emir, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, while others believe it was Haji Zaid al-Sumaida'i, part of the shura committee under Islamic State’s previous leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who was killed after a U.S. special forces raid in early February. Although there remains uncertainty surrounding the true identity of this individual, the arrest indicated that high-ranking IS officials felt comfortable enough to operate in Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city. Many are now wondering why the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not doing more to root out IS militants, including its top leadership, from cities, towns, and villages across the country. For the most part, Turkey’s security services are focused on the threat posed by Kurdish militant groups operating in the eastern border region. Government bandwidth in Turkey is no doubt stretched, as the country struggles to control inflation along with rising food and energy costs; Ankara has the additional responsibility of caring for the more than 3 million refugees currently seeking shelter there.

The arrest came as the result of an extensive surveillance operation conducted by Turkish security services and could end up being an intelligence boon once the individual in custody is interrogated. Whether or not Turkey allows allies to have direct access to the detainee or information resulting from questioning will likely be the subject of intense closed door negotiations. This high profile capture also suggests that IS feels comfortable operating not just in eastern Turkey, but throughout the country. Since its rise in 2014, IS financiers and logisticians have cultivated and maintained robust support networks throughout Turkey, but now, it seems like senior leadership is active there, as well. Erdogan has been criticized for years for taking a passive approach to combating IS in Turkey, with some suggesting that he is fearful of antagonizing the militants, who have demonstrated both a willingness and capability to launch strikes on Turkish soil. A devastating terror attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2017 was claimed by IS; 39 civilians were killed and another 79 were injured in the attack. Perceptions of Turkish inaction or indifference to the presence of IS members in its country has been a long-time source of consternation for its allies. For years, the so-called “jihadi highway” ran through Turkey into Syria and Iraq, where tens of thousands of foreign fighters from around the world flooded into the conflict zone to join the ranks of jihadist groups such as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. However, tensions remain, as many Western states continue to rely on Kurdish partners in northeastern Syria to manage thousands of IS-associated detainees and their families in camps throughout the region, with little evidence of effective accountability mechanisms or repatriation options to address the humanitarian and security challenges in the camps.

If it does turn out to be Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi that was arrested, it would indeed be significant. After all, the new IS leader was motivated to make changes within the broader IS global enterprise. The recent organizational modifications—breaking out new franchise groups in the Sahel and Mozambique—demonstrate that al-Qurayshi was attempting to implement shifts within the group designed to take advantage of power vacuums, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. As the group’s center of gravity shifts from the Levant to Africa and South Asia, where Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) is mounting increasing attacks, IS globally is at an inflection point. Leadership still matters, so if al-Qurayshi has been captured, it could prove especially damaging, particularly considering the apparent need for IS leaders to focus on operational security instead of external operations. However, with the attention of many Western states on the war in Ukraine and the increasing competition between the U.S. and China, attention to counterterrorism, including addressing the evolution of groups like IS and al-Qaeda to more regionally- and locally- focused affiliates, remains limited.

A country like Turkey is a double-edged sword for groups like IS. On the one hand, Turkey has capable security forces, as demonstrated by what was a lengthy covert surveillance operation to capture the IS senior leader. On the other hand, unlike Afghanistan, which is geographically isolated and underdeveloped, Turkey can serve as a financial and logistical node for terrorists, given the country’s connections to the licit financial system and its modern communications and transportation infrastructure. These features make Turkey an attractive sanctuary for the operational support activities required to plan and execute high profile terrorist attacks. Moreover, given the dire state of Turkey’s economy, there is likely no shortage of well-connected facilitators willing to put bulk cash to work in front companies or other money laundering schemes.