Turkey starts deporting foreign ISIS fighters

Ankara risks tensions with the United States and Europe.
Monday 11/11/2019
Turkey's Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu speaks on the phone in Ankara, Turkey. (AP)
Turkey's Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu speaks on the phone in Ankara, Turkey. (AP)

ISTANBUL - In a move that could provoke new tensions with Europe and the United States, Turkey started deporting foreign members of the Islamic State even though their countries of origin are reluctant to take them back.

Turkey said 25 foreign Islamic State (ISIS) extremists, at least 15 of whom were arrested in Syria with the rest detained in Turkey, would be deported. Of the group, 24 are from European countries and one is from the United States.

The Turkish Hurriyet newspaper reported that an ISIS member from the United States was stuck in no-man’s land on border between Turkey and Greece after Turkey deported him but Greece refused to take him in.

Video posted on the Hurriyet website showed a man waving his arms behind a closed gate at a Turkish border crossing. Hurriyet said the man had been arrested by Turkish forces in Syria and was deported November 11.

Turkey’s Western allies have worried that ISIS militants could escape as a result of the latest Turkish offensive in Syria. Turkey accused Western countries, especially in Europe, of being too slow to take back citizens who travelled to the Middle East to fight on behalf of ISIS.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu criticised European countries, such as Britain and the Netherlands, that strip ISIS members of their citizenship to avoid repatriation of the militants, many of whom are considered dangerous.

European officials said Turkey had not informed them that citizens of their countries would be sent back. “There is no concrete information by the Turkish side,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said November 4. The government in Berlin did not comment on the developments November 11.

Turkish Interior Ministry spokesman Ismail Catakli said one American and one German fighter were deported November 11. He did not specify where they were sent, although Turkey has repeatedly said fighters would be sent to their native countries. However, the Hurriyet story suggested that the ISIS member from the United States was sent to Greece, not to America.

The Greek newspaper Ekathimerini reported in October that Greek authorities on the land border with Turkey were on high alert to prevent ISIS members from crossing the border. The Greek officers would be backed up by counterterrorism experts from Europol, the newspaper reported. There was no official comment by Greece or the United States.

In addition to the US citizen and the German, a Danish citizen was to be deported, Catakli said. Seven Germans from Turkish prisons were to be deported November 14, while two Irish nationals, two other Germans and 11 French citizens would be sent back from Syria.

“Efforts to identify the nationalities of foreign fighters captured in Syria have been completed with their interrogations 90% finished and the relevant countries notified. The process of repatriating foreign fighters to their countries will continue with determination,” Catakli was cited as saying by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Turkish government officials said that the country has approximately 800 foreign ISIS members in Turkish prisons and nearly 300 foreign militants in camps in northern Syria.

Turkey began an offensive in north-eastern Syria against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia on October 9, following US President Donald Trump’s decision to move US troops out of the way.

The YPG, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a key US ally against ISIS, has kept thousands of jihadists in jails across north-eastern Syria and has overseen camps where relatives of fighters sought shelter. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group.

The Turkish offensive prompted widespread concern over the fate of the prisoners. Turkey’s Western allies and the SDF warning it could hinder the fight against ISIS and aid its resurgence. Turkey rejected those concerns and vowed to combat ISIS with its allies. Ankara accuses the YPG of freeing around 750 ISIS members from prisons under the militia’s watch.

A French official told Agence France-Press that French nationals being expelled were mostly women. Some had been in Turkey for a long time and others arrived recently, the official added, without giving details. The 11 French individuals who are to be sent back would be tried, the official said, adding that discussions were under way to determine whether their arrival will be handled by civil or military airport authorities.