Turkey, the Coup, and ISIS
(Ahmet S. Yayla, October 13, 2016)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is co-author of the book, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. He is former Deputy Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and is also Adjunct Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. He formerly served as Professor and the Chair of the Sociology Department at Harran University in Turkey. He is the former Chief of Counterterrorism and Operations Division for the Turkish National Police with a 20-year career interviewing terrorists.
His work was primarily concerned with terrorist and related activities of ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, Hezbollah, the PKK, and other global terrorist organizations and he was responsible for several successful operations against the above-listed terrorist organizations. Dr. Yayla designed and administered counterterrorism and intelligence activities and operations for precautionary measures in the city of Şanlıurfa, located at the Turkish-Syrian border and at the borders of the current ongoing warzone in Syria.
Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, radicalization, countering violence extremism (CVE) and the Middle East. He has earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. He has authored and co-authored several articles and books on the subject of terrorism and violence including First Responders’ Guide to Professionally Interacting with Muslim Communities: Law Enforcement, Emergency and Fire Fighters, Understanding and Responding to Terrorism: A Complete Model to Deal with Terrorism and Terrorism: A Global Perspective.
He also spoke at Westminster on the topic of: How Turkey Sees Its Role in the World and What it Means for the U.S.
Robert R. Reilly:
I am so happy to welcome our speaker, Ahmet Yayla, who is coauthor of the just released book, which you see here, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate, which we have available for sale and Dr. Yayla will be happy to sign these books for you after his presentation. Now, he is Deputy Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).
He is also Adjunct Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. He formerly served as Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Harran University in Turkey and most pertinent for our subject matter this evening, he is the former Chief of Counterterrorism and Operations Division for the Turkish National Police with a 20-year career interviewing terrorists and ISIS defectors.
His work was primarily concerned with terrorist and related activities of ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, Hezbollah, the PKK, and other terrorist organizations. He was responsible for several successful operations against the above-listed terrorist organizations. Tonight he is going to address us on the subject of Turkey, the Coup, and ISIS. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Yayla.
Ahmet S. Yayla:
I will start with the coup attempt and then I will jump into the ISIS as I think these are the most important things occurring right now in the Middle East and in Turkey, which are very much related and most of them which are very much misunderstood, so I think it is essential that we understand them well to better analyze what is going on over there. Before I speak about the coup, I would like to speak about the pre-coup atmosphere in Turkey.
So what was going on? Beginning [in] 2011, we have started the problems in our south basically in Syria with the opposition rising against Bashar Assad. What happened was Turkey adopted a policy which is [an] open border policy to let all of the Syrian refugees in without any questions but at the same time let anyone coming from Syria also in whether it be a Jabhat al-Nusra member, Al Qaeda member, or other different jihadi terrorist organization members and base themselves inside the country and carry out their operations through Turkey, especially the southern border towns, including Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Kilis, [and] Hatay where the border was like [the] American-Mexican border, wide, flat and which was not very well controlled also.
On top of that, by the end of 2013, ISIS rose and we had started to see a lot of ISIS fighters going through Turkey to join ISIS, especially the foreign fighters coming from the West and even from Northern Africa. To this day, the total number is calculated at 38,000 just went through Turkey to join ISIS and almost none of those ISIS fighters were stopped in or at the borders of Turkey and sent back. The numbers who were stopped were circumstantial. Basically, they by themselves went to the police and asked almost the police to stop them to go- like for example, three Westerners went to the police at the border and told to the police there they would like to join ISIS and pass the border.
But there is a story behind it. The ISIS members who had already passed and joined the ISIS, speaking so easily about passing the borders, so they thought that they were passing legally with passports to join ISIS. So what happened? They were not arrested, of course. They went back and then they met with their counterparts from ISIS. And then they passed again, but eventually, they passed without any problems.
So it was a scheme in almost the beginning of 2016. Even today there are still a lot of foreign fighters passing between Turkey and Syria, unfortunately. Most of the time when ISIS was controlling the southern border of Turkey, beginning from Akcele towards Kilis, which we can roughly say about three hundred miles.
The commanders, Turkish or Syrian does not matter, were working for ISIS. And the orders were ‘you let us know who is passing’. ISIS Intelligence was controlling the Syrian part of the border, but at the same time, the Turkish part of the border, telling the smugglers if you pass anyone, you let us know, otherwise we kill you. They were not paying the smugglers, but they were forcing the smugglers to let them know about the people who were passing in between the borders.
They were especially curious about the ISIS defectors, who were passing from Syria to Turkey. And there were several occasions when they caught ISIS defectors, passing from Syria to Turkey. They killed them on sight and, of course, they killed the smugglers as well.
Now, the smugglers are key here in this issue because in most places there are mines and people do not want to pass by themselves. They do not want to step on the mines on the border, so they need smugglers. So unless defectors who would like to run away from ISIS pay really well, large amounts of money, mostly around one thousand dollars per person, they do not have luck to pass from Syria to Turkey.
So this was the scheme and almost today it is the scheme, anyways. For regular people the price of smuggling a person is a little bit higher right now, but normally it was between $50 to $1,000, depending on who was passing the border. So anyway, these are the circumstances around that border.
After 2014, there were several suicide bombers who came from ISIS or who were blamed on ISIS, beginning in Suruç. Suruç is a town in Şanlıurfa. In the Suruç suicide bombing thirty-two people died. After the Suruç suicide bombing there was another suicide attack in Ankara during a crowded demonstration where over one hundred people died and hundreds were wounded.
So the security of Turkey not only coming from ISIS, but also from the PKK and other cult-like terrorist-related problems were going down very fast. This effected the tourism industry very badly. Several thousand tourists canceled their reservations, so the economy started to suffer.
That is in addition to the burden that Turkey had handling the Syrian refugees, helping them. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey right now is three million. They are scattered all around Turkey. Around two hundred or three hundred thousand of them are being taken care of in refugee camps, but the rest are around Turkey and most of the time they are being offered free healthcare and free education. So this is also, of course, a big burden on the economy.
But the biggest burden came after the shoot down of the Russian airplane because Putin was very upset about it. There was not any real explanation and logical approach to why Turkey shot down the Russian airplane. Even though it was claimed that the Russian airplane was in Turkish airspace, but that was a very short time.
So anyways, Putin started to put out sanctions against Turkey. Immediately after the sanctions, over 90% of the Russian tourists canceled their reservations. In 2015, during the summertime, and in 2016, Russian tourists did not come to Turkey. The tourists, if you look at the statistics, Russian tourists are the majority of the tourists who visit Turkey for their summer vacations, so this hit our economy very badly. In addition, Putin also banned trade between Turkey and Russia, which hit our agricultural economy because Turkish farmers were selling large amounts of fruits and vegetables to Russia. Also, this hit our inflation, so the economy was going down for these reasons.
Also, there was another, bigger problem. In 2013, 17 December, there was an [anti] corruption operation against Erdoğan’s close circles in Istanbul. In that [anti] corruption operation, four ministers’ sons were arrested, Erdoğan’s own son, Bilal Erdoğan, was a suspect, [but] they could not arrest him anyways. But that corruption operation pissed off Erdoğan very much, he got furious about it, and he said the police are carrying out a coup d’état against me. This investigation started two years [before] December 2013, and the Turkish intelligence or other parts of the Turkish National Police were unaware of this operation, but almost anyone who was aware of these kinds of dealings in Turkey were aware of the fact that those people were corrupt. They were into deep corruption and dirty dealings. This 17 and 25 December [anti] corruption operations put a dot on Turkish democracy and on the Turkish economy.
Erdoğan immediately after the operation started to fire the police officers, police chiefs, and the prosecutors, and the judges who got involved in these operations. And that was not enough. Anyone who dared to make news pieces about these operations and about the facts of the operations, basically the dirty dealings of the ministers and Erdoğan’s sons, were arrested. The newspapers were closed down, confiscated, forced to shut down, and Erdoğan started to go after the free media. Basically, beginning in 2013-2014, we lost the free media, we lost the freedom of speech because anyone who dared to speak about, write about, or discuss these corruption issues was deemed an enemy, and were made sure to pay dearly.
And this also put an end to our justice system. I was a police chief in Şanlıurfa then. We were openly asked whether we were with the regime or not, which meant are you going to close your eyes to the ongoing corruption dealings or are you going to work with us or are you going to try to prosecute or investigate the crimes. And I did not even think about replying to that, and I resigned, and I became a professor at Harran University.
This was a turning point for me and several of my friends at the police because several of the chiefs then denied being a puppet at the hands of [the] Erdoğan government, and they were sidelined. They were not given positions. New people [were] brought in to lead and work for the critical departments in the police, mostly counterterrorism, intelligence, organized crime, and critical and major crimes. Basically, the skeleton of the police, investigative police, and criminal part of the police that would deal with any kind of corruption or misdoings of the government.
But that was not enough. All the prosecutors that were looking at those cases were changed, and the judges who they deemed they would not rule in the favor of the government were also changed. Several of them were sidelined, and new judges and prosecutors were assigned, so we started 2014 in this atmosphere.