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Is Turkey a Bad Actor in Regard to ISIS Prisoners Being Held in SDF Territory?

Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

As published in Homeland Security Today:

According to our ICSVE research interviews with 240 ISIS members, including an ISIS emir who claims to have worked with Turkish military and intelligence, Turkey has long been involved with and supporting ISIS in terms of allowing over 40,000 foreign fighters’ transit across Turkey into Syria, allowing supplies to flow into ISIS, negotiating agreements with ISIS including about water supply allowing for electricity generation, and letting ISIS fighters arrange medical care and recovery in Turkey and then return to the group.

During their Fall 2019 incursions into northeast Syria, Turkey claimed that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was a terrorist group, yet the Turkish-backed rebels acted as terrorists killing civilians and carrying out multiple human rights abuses, as we see now also in Turkish-backed rebel-occupied Afrin. Likewise, SDF camps and prisons were shelled in Turkey’s October 2019 incursion into northeast Syria, causing over 950 women and children to flee SDF-held Camp Ain Eisa, many of them to Turkish-backed rebel held territory and some then into Turkey. Now we see clear bragging from Turkey about repatriating a Moldovan woman from al Hol, not by respecting the international coalition forces made up of and led by NATO member countries, but by smuggling her illegally out of the camp into Turkish-held areas. This is occurring while Turkey accuses the SDF of being a terrorist organization when they are in fact our strongest international ally against ISIS, who lost their lives on the ground, as together in partnership with the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh (ISIS) we defeated ISIS territorially in Syria. They are also our partner in holding the captured ISIS prisoners while the world decides what to do with them. At considerable effort to itself, the SDF has been keeping these former ISIS cadres safe from escape and regrouping to attack, as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi called for them to do and as ISIS’s precursor organization, Islamic State in Iraq, is well known for doing in their Breaking the Walls campaigns which formed the basis of ISIS ever being able to emerge on the global stage.

Natalia Barkal, a Moldovan woman, and her four children, recently smuggled out of Camp al Hol, were unabashedly reported upon in the Turkish press, by Anadolu Agency for one, with claims that Turkish and Moldovan intelligence agencies had “rescued” them from Camp al Hol. Barkal and her Syrian-origin husband lived and worked in Moldova’s capital Chisinau until 2013 when they moved together to Syria’s Manbij district in Aleppo province during the rise of ISIS. Moldovan security sources said Barkal’s husband was killed in military fighting in late 2017 and Barkal and her four children arrived at Camp al Hol on January 2019. He is believed to have been an ISIS fighter and Barkal was being held in Camp al Hol as an ISIS wife. Indeed, Maldivian Jezimah Muhammad, an ISIS wife in Camp al Hol, told North Press that she personally witnessed and knew of Natalia Barkal being among the women who followed ISIS all the way to Baghouz, finally surrendering to the SDF when ISIS was defeated there. Natalia’s ties to ISIS are therefore believed to have been strong and she is unquestionably an ISIS suspect.

Nevertheless, President of Moldova Igor Dodon proudly shared photos of himself and the repatriated family at Chisinau airport via Twitter and he is reported to have said “I thank President Erdogan for his extensive efforts to bring back our citizens and for his support.” While she was certainly “rescued” from the well-documented dire conditions at al Hol, she was being held as a detainee in Camp al Hol as an ISIS fighter’s wife. Thus, offering her assistance to escape from Camp al Hol appears to fly in the face of international agreements among the 82 countries, including Turkey, that are partners of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh (ISIS). The U.S. and the Coalition have been supporting the SDF in holding the ISIS detainees captured both during and following the territorial defeat of ISIS and also in working with their home countries to try and repatriate their citizens who for the most part illegally entered Syria ultimately to join and support ISIS. For all intents and purposes Natalia Barkal appears to have been one of these, although she may have entered the country legally with her Syrian husband.

Located in Hasaka province, al-Hol camp is home to around to 60,000 Iraqis and Syrians, and 10,000 ISIS-related foreign nationals, 8,000 of them from Europe. The majority of the camp’s residents, who are predominantly women and children, were arrested during the battles in Baghouz in March 2019 when ISIS was finally territorially defeated, making it quite likely that most were married to ISIS fighters and may have been integrally supporting ISIS in some capacity. The SDF and the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) have repeatedly called on the international community to repatriate their foreign nationals or to support either running an international tribunal in the area or to help local courts carry out trials of suspected ISIS members, but there has been little action in either domain.

It is easy to understand why the ISIS women captured by the SDF and the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh (ISIS) now held in Camps Roj and Camp al-Hol want to escape from the dire conditions in which they are held, facing disease, malnutrition, bombardments, attacks from ISIS enforcers, and poor living conditions. Nor can one blame them for being extremely frustrated with not being able to face actual charges and judicial proceedings rather than being held indefinitely in a difficult legal limbo. However, there are clear means of requesting repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters and their families, which Moldova never used. Sinam Mohamad, the U.S. representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the SDF’s political wing, says Moldova ignored these procedures, telling Voice of America, “The global coalition asked the countries to get their citizens back [with] no response. Moldova did not ask for this woman.”

Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign affairs for the AANES, referred to the “rescue” as an “abduction” and said it “confirms Turkey’s support to terrorism.” The SDF has long confirmed that women escape weekly from Camp al Hol with the assistance of smugglersSpeaking to Rudaw news agency, Abdulkarim Omar added, “This also confirms that Turkey is behind all abductions in the NES. This proves that Turkey wants to abduct all women in order to use them for its own regional agenda.”

Security sources in the SDF admit that 200 foreign families have escaped from Camp al Hol, many suspected to have been helped by Turkish forces, and that the SDF does not know their current whereabouts. A statement released by the NES described Turkey’s actions as a “new form of support for ISIS,” with “mercenaries” working with the Turkish-backed militias under the Syrian National Army umbrella in areas they control in Syria: “We call on the international community to hold Turkey responsible for the smuggling and receipt of ISIS members.”

Abdulkarim Omar also pointed out that, during their incursions into north east Syria in October 2019, the Turkish military shelled Camp Ain Issa, allowing ISIS women to escape the camp. According to local monitor Rojava Information Center, 950 foreign ISIS-linked women and children escaped at that time. While some went to their consulates in Turkey and were repatriated, others have disappeared. The SDF also told ICSVE researchers that Turkey’s bombardments during the same time period hit prisons in Qamishlo and Derreck, allowing ISIS male fighters to escape, although they were recaptured.

Turkey, which vociferously refuses to acknowledge the SDF as a valued ally in the fight against ISIS, instead insisting that they are a terrorist group affiliated with the PKK,[1] would understandably not want to ask permission from the SDF for repatriations of their own citizens and the SDF would be unlikely to grant them out of fear that Turkey might allow them freedom to redeploy. However, this woman was not Turkish. Moreover, as a member of NATO, a member of the 82-member, U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh (ISIS), and as a signatory to The European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism (1977, amended 2003) as well as the Convention of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference on Combatting International Terrorism (adopted 1999, entered into force 2002) UN agreements, Turkey, in taking out such actions as this smuggling and “rescue” operation, is clearly not showing any type of allyship behavior. These resolutions in regard to cooperating with other signatories on matters of counter terrorism are binding in terms of not supporting, financing or allowing financing of terrorism.

The material support laws in regard to terrorism, the strongest of which are in the United States, have been defined by at least one judge in the U.S. (in the case of Hoda Muthana’s citizenship case) as precluding even her own father from providing financing, through the SDF, to her for food, suntan lotion, or other necessities for herself and her sickly toddler son who are surviving on a diet of lentils, dried beans, spaghetti and cooking oil. Likewise, Kimberly Pullman’s family in Canada has also been warned not to send money to her while she is held in the camps. While it has not been established in any court of law that either woman served ISIS, these women are being treated, at least by U.S. law, as ISIS suspects and the court is ruling that giving them support is considered material support to terrorists. Whether or not this will ultimately hold up is debatable; however, it is clear that U.S. courts are forbidding giving aid to these women. Likewise, it is important to note that still-committed ISIS women in Camp al Hol have been fundraising over Instagram and Telegram and using Paypal and informal hawala networks to raise sufficient funds to bribe their way out of the camp, in which cases many make their way into Turkish-held territory in Syria or Turkey itself.

Thus far, the spokesman for the Global Coalition has been silent about Turkey’s recent actions, as have most Western governments who appear not to want to engage in any spat with Turkish President Erdogan over the incident. However, given the U.S. judiciary’s views on not even giving money for food to ISIS women in the camps, for Turkey to help this woman smuggle out of Camp al Hol would logically be seen then by the same laws and judiciary as clear material support to terrorism and would also be seen as Turkey defying UN agreements with both European and other Muslim countries and by NATO in defiance to binding agreements to fight terrorism. While Turkey is a strategic partner for the U.S. and many other countries, this alongside many other actions demonstrate they are also a malign actor in Syria. Clearly something is terribly wrong in this regard.

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne and Ellenberg, Molly (July 20, 2020). Is Turkey a Bad Actor in Regard to ISIS Prisoners Being Held in SDF Territory?. Homeland Security Today

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed  240 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting foreign governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website

Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE.  Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, the Journal of Strategic Security, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

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