The killing of Qurayshi: Are Turkey and ISIS still bonded?

“Thanks to the skill and bravery of our Armed Forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi - the leader of ISIS,” U.S President Joe Biden proclaimed proudly from the White House on February 2. 

The targeted killing of Qurayshi at his hideout on the Turkey-Syria border was a major milestone in counterterrorism operations. But ISIS is resilient. It will morph into a new structure and find new leadership. An enduring deradicalization strategy is ultimately needed to drain the swamp of support for militant Islamism.

The U.S Special Forces raid on the Qurayshi compound took place days after a joint operation between U.S and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to suppress a ISIS jail break in Hasaka in northeast Syria that was aimed at freeing 5,000 hardcore ISIS fighters. The SDF, with Kurdish fighters at its core, managed to successfully thwart the prison break after days, but after an action report suggested that Turkey provided weapons to ISIS and sanctuary to its leaders.

The SDF is America’s ally and partner within the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. It was the tip of the spear, fighting ISIS in Raqqa, the terror group’s capital in eastern Syria. It also led the assault on Baghouz, where ISIS made its last stand in March 2019.

The Hasaka prison break was orchestrated by al-Qurayshi, the head of ISIS, but the prison break and his elimination leave resurrect questions about Turkey’s role in confronting the militant group.

Qurayshi was hiding just 15 kilometers from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Qurayshi’s predecessor as head of ISIS, was killed by US Special Forces in 2019. Under Baghdadi’s compound was a network of tunnels extending across the border to Turkey while Turkish controlled territories in Syria such as Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad are believed to have become havens for ISIS.

Events in Hasaka demonstrated the partnership between the US and Kurdish fighters. The assault on the prison, a former vocational school with a myriad of buildings and basements, relied on US intelligence to identify ISIS holdouts in the sprawling complex. The US conducted air strikes and deployed Bradley fighting vehicles to support the SDF, which fought hand-to-hand against the terror group to retake the prison.

The attack on Qurayshi was planned for several months. However, the decision to go ahead was linked to events in Hasaka. Intelligence from the prison break established a direct link between Qurayshi and efforts by ISIS to take over the prison. The US is still studying materials seized at the Qurayshi compound, which may further implicate Turkey in ISIS operations depending on what is revealed.

Beginning in 2013, the Turkish government was instrumental in the rise of ISIS. That year President Barack Obama declined to enforce his own “red line” when he declined to launch any military strikes on Syria after its regime used chemical weapons to attack Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, in August 2013.

Infuriated by Obama’s inaction, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan took it on himself to back the rebels and dragged his feet in responding to the flow of jihadi fighters through the “Jihadi highway” that ran from from Sanliurfa in Turkey to Raqqa. More than 40,000 foreign fighters from about 80 countries transited through Turkey to Syria.

These allegations were not lost on U.S officials. Then Vice President Joe Biden confirmed Turkey’s role in public remarks at Harvard University in October 2014, sparking outrage in Turkey that he later apologized for. 

Erdoğan denies any cooperation with ISIS. However, the evidence implicates Turkey, and further undermined Erdoğan’s credibility.

ISIS fighters had in their possession Turkish weapons with Turkish markings were recovered by SDF fighters following Hasakeh operation, according to some reports. The weapons, seized from opposition groups backed by Turkey, were issued by NATO.

Both the Baghdadi and Qurayshi compounds were near the Turkish border in Aleppo. This area is crawling with Turkish agents and intelligence operatives. It is unlikely that two of the world’s most wanted terrorists could hide in plain sight without MIT knowing their whereabouts.

Idlib is itself a sanctuary to several Turkish-backed jihadi groups with ties to al-Qaeda. The Turkish-backed Syrian National Army itself is a mainly jihadi coalition with many “formerly” ISIS and al-Qaeda members in its ranks. Turkey protects them from attacks by the Assad regime and Russian warplanes.

Media coverage of Qurayshi’s death ignored Turkey’s connection. While Biden did not mention “Turkey” in his remarks about the operation that killed Qurayshi, he thanked Syria, the SDF, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Iraqi security forces for their roles.

The presence of ISIS in northwest Syria, which is controlled by Turkey, has been crucial to sustaining the terror group’s capacity to carry out deadly attacks across Syria and Iraq. Turkey, with the second largest army in NATO, instead targets Kurds in the most remote corners of Iraqi Kurdistan’s rugged mountains, within refugee camps, and among the Yazidi survivors of the ISIS genocide.

Qurayshi’s role in the Hasaka prison break suggests Turkey’s prior knowledge of the attack. Providing NATO-issued weapons to jihadis is a serious betrayal.

It is also against US law, warranting an investigation into ongoing ties between Turkey and ISIS. The U.S. must hold Turkey accountable for its involvement in protecting and harboring ISIS in areas it controls.

When the U.S. killed Usama bin Laden in Pakistan’s Abbottabad a decade ago, the U.S focused on the Pakistani government’s knowledge about bin Laden’s presence in their country. The same interrogation should now be applied to Turkey’s involvement with ISIS and other jihadis in Syria.

The U.S Congress should have hearings on Turkey’s ties to ISIS. If there’s collusion, Turkey should be barred from receiving US weapons and its NATO membership should be suspended.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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