Back in 2014, Turkish intelligence agency the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) organized series of secret meetings between Islamic State and high officials of Erdoğan government, where Lt. Col. Alper Örün, commander of the 3rd Border Battalion, attended three meetings with senior ISIS militants who were escorted to Turkey’s border town of Suruç in Şanlıurfa province. A military intelligence officer identified only by his first name of Mesut was also among the participants of the meeting.
In May 2014 there was another secret meeting of Turkish officials with ISIS leaders that was planned by Kemal Eskintan, a senior figure in MIT responsible for the Syria file and running special operations for the intelligence agency. The three ISIS leaders who were invited to the meeting were picked up at the border crossing at Tal Abyad and brought to a military garrison in the town of Akçakale. The meeting was held in the conference room located on the entry level of the garrison. Intelligence officer Kemal Alkan, who was attached to the 20th Mechanized Brigade in Şanlıurfa province, and Col. Tamer Nazmi Sezen, commander of the 3rd Border Regiment, joined the meeting to represent the Turkish army with the approval of their superiors.
According to intelligence source, there were more meetings held between MIT, military officials and ISIS representatives in the spring of 2014 as part of efforts to broker a deal on the rules of engagement between the two sides. The new revelations suggest the relations between Turkish officials and ISIS were stronger than initially thought and mapped out a web of ties to the jihadist network, which had wreaked havoc in Syria and Iraq.
The meeting with the ISIS leaders was held to resolve difficulties the Turkish military had been experiencing in sending replacements and logistical supplies to some 40 Turkish troops guarding the tomb of Süleyman Şah — the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire — which was located in Syrian territory some 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. ISIS militants had been surrounding the tomb since March 2014, preventing the delivery of food and water. Soldiers were trapped near the tomb, and a change of guard that usually takes place every two or three months did not occur.
Preceding the ISIS siege, the Turkish military had repeatedly asked the government to move the tomb to a secure location, but the requests were denied. By the time ISIS took over the territory around the tomb, reportedly part of another deal by the government of then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with ISIS, it was too late.
In those meetings, ISIS drove a hard bargain in the talks, asking for a detailed list of vehicles and names of the troops to be deployed for the protection of the tomb. When ISIS rejected the use of tanks in the military convoy, the Turkish side agreed to take out the tanks from the deployment. Lt. Col. Örün was the lead man who had developed strong ties with ISIS, led military convoys to ISIS-held areas as commander and often talked to ISIS leaders in Syria through a translator to sort out difficulties.
The Erdoğan government has rewarded all the key officers who were involved in the secret talks with ISIS. Akar was made chief of general staff and later defense minister. Col. Sezen was promoted in 2016 and appointed commander of the 65th Mechanized Infantry Brigade in Kirklaraeli province near the Greek and Bulgarian borders. Intelligence officer Alkan was saved by the government from his long-running legal troubles. He was indicted for the murder of Turkish national Nezir Tekçi in a mine explosion in the Kurdish town of Yüksekova in 1995 and dismembering his body. With the help of the Erdoğan government, he was acquitted of the charges in 2015.
During the negotiations ISIS asked the Turkish officials to release ISIS militants from jail and facilitate their travel to Syria. The ISIS leaders also demanded the delivery of food and medical supplies to communities under ISIS rule in exchange for access to the site of the tomb. Under instructions from then-Prime Minister and now President Erdoğan, the coordinating governor in Gaziantep shipped food and medical supplies to ISIS regions in Syria. In exchange ISIS allowed the Turkish military to resume shipping food and water to the soldiers guarding the tomb.
Turkish connections with Chinese Uyghur Muslims
Following establishment of communication between Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and Islamic State (ISIS) leaders, there was a request from the ISIS side to MIT for providing military training to Chinese Uyghur Muslims, which later was reported to Erdoğan and got his approval. According to information, initially a batch of 25 Uyghur Muslims were provided 6-month’s training in a secret location. Members of this batch were provided guerilla training along side training of making IED and other types of explosives. Although there is no further leak of information about Turkish intelligence agency’s providing training and shelter to Uyghur Muslims, it is anticipated that the process has been continuing as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been seen interested in extending his support and assistance to several Islamist militancy groups around the world, including Muslim jihadist outfits in India and Sri Lanka.