Questions raised about Turkey's role in Al Baghdadi operation

Turkey 'has some explaining to do', according to former US ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, as the country's claims of co-operation is at odds with US accounts of the mission

TOPSHOT - An aerial view taken on October 27, 2019 shows the site that was hit by helicopter gunfire which reportedly killed nine people near the northwestern Syrian village of Barisha in the Idlib province along the border with Turkey, where "groups linked to the Islamic State (IS) group" were present, according to a Britain-based war monitor with sources inside Syria.  The helicopters targeted a home and a car on the outskirts of Barisha, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, after US media said IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was believed to be dead following a US military raid in the same province. Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the helicopters likely belonged to the US-led military coalition that has been fighting the extremist group in Syria. / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR
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Questions have been asked about Turkey’s role in the operation to find ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi after he was discovered a few kilometres from the country’s border in Syria.

Writing in the Washington Post, former US envoy for the global coalition against ISIS Brett McGurk said that Turkey "has some explaining to do".

“Baghdadi was found not in his traditional areas of eastern Syria or western Iraq, but rather in north-western Syria – just a few miles from Turkey’s border, and in Idlib province, which has been protected by a dozen Turkish military outposts since early 2018,” he said.

The diplomat also said that it was “telling” that the raid was launched from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan instead of the much closer bases in Nato ally Turkey.

Al Baghdadi was killed in a raid conducted by the US military in north-west Syria on Saturday. Having not been heard from since an audio recording in April that claimed that ISIS had been behind Sri Lanka's Easter Sunday attacks, he was found in a small compound outside the village of Barisha, about 5 kilometres south of the Turkish border.

It is not clear whether Turkey was aware of Al Baghdadi's location, and while Ankara claims they exchanged information of an undisclosed nature with the US prior to the military raid, US officials have said the country played no active role in the operation.

"Turkey did not provide any assistance in this operation and [Al Baghdadi] was located right next to their border … That shows you how little they do on countering ISIS," a US official told Foreign Policy.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a joint news conference with Guinea-Bissau Foreign Minister following their meeting in Ankara on October 28, 2019.  / AFP / Adem ALTAN

Journalist James LaPorta, who is a former US Marine and was the first to break the news of Al Baghdadi's death in Newsweek, updated his story on Twitter to also say that Turkey had no prior knowledge of the mission, but that they were notified after it had begun.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, however, said on Monday that Turkey's military was in “intense” co-ordination with the US on the night that their Army Delta Forces conducted the mission to kill the world’s most-wanted terrorist.

"Our military and intelligence units were in contact with their American counterparts on this issue and they co-ordinated. Especially … the night when the operation was conducted, we can say there was intense diplomacy between our military authorities," Mr Kalin said.

“A terrorist organisation nesting in Syria, near our border, or any other region, is not something we can accept."

The Turkish defence ministry also said there was an "information exchange and co-ordination between the military authorities of both countries" before the operation, but gave no further details, and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday that Turkey had co-operated with the operation.

US President Donald Trump thanked Ankara during a press conference confirming the death of the militant, saying they had allowed US forces to fly over their territory. They "knew we were going in", he said.

Turkey has been waging an offensive against the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in north-east Syria with which the US partnered to combat ISIS.

It has previously been accused of allowing ISIS fighters to cross its border to take up arms against the Syrian regime. It joined the anti-extremism coalition after it was hit by several ISIS attacks in 2015, the largest of which killed 107 at a peace rally in Ankara.

However, Turkey has been accused of undermining the fight against ISIS with its offensive against the SDF, which had hundreds of fighters in its custody.

Further questions remain around the amount of time Al Baghdadi had been in Idlib, described by Mr McGurk as “the world’s largest terrorist haven”.

The New York Times' ISIS correspondent Rukmini Callimachi said five sources had confirmed that Al Baghdadi's location had been known since July. However, a senior Turkish official said he had only arrived in the area 48 hours before the operation.

On Monday, following the US announcement, Turkish authorities said they had detained 20 foreign nationals with suspected links to ISIS.