Dozens of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi's inner circle have been arrested as they tried to enter Turkey, the country's president said on Thursday, just a day after The National revealed that the brother of the world's most wanted man made multiple trips to Istanbul.
Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not address the latest revelations specifically, it was his second attempt in as many days to push back on the numerous claims that Turkey had failed to act on ISIS sleeper cells and couriers operating in their territory.
Turkey is also facing criticism for a cross-border offensive to drive Syria’s Kurdish fighters from the northeast in an operation that has raised concerns that ISIS could use the chaos to stage a return.
“All of Al Baghdadi’s inner circle is mostly targeting our country and these people are looking for ways to settle in our country or to come to our country,” Mr Erdogan told reporters on Thursday. But, the Turkish president said, the number of people with family ties to Baghdadi who have been caught by Turkey “is close to reaching double digits.”
On Wednesday, The National revealed that one of Baghdadi's brothers, identified by security officials as Juma, acted as the terror chief's most trusted couriers. He transported plans and communiques from field commanders via Istanbul to the hideout in Idlib used by the ISIS head until he was killed last month.
Baghdadi blew himself up during an October 26 raid by US Special Forces on his heavily fortified safe house in the Syrian province of Idlib.
The raid was a major blow to his extremist group, which has lost territories it held in Syria and Iraq in a series of military defeats by the US-led coalition and Syrian and Iraqi allies.
Juma made the 2,300 kilometres round trip across the Nato member state numerous times to meet contacts in Istanbul but was watched by Iraqi intelligence who hoped he would lead them back to Baghdadi.
However, when Juma crossed the Turkish border into Syria, the trail went cold.
We now know that as spies were looking for him to make his way to eastern Syria where ISIS made its last stand around Baghouz in Deir Ezzor, Juma instead travelled the 5-7 kilometres to Baghdadi’s hideout near the Turkish border in Idlib province.
“We were watching somebody who was acting as a messenger to Al Baghdadi and he was travelling frequently to Turkey and back,” a senior Iraqi intelligence official said. “He was Al Baghdadi’s brother.”
Mr Erdogan made no comment on the revelations made by The National, nor did he offer an indication why Juma was able to make multiple trips between Idlib and Istanbul while other members of Baghdadi's family who are not likely to have held the same high-level information as terror head's most trusted courier were detained.
Mr Erdogan’s speech comes just days after Turkish forces arrested Baghdadi’s elder sisters, Rasmiya Awad, her husband, daughter-in-law and five children in the town of Azaz, in Aleppo province. Turkish officials have also said they detained Asma Fawzi Muhammad Al Qubaysi, one of Baghdadi's wives, and a daughter last year.
However, a former high-ranking Turkish military officer told The National this week that she likely had little to share on the terror group's organisation and her detention was an effort to illustrate that the country was taking action on ISIS.
“For the Turkish National Intelligence, or Turkish police, ISIS are not the real enemy," said Ahmet Yayla, a former Turkish counter-terrorism police chief and now a fellow at the George Washington University's programme on extremism.
"They do not seriously look for these people, but Erdogan is in a position where he is trying to prove that he is fighting against ISIS.