US-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) reportedly killed the Islamic State executioner Talip Akkurt, known by his nom de guerre Abu Talha al Turki, who burned two Turkish soldiers alive in Syria in 2016. Al Turki was reported dead following a June 7 SDF attack in Deir Ezzor’s Hajin town.
Since Feb. 2018, al Turki was on the Turkish police’s Blue List of wanted fugitives with a bounty of 1.5 million Turkish lira ($320,000) on his head. The Turkish government’s failure to track al Turki, and the SDF’s putative success in eliminating him, could be an awkward development for Ankara. Turkey considers the SDF, dominated by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s Syrian affiliate People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a terrorist entity – one that could now claim a bounty from the Turkish state.
Al Turki, and two other Turkish accomplices who still have a bounty on their heads – Hasan Aydin and Muhittin Buyukyangoz – were members of the “Yasar Group,” an Islamic State execution team composed of Turks. They were responsible, as shown in a video the Islamic State released on Dec. 22, 2016, for burning alive Turkish conscript Sefter Tas and Fethi Sahin, a Turkish gendarmerie intelligence operative who had reportedly infiltrated the Islamic State.
Tas fell captive to the Islamic State on the evening of Sept. 1, 2015, near the Sehit Mehmet Border Post in Kilis province on the Syrian border. Tas and two other soldiers on patrol duty who crossed over to the Syrian side in pursuit of smugglers were ambushed by Islamic State militants who killed infantry corporal Yusuf Beylem and wounded and kidnapped Tas. A four-member Islamic State team reportedly carried out the attack on their leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s orders with the aim to stop the Turkish air strikes launched against Islamic State targets in Syria four days earlier on Aug. 28, and free Islamic State militants in Turkish prisons. Tas, who had gunshot wounds to his feet, reportedly received treatment first in Al Bab and then in Raqqa, where he was later imprisoned by the Islamic State.
The Turkish intelligence’s attempts to track Tas started immediately after his disappearance. On Sept. 7, 2015, the first report of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency’s (MIT) contact with the Islamic State via the messaging app WhatsApp confirmed that Tas was alive and captive. On Sept. 14, the MIT asked for the Islamic State’s demands, and received a photo of Tas from prison. In the third contact, reported on Oct. 10, the Islamic State demanded the release of its 200 militants in Turkish prisons. On Nov. 11, the MIT reportedly refused the Islamic State’s demand for the release of 200 militants, leading to the Islamic State’s threat to release a video of Tas in an orange jumpsuit.
Initially, the Turkish government did not publicly acknowledge the kidnapping of Tas. Since Tas was a conscript of Kurdish background, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) followed the case closely, and an HDP lawmaker representing Tas’s hometown Igdir filed a parliamentary question on Dec. 1, 2015, although Turkey’s Defense Minister has failed to provide a response for more than two years. Even when the immolation video of Tas and Sahin became public in Dec. 2016, a pro-government outlet claimed that the video was fake while a Turkish deputy prime minister threatened the media not to publicize it. Almost a year later, when Tas’s father filed a lawsuit in an attempt for his son to be declared legally dead, the Turkish military finally recognized Tas as deceased on Oct. 9, 2017, agreeing to offer survivor benefits to his family.
Ankara was similarly slow in going after al Turki and his accomplices. Turkey issued an arrest warrant only on Jan. 27, 2017, more than a month after the Islamic State’s release of the immolation video, and waited more than a year until Feb. 12, 2018 before placing the Islamic State executioners on its wanted fugitives list and offering a bounty. The Turkish media exposed in Jan. 2017 that Turkish authorities had previously arrested al Turki’s accomplice Hasan Aydin in 2012 in an al Qaeda operation in the province of Adana, but allowed him to walk free. Aydin was detained again as he was trying to cross from the province of Hatay into Syria with military equipment and a drone, but again released.
Similarly, Al Turki also managed to evade Turkish law enforcement and crossed into Syria illegally in Feb. 2016. The Turkish police raided Al Turki’s Islamic State cell in Turkey on Jan. 27, 2017, and detained six suspects, though the courts remanded only one of the cell members, as it is often the case with suspected Islamic State militants in Turkey. On Feb. 4, 2018, the Turkish police raided another jihadist cell in Ankara and apprehended Omer Yetek, the Islamic State’s so-called information minister in Turkey, who had organized the filming and editing of the immolation video of Tas and Sahin.
Ankara’s sluggish track record in going after al Turki and his Islamic State accomplices and the SDF’s success in avenging the immolated Turkish soldiers have made the case even more awkward for the Turkish government. Turkish officials and media have so far refrained from commenting on al Turki’s reported death in Syria. However, if an SDF member chooses to claim the bounty offered by the Turkish police, this request could raise not only legal questions but also public inquiries as to why and how the SDF, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization, was more capable than the Turkish state in going after the culprits of one of the most heinous crimes against Turkish servicemen.
ISIS militant Abu Talha al-Turki, involved in the burning alive of two captured Turkish soldiers in northern Aleppo back in 2016, has been reportedly killed in the SDF-led Deir ez-Zor operation, Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium
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