An alleged ISIS fighter marooned in the no-man’s-land between Turkey and Greece will be repatriated to the U.S., Turkey claimed Thursday, although the U.S. government wouldn't publicly confirm the arrangement.
The extradition would bring an end to a bizarre four-day standoff that left the man stranded in the militarized buffer zone between Turkey and Greece, and comes less than 24 hours after a cozy meeting at the White House between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The necessary legal procedures to send the foreign national terrorist to the U.S. have started after the U.S. guaranteed to let him in the country and issue his travel documents,” Turkey’s Interior Ministry said in a statement Thursday.
But the U.S. State Department would neither confirm nor deny the Turkish claim when reached for comment. An official told VICE News the department was “aware of [the] reports” but was unable to comment further due to “privacy considerations.”
The suspect, named in Turkish state media as Muhammad Darwis B., is reportedly a 39-year-old American of Jordanian descent who was captured in Syria. He was deported by Ankara through a border gate with Greece Monday, following Turkey’s threat to start extraditing the 1,150 foreign ISIS suspects in its jails.
But Greek authorities refused to let the alleged jihadi onto Greek soil, sending him back to the militarized border zone between the two countries. When he tried to enter for a second time, he was given a stamp in his passport permanently banning him from entering.
Since then, the man has been trapped in a limbo between the two countries. He’s spent his nights on the Turkish side of the border, sleeping in a car and eating food provided by authorities there, before returning to the buffer zone each morning.
There are conflicting reports as to why the suspect wasn’t already deported to the U.S. — with some outlets quoting Turkish sources who say it was because Washington originally rejected the militant and others saying it was because he refused to be deported to the U.S. and preferred to go to Greece. The U.S. State Department and Turkey’s Interior Ministry did not answer VICE News’ questions seeking clarification around the situation.
The U.S. suspect’s extradition is just one of many announced by Turkey this week, which has taken an increasingly aggressive posture towards foreign ISIS suspects in its jails, threatening to deport them whether they are wanted at home or not.
Western countries have largely been reluctant to accept their extradition of their nationals who joined ISIS, citing the security threat they pose and the challenges of successfully prosecuting crimes carried out on a distant battlefield. Some countries, including the UK, Germany and Denmark, have stripped people of citizenship for joining ISIS in an attempt to block their return.
Turkey, which has long called for countries to take back their ISIS suspects, followed through on its threat this week to start sending them back, amid tensions with Europe over its controversial military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria, and proposed EU sanctions over Ankara’s drilling for gas off Cyprus.
“You should revise your stance towards Turkey, which at the moment holds so many ISIS members in prison and at the same time controls those in Syria,” Erdoğan said Tuesday, in an ultimatum to European countries.
“These gates will open and these ISIS members who have started to be sent to you will continue to be sent. Then you can take care of your own problem.”
Turkey also announced Thursday it had begun the process to repatriate seven German ISIS nationals and one Briton to their home countries, adding to the list of ISIS members from France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark who it had already begun extraditing. Some of the suspects have already returned home, being arrested by local police when they step off the plane.
London’s Metropolitan Police said the British suspect, a 26-year-old man who has not been named by authorities, was arrested when he arrived at Heathrow Thursday on suspicion of preparing terrorist acts.
Turkey’s interior minister Suleyman Soylu thanked Germany and the Netherlands Wednesday for their constructive approach in confirming they would accept the return of ISIS fighters from their countries, along with their wives and children.
Despite the current noise around the issue, analysts say Turkey has been quietly repatriating foreign ISIS suspects for years, with their return largely kept secret or not publicized until later.
Turkey’s current offensive against the Kurds in northeast Syria has raised concerns about the security of the thousands of ISIS prisoners in Kurdish-run detention centers in the region. So far, the feared mass escapes of ISIS prisoners amid the conflict has not transpired, although hundreds of ISIS-affiliated women and children escaped a camp at Ain Issa amid fighting last month. The 11 individuals being repatriated from France are four women who escaped Ain Issa — including a notorious ISIS recruiter Tooba Gondal — and seven of their children.
Thomas Renard, a senior research fellow at Belgium’s Egmont Institute, told VICE News that “controlled” repatriations were a far better option than the prevailing inaction by European countries towards their ISIS fighters, which raised the risk of jihadists slipping back home undetected.
“’Controlled’ repatriations allow European governments to prepare their prosecution, detention regime, and above all to avoid losing track of them,” he said. “They are all undeniably capable of dealing with potential returnees. As a matter of fact, they have done so: about 1,500 adults have returned from Syria and Iraq since 2012, and only a tiny minority was involved in terrorist plots.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)