The head of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, briefed the president and prime minister about the operation. AA Photo
It was Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
who was the first to announce during a visit to Azerbaijan
in the early hours of Sept. 20 that 49 hostages held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) were free and back in Turkey.
But it was President Tayyip Erdoğan who was the first to announce that the hostages, who were held captive by ISIL since June 11, were “freed” thanks to an “intelligence operation” by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT).
Davutoğlu immediately returned from Baku
to Şanlıurfa, the Turkish city bordering Syria where the hostages were handed over to Turkish authorities at around 1 a.m. the same day, and flew to Ankara
with them to address crowds, including their families and relatives.
The hostages were taken captive in Iraq when the Turkish Consulate in Mosul was raided by ISIL forces on June 11, but were freed at the Turkish-Syrian border. That was only one of many questions waiting to be answered regarding the freeing of the Turkish hostages. (Now we understand that three of the 49 were Iraqi citizens who were working in the Mosul consulate; they stayed in Iraq, while the 46 Turks are back in their home country.)
There is also speculation as to whether there was military action, or a clash regarding the operation, whether there was any cooperation with the intelligence agency of another country, whether a ransom was paid to ISIL, or whether a swap of ISIL prisoners in Turkey occurred.
Here are the first details and answers regarding those questions and the operation itself, according to Turkish intelligence and diplomatic sources who asked not to be named, in addition to statements by Davutoğlu:
* The hostages were “freed” through an intelligence operation where no military action or personnel was involved, other than special operation units who had been put on alert to intervene in case of an emergency. It was planned and executed by MİT’s Exterior Operations Directorate in cooperation with other government agencies like the Foreign Ministry and the military.
* There was no cooperation with the intelligence agency of any other country such as when MİT obtained help from the CIA
during the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), in 1999. Davutoğlu said the Turkish experience in freeing hostages in Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon – not only Turks but also citizens of other countries like the United States, Britain, France and Spain in years past – without military involvement had helped in freeing the ISIL hostages.
* No ransom was paid to ISIL and no swap was made by Turkey for the release of hostages. One official source said ISIL might have “not wanted to get into a clash with Turkey.” Yet there are indications of a kind of false flag, or deception operation by MİT. In answering such a question one ranking official said MİT “has tried every possible method and left no stone unturned” to get the hostages alive.
* There were at least five opportunities to rescue the hostages, starting from the July 3 release of 32 Turkish truck drivers by ISIL, but they failed each time because ISIL moved the hostages due to escalating clashes in Iraq between the group’s forces and the Iraqi army and Kurds. ISIL moved the hostages eight times during their captivity.
* Despite a request by the government for the hostages to avoid divulging anything about their captivity for the time being, some of the freed hostages said “certainly some [bad] things have happened” in response to reporters’ questions about being tortured or subjected to bad treatment.
* Another freed hostage told CNNTürk that despite being having a gun put to his head, the Turkish Consul General refused to read a video message
* The moves of the ISIL terrorists while moving the hostages have been traced using electronic intelligence, signal intelligence and through agents in the field. In all eight moves, the hostages were kept in or in the vicinity of Mosul, until the last operation which started “a few days ago,” according to PM Davutoğlu.
* It was ISIL’s condition to give the hostages to Turkey at the border with Syria, “Because of their own security concerns due to their heavy clashes with Kurdish forces. They did not want to make the handover through the Kurdish region,” a security source told HDN.
* There was another last-minute problem on Sept. 19 as the hostages were brought near the Tel Abyad border crossing of Syria, across from Turkey’s border gate of Akçakale at around mid-day. Because of clashes between ISIL and People’s Defense Forces (YPG) under the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK
offshoot in Syria, near Kobane, thousands of Kurdish refugees, mostly women and children have rushed to the Turkish border. “In order not to cause further civilian losses if something goes wrong,” a security source explained, Turkey opened the gates first and placed the refugees in camps before accepting the hostages.
The operation was over by midnight. MİT chief Hakan Fidan informed President Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu that the hostages were back in the country safe and sound.
A very painful episode in Turkish diplomacy is now over. The details of how ISIL was able to raid the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, whether the incident was avoidable, and who should be responsible, were not allowed to be debated in public to prevent any harm from befalling the hostages. Following their release, it will be easier to have that debate.
What's more, the main reason - though not the only one - for the Turkish government’s reluctance in getting involved in direct military action within the U.S.-led international coalition against ISIL was the hostages. Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan told reporters last week that if there were no hostages, Turkey could say and do more than it has been so far.
But apart from all this, in these first hours after the end of the episode there is a mood of relief across Turkey.