ICSVE Interviewed The ISIS Ambassador to Turkey

in NEWS INTERNAZIONALI/News Uk

It’s clear that every state needs diplomats to negotiate political deals with the countries near its borders. ISIS, it seems, was no exception to this rule, as International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) researchers learned in a February 2019 five-hour interview with an ISIS emir, Abu Mansour al Maghrebi, who claims he essentially served as the ISIS ambassador to Turkey.

“My job in Raqqa was dealing with the international cases,” Abu Mansour al Maghrebi recalls of his three years serving ISIS. “My issue was our (Islamic State’s) relationship with Turkish intelligence. Actually, this started when I was working at the borders,” he explained to ICSVE, harking back to the first job he undertook for ISIS before becoming an ISIS emir and, seemingly, their ambassador to Turkey.

Abu Mansour, an electrical engineer from Morocco, came to Syria in 2013. Like many foreign fighters Hstoday interviewed, he stated he came hoping to unshackle Muslims from dictatorial regimes and build an Islamic Caliphate ruled by Islamic ideals. He traveled from Casablanca, Morocco, to Istanbul, Turkey, and through the southern border of Turkey into Syria. His first stop was Idlib, Syria, just as hostilities between al Nusra and ISIS had begun. Abu Mansour ended up on the ISIS side of that rift and was assigned by ISIS the job of an intake official on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. His job was to receive the steady flow of foreign fighters streaming into ISIS via Turkey.

“My job was to direct operatives to receive the foreign fighters in Turkey,” Abu Mansour explained to ICSVE, referring to the network of ISIS-paid people who facilitated foreign fighter travel from Istanbul to the Turkish border towns of Gaziantep, Antakya, Sanliurfa, etc. “Most of them were paid by Dawlah [ISIS],” Abu Mansour explained, but differentiates them from ISIS members, due to their non-ideological motivations. “Most of those working on the Turkish side, their goal is money,” he said. Although when asked about ISIS networks inside Turkey, he also admitted that “many in Turkey believe and give their bayat [oath of allegiance] to Dawlah. There are ISIS guys living in Turkey, individuals and groups, but no armed groups inside Turkey.”

Abu Mansour talks about the foreign fighters: “They came from different places, from North Africa mostly. The numbers of Europeans was not a big number, 4,000 total. Tunis 13,000, 4,000 from Morocco. There were less fighters from Libya because they had a front there [in Libya], fighting less than 1,000. I’m just talking about up to 2015,” he added.

“My job was guarding the borders between Syria and Turkey and to receive the fighters. I oversaw reception at Tal Abyad, Aleppo, Idlib, all their borders. At the beginning I was registering people, then I became the supervisor. I was an ISIS emir,” Abu Mansour explained to Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci.

Abu Mansour also talked with ICSVE about the women who came into Syria via Turkey: “The single females, they go directly to Raqqa to the centers for singles. Married women go to their husbands. Since they are family, they are offered a place to live until their husbands finish trainings.” He is referring to the ISIS military and weapons training and the ISIS “obligatory shariah training” in which new male recruits are taught the ISIS takfir ideology.

Abu Mansour explained the format and nature of intake forms that were filled out at the ISIS reception area: “It was a form about experience, countries you visited, etc. I don’t remember it very well, but it was very detailed. There were several people who came with higher education. We wrote his discipline, his studies, his languages. These things were recorded on my forms.” According to Abu Mansour, job placements occurred after another intake took place inside the training camps. “At those places, there were very trusted people running the ISIS offices of recruiting, so if you say you’re an engineer, they put you to that kind of job. It was an office of human resources management,” he states, adding, “but of course different, because in ours we also had, ‘I want to be a martyr.’”

Asked by ICSVE researchers to explain what happens to those who came saying they wanted to “martyr” themselves, he answers, “There are specific centers interested in these things. Before 2014 and 2015, a high number of them were willing to martyr themselves. Approximately 5,000 came to be martyrs. I didn’t send them to the center,” he stated, referring to where the would-be suicide cadres were isolated and encouraged on their death missions. He further continues, “I only record him and send them to the training camp. Then there is a center in Raqqa. There is a central management who control who is assigned where. That was not my job.”

According to Abu Mansour, the numbers of would-be “martyrs” went down as the Caliphate was in fact established: “It started to go down as Raqqa stabilized. [Then,] most came simply to live. It was a small ratio of those who came to martyr themselves. Before 2014, 50 percent came to martyr themselves. Then it went under 20 percent. During 2014 and 2015, we had approximately 35,000 foreign fighters who entered. Later, I don’t know, but the numbers declined each year.”

Concerning those who were invited by the ISIS emni to train and return to their home countries to attack, as was revealed by Harry Sarfo, an ISIS returnee incarcerated in Germany, and an ISIS smuggler speaking to ICSVE in February, who detailed some of those operations, Abu Mansour explained, “We are the point of reception. It was not our job to ask if they will return to attack. That was Raqqa’s job.”

Although during the interview with the ICSVE researchers he confirmed that it did happen: “There were some who invited others to go back home and attack, but it was not our job; we were reception. It exists, but not all the people who returned home are sleeper cells. Many simply quit the job. Many people didn’t like the situation and left. There was a central management in Aleppo and in Raqqa and I turned the passports to them. They were archived.”

“I went to Raqqa after the coalition assault against the border. Eastern Syria got stability in Raqqa, etc.” This was in 2015 and 2016. There were some agreements and understandings between the Turkish intelligence and ISIS emni about the border gates, for the people who got injured. I had direct meeting with the MIT (the Turkish National Intelligence Organization), many meetings with them,” Abu Mansour reported.

When ICSVE researchers asked who exactly in the Turkish government was meeting ISIS members, Abu Mansour stated: “There were teams. Some represent the Turkish intel, some represent the Turkish Army. There were teams from 3-5 different groups. Most meetings were in Turkey in military posts or their offices. It depended on the issue. Sometimes we meet each week. It depends on what was going on. Most of the meetings were close to the borders, some in Ankara, some in Gaziantep. I passed the borders and they let me pass. At the border, the Turks always sent me a car and I’m protected. A team of two to three people from our side were with me. I was in charge of our team most of the time. The subject of common benefits is a big subject. It’s a new thing when you create a state and separate it from the outside world. The negotiations were not easy. It took a long time. Sometimes it was hard.”

“I am not the big guy you are talking about,” says Abu Mansour, demurring at the idea that he was an ambassador of sorts. He stated ambassador is not a term they would have used in the Islamic State. Yet, as he continues, we learn that his “diplomatic” reach on behalf of ISIS extended even to the president of Turkey himself. “I was about to meet him but I did not. One of his intelligence officers said Erdogan wants to see you privately but it didn’t happen.”

Abu Mansour explained, “I got my orders from the representative of the Majlis al Shura, from Mohamed Hodoud, an Iraqi. The individuals of the (ISIS) shura have the highest authority; they create a negotiation committee, and delegates.” In regard to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, Abu Mansour admitted, “I saw him for a short while.”

ICSVE researchers ask if this was a funding relationship. “There was no changing money between us,” Abu Mansour answered, and agrees it was a coordinating function – diplomacy where “both sides benefit.” The benefit to Turkey, according to Abu Mansour, was that “we are in the border area and Turkey wants to control its borders – to control Northern Syria. Actually they had ambitions not only for controlling the Kurds. They wanted all the north, from Kessab (the most northern point of Syria) to Mosul. This is the Islamists’ ideology of Erdogan. They wanted all of the north of Syria. That is what the Turkish side said they wanted, to control the north of Syria, because they have their real ambitions. Actually, we talked about what Erdogan said in public [versus what he really desired.] This part of Syria is part of the Ottoman states. Before the agreement following the Second World War, Aleppo and Mosul were part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The agreement Sykes Picot [in which they lost these regions] was signed for one hundred years. In our meetings, we talked about re-establishing the Ottoman Empire. This was the vision of Turkey. I cannot say that this is the vision of the whole Turkish government. Many are against interfering to bring this project to reality. They say we will try to defeat the PKK and Kurds. We are afraid of the union between Kurds and that they may make a Kurdish state, but they also expanded to Aleppo,” Abu Mansour said.

Abu Mansour continued, “Since they are a NATO state they cannot make NATO angry against them. So, they cannot deal directly with the situation, but they want to destroy the Kurdish ummah, so they deal with the situation via ISIS and get benefits from the Islamic State.”

On the side of ISIS, he explained, “It’s a big benefit to Dawlah, as they could protect our back. Approximately 300 km of our border is with them. Turkey is considered a road for us for medications, food – so many things enter in the name of aid. The gates were open.”

On the subject of getting arms from Turkey, Abu Mansour stated: “No one can accuse the Turkish government that they gave us weapons, because we got weapons from different sources. Actually, we didn’t need to get weapons from Turkey. Anti-government Syrian people provided us with weapons; many mafias and groups traded weapons to us. In Syria the oil was enough to pay for the weapons and everything needed. Our oil revenues were more than $14 million per month and half of this oil money is more than enough to pay for everything needed for our weapons expenditures.”

Negotiating for Crossing the Turkish Borders: “We negotiated to send our fighters to the hospitals in Turkey. There was facilitation – they didn’t look at the passports of those coming for treatment. It was always an open gate. If we had an ambulance we could cross without question. We could cross [into Turkey] at many places. They don’t ask about official identities. We just have to let them know. When the person gets injured, there is hospital in Syria, and this hospital sends him in a car to the border. There were ambulances on the Turkish side waiting for this person. There were doctors who disliked Bashar. They treated our guys. The MIT was made aware of every critical situation and they sent the ambulances to the border. There were also hospitals close to the border. Those who received critical care were treated there and they (the MIT) sent the others all over Turkey depending on their needs. There were very interested doctors, Syrian and Turkish, who wanted to help. So, if there were not facilities to serve them on the border, they would be sent further into Turkey for this. Dawlah (ISIS) paid for the treatments, but some Turkish public hospitals took these fighters for free. It was not only for our fighters but also for the victims of bombings. I don’t know how many were treated in Turkey, but it was routine. I just know this agreement to open the gates for our wounded and that there were ambulances sent for them. It was a ‘state-to-state’ agreement regarding our wounded. I negotiated these agreements. For the wounded, medical and other supplies to pass, and I negotiated about water also, the Euphrates,” Abu Mansour explained.

The water issue was crucial for ISIS, actually, allowing them to have water for farming and to generate electricity through dams. “Actually, we [Syria] had an agreement with Turkey for 400 cubic meters per second into Syria. After the revolution, they started to decrease the quantity of water to 150 cubic meters per second. After our negotiations in 2014 it returned to 400. We needed it for electrical power and as a vital source of living. Even water we cannot keep it, it passes to Iraq also. But the importance of water cannot be understated. We don’t need to generate electricity through the dams. We could have another source (i.e. petrol), but we need water for farming. There are three dams. The biggest is Tabqa dam. Actually, at 150 cubic meters, we could generate some electricity, but if the level of the lake reached 5 meters it would not work,” Abu Mansour said.

“It took a long time to negotiate,” Abu Mansour explained. When ICSVE researchers asked what ISIS gave in return for water, he answered, “There is the most important benefit – their country will be safe and stable.” ICSVE researchers asked if he means that ISIS agreed not to attack inside Turkey.

“In negotiations I could not say I would attack Turkey. This is the language of gangs, but I would say we will try to keep Turkey from the field battle, we will not see Turkey as an enemy.

Abu Mansour explained that ISIS dealt both with Turkey and Assad’s regime to manage the Tabqa dam as well as other resources under their control: “At the end when Raqqa was encircled, the coalition forces tried to control the rooms for the dam. There was no control. All the gates were closed and the level of water rose. Rumors were that it would burst, but this was not technically true.” To fix the issue ISIS sent for Assad’s engineers to try to manually open the gates. “About these engineers, this is a company that belongs to the Assad regime. When he tried to fix the gate and open it manually, he was hit by the coalition forces. He died in Raqqa.”

Regarding the sale of ISIS oil, Abu Mansour admitted that “most of the Syrian oil was going to Turkey, and just small amounts went to the Bashar regime. There are many traders to do that and Turkey was the only market in which to send oil. Their traders paid for the oil that went into Turkey. Oil that went to the Syrian government – some went by pipes, some by trucks. Oil sent by Dawlah [ISIS] to Turkey was arranged by traders from Turkey who came to take the oil with our permissions. Traders came from the Syrian side also.”

When ICSVE researchers asked about the negotiations for the release of the Turkish diplomats and workers after ISIS took Mosul, Abu Mansour explained: “The negotiation happened in Syria. Actually, ISIS entry in Mosul was not a surprise takeover in one day. It took many days, but I think the Turkish government told their consul not to leave Mosul. Many Turkish truck drivers were also in Mosul at that time. They were not in danger, but there was a negotiation to release them. Islamic State made demands as well. It took time. We didn’t ask ransom for the consul employees, we asked for our prisoners. MIT knows their names.” For the consul employees, “approximately 500 prisoners were released from Turkey, and they came back to Dawlah.”

Abu Mansour stated in regard to the soldiers guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah that Turkish soldiers had permission to guard inside Syria that “it wasn’t liberation of their soldiers. They had 45 guards that they changed every 6 months. They changed at the time of FSA [being defeated]. Turkey made it look like they got liberated but it was really just the change of guards. Likewise, at that time we didn’t want to open problems with Turkey. It would have been an obstacle to our work, so we gave them back.”

According to Abu Mansour, in 2014 Turkey was trying to play a double game with the West: to allow foreign fighters into Syria but make it appear as though they were taking measures to prevent it. “Turkey wanted to make it easy for foreign fighters to cross the borders. They just want to control, they need to be known, and how they enter, so they ask me to tell who has entered and where. Actually, the Turkish side said, ‘You should reduce, change the way you do it, the way you cross. For example, don’t come with a group to enter because it’s clear that a bunch of people entered. Enter only specific gates. Come without any weapons. Don’t come with long beards. Your entry from north to south should be hidden as much as possible. For example, the EU guys were very distinguished with their beards so they should come at night and cross, and they should not come in groups as before, to hide it. For Europeans, it depends on the person. If he can mix with Syrians he can come without being noticed – the Arabs, they can enter normally. In 2014, they opened some legal gates under the eye of Turkish intel that our people went in and out through. But, entry into Syria was easier than return to Turkey. Turkey controlled the movements,” Abu Mansour explained.

Abu Mansour explained that for those who could not pass as Syrians legally crossing into Syria, they used “specific ways provided by smugglers” and that “of course Dawlah pays them. The smuggler is like a trader, a guy with a taxi – you pay him, but you don’t trust him. He isn’t necessarily loyal, he has maybe some sympathy to the Syrian side.”

Abu Mansour also said to ICSVE researchers: “Our negotiations took place one time in Syria, second time in Turkey and so on; and most often near the borders, close to the official gates.” However, in 2016, Abu Mansour was asked to present himself in Ankara and stay for a few weeks.They asked us to stay for a while in Turkey, perhaps to meet with President Erdogan. At this time in 2016, before the military assault on Manbij between June to September 2016 (May to August 2016), Turkey was trying to withdraw from the Islamic State. I went to stay in Ankara. There was a private guest hotel, an intelligence guest house. I think I was in the specific place of their headquarters office, or maybe it’s a crisis cell. I stayed one week. They do not refuse if I ask to go out. I was under their protection. They also suggested if I want to take one week for rest here that I could.”

“There were ups and downs with Turkey. After the Manbij events there were many changes and there was always internal conflict in the Islamic State. Turkey asked us many times for a separate area between Turkey and Syria for a safe zone. They wanted 10 km for Syrians to live but under control of Turkey. Turkey wanted us to move 10 km back from the borders so the danger from Turkey is removed. They wanted it to be under control of Turkey and no aviation above it. This was for an area 60 km long and 10 km wide,” stated Abu Mansour.

We ICSVE researchers ask him how things went wrong with Turkey, he answered: “The operation of bombing in Turkey was not political. I was in Turkey and they thought I have a link with these things. I was in Gaziantep when the Istanbul airport was attacked. When those things happened, they thought it was something prepared from the political side of the Islamic State, but that’s not logical. We are there and attacking them? It was directed from Raqqa. The ISIS external emni ordered it. And I think that there were Turkish MIT guys inside the external emni. I suspected that the striking at the airport was not for the benefit of IS, but Turkish groups of IS who wanted to strike Turkey, or they were affected by other agencies that don’t want a relationship between Dawlah and Turkey. It makes no sense, otherwise, because most of our people came through that airport. These orders for these attacks in Turkey were from those MIT guys inside Dawlah but not from our political side. They didn’t want to destroy Erdogan, just change his road in the matter of the Syrian issue. They wanted him to use his army to attack Syria, and to attack Dawlah. The airport attack makes a good excuse for him to come into Syria. It’s not a conspiracy theory. I heard that the Turkish government, after they were in Raqqa, took 40 persons out that were part of Turkish security agencies.”

Abu Mansour insists that Turkey, and President Erdogan with his “Islamists’ aspirations” was working hand in glove with ISIS and reminds us, “If you go back to Erdogan’s history, in 83 to 87, he was a fighter in Afghanistan. This stuck with him.”

 

 

Source: Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) (Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci)

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