Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed that Turkish forces killed the leader of Islamist militant group Islamic State in an operation in neighbouring Syria.
Turkey’s intelligence agency “neutralised” Abu Hussein al-Qurayshi in Syria at the weekend, Erdoğan said in televised remarks late on Sunday. A US official said on Monday that they were unable to confirm the claim and had no information that would support it.
Erdoğan’s announcement comes during the final stretch of campaigning in one of the most tightly contested elections in the president’s two decades in power. Security is one of his key campaign platforms and is regarded as one of the most important issues by voters.
“We will continue our struggle with terrorist organisations without any discrimination,” Erdogan said in a special television broadcast.
Qurayshi had been running Islamic State, also known as Isis, since October, when his predecessor was killed by Free Syrian Army rebel fighters in Syria’s Deraa province. The previous leader was also killed during a US operation in February 2022.
It was unclear what impact his killing would have on Islamic State’s operations. Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, another former leader, was killed in a US raid in 2019, experts say the group has lacked charismatic leadership and its potency has diminished. Although they still conduct some small-scale operations, it has not carried out any big attacks recently.
Islamic State has killed hundreds of people in Turkey over the past decade, including a shooting at an Istanbul nightclub in 2017 that left more than three dozen people dead.
Islamist militants took advantage of the chaos of the civil war in Syria and instability in Iraq to take control of huge portions of both countries in 2014. The group was driven from those territorial strongholds by an international coalition in 2019.
Qurayshi was reportedly killed in Jinderes, a town in northwest Syria that lies in the Euphrates Shield zone that is controlled by Turkish-backed rebel groups.
Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at Crisis Group, said al-Qurayshi’s presence in the area surrounding Jinderes was plausible. “It’s a security-vulnerable area and our research showed a lot of mid- to top-level Isis commanders use [it] as a hideout.”
The region suffered from a shortage of international aid after the February 6th earthquake that struck large swathes of the two countries. Despite a heavy Turkish presence, locals still complain of chaos and instability, as dozens of factions compete for resources, their $50 (€45.50) monthly salaries from Ankara insufficient to keep tensions at bay.
Rebel fighters told the Financial Times in February that some Islamic State fighters have trickled into the areas under Turkish control since their territorial defeat. Some slip through undetected, having assumed fake identities, hidden among groups of internally displaced civilians. Several senior Islamic State figures have been killed while hiding in the Euphrates Shield areas.
The US-led coalition and its Syrian Kurdish allies still conduct regular raids against Islamic State targets and officials in north-eastern Syria.
Ankara has launched numerous incursions into northern Syria in recent years against both Islamic State and Kurdish militias it says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ party, which Ankara designates as a terrorist organisation.
Separately, Erdogan said on Sunday that he was doing “fine” in response to speculation about his health after he fell ill during a televised broadcast and then cancelled several campaign events. The Turkish government had said he was sick with a stomach flu, but rumours have frequently circulated after he had abnormal growths of tissue removed from his intestines in 2011.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023