February 21, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 210

Is There A Turkey-Pakistan Deal To Host Pakistani Jihadi Commanders In Turkey?

February 21, 2020 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan, Turkey | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 210

Under President Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is providing refuge to Pakistani jihadi terrorists, notably Ehsanullah Ehsan. On February 13, 2020, the Turkish president landed in Pakistan for a two-day visit during which he addressed Pakistani parliament and the two nations signed 13 bilateral agreements, including one for military training.[1]

Pakistani media stood in awe of Erdoğan. "He came, he saw and conquered," wrote an Urdu daily on its frontpage.[2] This piece examines whether Turkey and Pakistan may have reached, before Erdoğan's visit to Islamabad, a deal to host Pakistani jihadi commanders in Turkey.

This is important because Pakistan has, in recent years, come under international pressure for its hosting of jihadi organizations. Currently, Pakistan is on the Grey List of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – a intergovernmental agency comprising 39 members aimed at stopping global terror financing – for its support of jihadi terror organizations. During the February 16-21 meeting of FATF in Paris, Pakistan skipped outright blacklisting by FATF, but it will remain on the Grey List.[3]

On February 6, a week before Erdoğan's visit to Pakistan, Ehsanullah Ehsan – the former spokesman of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Movement of Pakistani Taliban, TTP) who also served as the spokesman for the TTP's breakaway faction Jamaatul Ahrar – announced that he was out of the custody of Pakistani intelligence agencies.[4] On his newly launched Twitter channel, he wrote in English: "I am back."[5] Ehsanullah Ehsan had claimed responsibility for the terror attack on Malala Yousufzai, who is now a Nobel Laureate.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan welcomes Tayyip Erdoğan in Islamabad.

A day after his escape came to light on February 6, the Pakistani daily The News wrote: "Later [after the escape], he spoke to The News and claimed he had arrived in Turkey along with his family. He refused to mention how he managed to escape from the usually high security custody of the Pakistani authorities and safely shift to another country."[6]

In the interview, the former TTP spokesman stated: "I can't tell you more but I can tell you that I am in Turkey at the moment along with my wife, son and daughter. Don't ask me how I reached here as I can't tell you right now."[7]

On February 9, Ehsanullah Ehsan used his Twitter account to quote an Urdu couplet from the Indian poet Rahat Indori that read: "So many secrets reside in me, what do I tell; Have been shut for long, should I open up / Once again you woke up the sleeping lion; The same tongue-lashing, should I respond?"[8] The former Taliban commander tweeted again on February 10 in Urdu: "So what's the view, should I open the floodgates?"[9] This was a threat to expose the Pakistani intelligence agencies and military.

Ehsanullah Ehsan had been in the custody, or safehaven, of Pakistani intelligence since 2017. In an audio message recorded after the escape, he noted: "Following an agreement dated February 5, 2017, I had given up myself before the secret [intelligence] agencies of Pakistan."[10]

Although Ehsanullah Ehsan has gone on to criticize Pakistani military and intelligence, there is a duality in Pakistan's behavior that permits terror groups to criticize their hosts. This duality is tactical and enables Pakistan to deny scrutiny of its support of jihadi terror commanders.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, the former TTP commander now in Turkey.

A question that arises is whether Ehsanullah Ehsan is part of a deal whereby Pakistani terrorists are moved to Turkey, enabling Pakistan to present a clean face before FATF in order to escape blacklisting? To prevent Pakistan from being put on FATF's blacklist, a court in Pakistan on February 12 sentenced Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, to prison for terror financing.[11] The timing is ominous.

According to another report, Pakistan told FATF that Masood Azhar and his family are "missing."[12] Masood Azhar, a leading Pakistani jihadi commander, was freed by India in 1999 in exchange for the passengers of an Indian plane hijacked to Kandahar.

At the FATF meeting, Turkey was the sole country to support Pakistan, though Malaysia praised Pakistan for its counter-terrorism efforts.[13] According to a media report, days before the FATF meet, Erdoğan "made it clear that Turkey would help Pakistan stay off the terrorism financing blacklist and counter the political pressure within FATF."[14]

In the context of these developments, the escape of Ehsanullah Ehsan to Turkey begins to make sense. Pakistani journalist Owais Tohid, worried about how Malala's attacker can escape, wrote: "Eight years have gone by. Malala fought for her life, went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and become an ambassador for girls' education. I fought cancer and survived. And Ehsanullah Ehsan surrendered to the state [of Pakistan], didn't face either prison or courts, and went on to escape from the custody of Pakistan's security agencies."[15]

The vital question is: Without a Pakistani-Turkish collaboration, how could Ehsanullah Ehsan get a Pakistani passport and a Turkish visa for himself and family members to land in Turkey? He is a well-known jihadi commander whose face is easily recognizable. Zahid Hussain, a noted Pakistani writer on counter-extremism affairs, observed: "There is still no explanation from the government about how a most wanted militant escaped from high security detention. The plot has thickened..."[16]

Explaining how the Pakistani state had adopted Ehsanullah Ehsan, Zahid Hussain stated: "For almost a decade, he was the face of Pakistani militant groups, but the ambiguity surrounding the terms of his purported surrender raised suspicions of him being cleared – or declared 'white.'"[17]

The fact that there is some Pakistani-Turkish deal on this subject was underlined by Zahid Hussain, who is also author of a book on terrorism in Pakistan: "It is imperative that the public not only know how he escaped, but also the deal made with him."[18] This is something Turkey and Pakistan will need to explain before FATF and the world.

* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for the MEMRI Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative.


[1] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), February 15, 2020.

[2] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), February 15, 2020.

[3] (Pakistan), February 19, 2020; (India), February 19, 2020.

[5], February 6, 2020. The account is suspended by Twitter now.

[6] The News (Pakistan), February 7, 2020.

[7] The News (Pakistan), February 7, 2020.

[11] (Pakistan), February 12, 2020.

[12] (India), February 16, 2020.

[13] (India), February 20, 2020.

[14] (India), February 20, 2020.

[15] (Pakistan), February 10, 2020.

[16] (Pakistan), February 12, 2020.

[17] (Pakistan), February 12, 2020.

[18] (Pakistan), February 12, 2020.

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