By Abdullah Bozkurt
April 10, 2015
More evidence is emerging that implicates senior officials in Turkey's political Islamist government of aiding and abetting radical groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), presenting the risk of the NATO-ally country earning a reputation of being a state that sponsors terrorism.
The testimony of the former head of the police counterterrorism unit in Van province, Serdar Bayraktutan, includes chilling revelations of how senior officials in the Turkish government protected senior al-Qaeda figures operating in Turkey who were running a network of militants to fight in Syria. Bayraktutan was the lead investigator in the sweeping operations that nabbed al-Qaeda suspects in six provinces on Jan. 14, 2014, in compliance with the Van Chief Public Prosecutor's Office and court-ordered arrest warrants. The political Islamist government stepped in to remove him from his post, placed him in jail on trumped up charges to hush him up and derailed the critical investigation.
He is nonetheless speaking out from his cell, spilling the dirt on how Islamists buried themselves neck-deep with radical groups in the fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime. According to the account provided by former Prosecutor Gültekin Avcı, who interviewed Bayraktutan in jail, one cannot help but wonder why then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates provided a safe haven to terrorists in the name of what is propagated as a holy war. The government has been completely silent since Avcı published Bayraktutan's statements in several of his op-ed pieces in the independent Bugün daily last month.
Prosecutors gave the operation the green light in January 2014 when vital intelligence information was obtained that indicated there were clear and imminent threats from al-Qaeda militants. Five separate investigations into al-Qaeda networks in various provinces were merged into one. The dawn raids by police and gendarmerie units resulted in the detention of 25 people, including alleged senior members of al-Qaeda. Two senior al-Qaeda operatives -- İbrahim Şen (listed as Ibrahim Shafir Shen in the US Department of Defense file), allegedly a top al-Qaeda leader in the Middle East and a former prisoner in Guantanamo Bay prison, and Halis Bayancuk (also known as Abu Hanzala), who is said to be in charge of the al-Qaeda network in Turkey -- were among those detained in the operation. Most detainees, including Bayancuk, were released last year and no indictment has ever been filed against these suspects since then.
Bayraktutan said that while law enforcement officials were rounding up suspects on the day the prosecutor issued the arrest warrants, he received a call from the Van province police chief who conveyed instructions from Van Governor Nezih Doğan and National Police Department Chief Mehmet Kılıçlar, ordering the police to stop the operations or face immediate dismissals. Bayraktutan then called the deputy public prosecutor and relayed the instructions that had been conveyed by the government officials. The prosecutor balked at the suggestion, saying that this was a judicial process and that the executive branch could not interfere in the investigation. The prosecutor also asked Bayraktutan to write a report and put the government intervention into the official record, possibly to file criminal charges against government officials for illegally intervening in a judicial investigation.
When the Erdoğan government realised that the investigators and prosecutors did not yield to the political pressure to end the operations and instead moved ahead with the detention orders, then-Interior Minister Efkan Ala authorized the police department's special forces unit to detain the anti-terrorism investigators who were serving the court's arrest warrants for al-Qaeda suspects. By mere fate, by the time the special forces were deployed on Ala's illegal order, the anti-terrorism teams had concluded their work and were returning to their base with the suspects in custody. They passed each other on the way, preventing a possible serious confrontation between the two branches of the police department. This means that Ala and other government officials committed a series of crimes, from aiding and abetting a terrorist group to issuing illegal orders and abusing their position of authority.
Bayraktutan was removed from his post by the governor and reassigned the same day, even before the processing of the detained al-Qaeda suspects was completed. All other investigators, including 11 senior officers who were involved in the al-Qaeda operation, were also removed at a later date. Bayraktutan says the investigation revealed that the suspects had been moving in and out of Syria to join ISIL. He also explained that they maintained military training camps on Syrian territory, exploiting the absence of any authority in the northern provinces, and shuttled young Turks from various provinces to Syria for military training in al-Qaeda camps, later dispatching some of those who had been trained back to Turkey to set up al-Qaeda cells.
The investigation file reveals hair-raising details on the mentality of this militant group. In court-authorized surveillance records, al-Qaeda suspects talked about the existence of some 3,000 al-Qaeda militants in Turkey, describing them as “true Muslims” and the rest as “infidels” whose lives, assets and wives were merely plunder in battle. There were conversations that included plans to plant explosives along the roads that would be used by US president Barack Obama during his expected visit to Turkey and the staging of simultaneous suicide bomb attacks in 70 provinces across Turkey.
The surveillance also discovered that al-Qaeda was behind the kidnapping of the Milliyet daily's Turkish photojournalist Bünyamin Aygün, who was held captive in Syria for 40 days in 2014. The suspects said that he was not to be released without receiving ransom money and several suspects also said that after Syria, the jihadist fighters would turn their attention to Turkey and reconquer İstanbul.
Among the detainees was Mevlüt Kuşman, who worked closely with Chechen citizen Magomed Abdurrahmanov (also known as Abu Banat), an ISIL operative who had carried out the executions of Turkish-Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan bishop Pavlus Yazici and Turkish-Assyrian Metropolitan bishop Yohanna Ibrahim in Syria. Abdurrahmanov and two other suspects were arrested by Turkish security units in the central province of Konya in July 2013 but what happened to them remains unclear. It has been rumored that they were handed over to ISIL in exchange for the Turkish hostages seized by the terrorist group in the Mosul consulate last year.
The pro-government Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH) was not the target of this al-Qaeda investigation per se but İbrahim Halil İlgi, an employee of the İHH on the border province Kilis was identified as supplying material to al-Qaeda camps in Syria under the cover of the charity group. The police raided both İHH offices and İlgi's residence in Kilis when executing the prosecutor's search and arrest warrant. Just like Bayraktutan, Kilis Police Department's Counterterrorism Unit Chief Devlet Çıngı, was then also dismissed from his post the same day.
Bayraktatutan has an impeccable record as one of the leading police chiefs who worked on terrorism cases for 18 years. He graduated from police academy in fourth place out of 1,500 students. He has 47 merit citations, 33 certificates of accomplishment and 11 high achievement awards. His impeccable record earned him a career credit of 99.5 points out of 100 and therefore his words carry weight, even when he has been put behind bars by Islamists attempting to cover up their tracks in aiding radical groups in Turkey and abroad.
A couple of suspects acknowledged during their depositions in the prosecutor's office that they had received support from the Turkish government. Perhaps that was the reason why the government wanted to hush-up the al-Qaeda investigation and thwarted prosecutors from filing formal charges and indictments. The mounting evidence implicating senior officials in the Turkish government as cohorts of extremist and militant groups prompted the government to engage in revenge operations against investigators who were able to make connections and reveal the government's involvement. Erdoğan blurted out a great hoax called the “parallel structure” to discredit investigations and blamed everything on this catch-all phrase in order to avoid being implicated. Yet the illusion was short-lived and the facts are now catching up with him.