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[OPINION] Twists in ISIL murder case of 12 Germans in Turkey

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Abdullah Bozkurt

The investigation, indictment and trial of suspects who are charged in the suicide bombing of 12 German tourists at a historic site in Istanbul on Jan. 12, 2016 raise serious doubts over the sincerity of the Islamist regime in Turkey in acting with determination against Islamist terrorist individuals and groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) operating from its territory.

The way this case has progressed also shows the degree of seriousness the Turkish government under the iron grip of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gives to bringing the mastermind behind the suicide bombing to justice. Most of the 26 suspects listed in the 88-page indictment by the Istanbul prosecutor under case number No.2016/2357 have been released in hearings, fueling suspicion that the Erdoğan regime is not really willing to crack down on radical Islamist groups on Turkish soil. We have seen similar scenarios in other terror cases where investigators who tried to look more closely into ISIL, al-Qaeda and the like were thwarted from pursuing the masterminds by secretive but powerful elements working for Erdoğan.

In the last hearing of the trial, held on Dec. 1, 2016, the 14th Istanbul High Criminal Court decided to release two more suspects — Ayad Muneer Saud and Omar Hallum Raheem — in the case, bringing the number held in pre-trial detention down to five. The same court had already released six suspects — Ahmad Darwish, Ali Alibrahem, Ehab Haidar, Omran Alibrahem, Zafer Alshal and Zekeriya Dervis — from detention in a previous hearing held on Sept. 5. Not surprisingly, none of the foreign suspects released at the September hearing showed up for the next hearing in December. Why do judges, who know very well that the suspects will fail to show up at the next hearing to respond to charges, decide to release them? There are already two suspects who have remained at large since the start of the investigation. Why do they increase the number of fugitives?

The answer is quite simple, actually. The judges, prosecutors and police investigators look to the Erdoğan regime for political signals on how they should proceed with such cases. Just look at the number of journalists arrested in Turkey, a world record by any measure, who still remain behind bars. Or some 40,000 teachers, doctors, union workers, businesspeople, students and housewives, jailed with no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing whatsoever because the political authority wants them locked up since they are affiliated with critics and dissidents such as the Hizmet movement, inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Going back to the case of the murder of German nationals, it is difficult to understand from a legal point of view why suspects who face serious charges and possible life sentences warrant release pending trial. For example, Ahmad Darwish was indicted on charges of aiding terrorism because he helped a bomber get an ID in Turkey and provided a safe place. He faces a lifetime sentence under Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Article 82 on 12 counts of planning a murder because of the number of victims involved in the suicide bombing. He also faces 16 counts of aiding a terrorist group, which calls for up to 240 years in prison. He was also charged with attempting to change the constitutional order of Turkey based on his ISIL affiliation, which requires an aggravated life sentence. Yet this man who faces consecutive life sentences plus 240 years in jail walked out free from a Turkish court in the September hearing. Police could not find any record of when he entered Turkey or exited it, if he did. The other suspects’ cases are no different than that of Darwish.

Another example is Zekeriya Dervis, a 34-year-old Syrian from Deir ez-Zor, who investigators believe played a part in planning the suicide attack, seeking terror charges that require a life sentence. He was released despite serious indications suggesting that he helped fugitive Rasheed Alabdallah Algaagan (Raşit Çeçen, aka Said), the man who delivered the explosives to the suicide bomber. Police found his communications on GSM and WhatsApp with Raşit Çeçen and arrested him in Sakarya province. He met deliveryman Çeçen both in Istanbul and Sakarya before the bombing took place in Sultanahmet.

This case smelled bad from the start, and it gives the impression that Turkish authorities have not thoroughly investigated the suicide bomber and his connections. For all we know, the suicide bomber, Nabil Fadli, remains a mystery man as there is not much information available about him, his past or his connections. Some of the findings in the indictment simply do not make sense at all and give the impression that investigators did not pursue leads further when they should have. For example, on Jan. 5, Fadli applied get a temporary refugee ID from the Zeytinburnu district police station in Istanbul and had his fingerprints taken there. Why did the bomber who knew he would be dead in a week bother with the registration process? What motive did he have to let himself be known to the authorities when he had long lurked in the shadows? He knew police surveillance would record his movements the moment he walked into the station, yet he did it anyway.

Fadli reportedly traced the roots of his family’s origin in Syria to a Turkmen tribe called Al-Barak from al-Amarna village south of Jarablus. He was born in Saudi Arabia in 1988, but moved to Munbic near Aleppo in 2011 when he decided to join the rebels. He first fought against regime forces on the side of the Nusra Front and later joined ISIL when differences emerged between the two groups. He was reported to have joined the ISIL campaign to keep control of Kuveyris, a key airbase in Syria’s north. He had been missing since then. There was unconfirmed intel that he was spotted in the Munbic area in the first week of December 2015 before the suicide attack on Jan. 12.

Fadli crossed the border with smugglers on Dec. 18 through the Turkish border town of Akçakale in the southeastern province of Sanlıurfa. He shaved his beard and cut his hair. He did not come to Istanbul directly. Instead his cell phone tracing as well as a hotel registry showed him staying in Ankara, the Turkish capital, Dec 19-23, 2015. There is virtually no information in the investigation file as to why the bomber decided to make a stopover in Ankara, what he did while he was there and with whom he had contact. It would be impossible for Turkish intelligence not to have spotted him, especially if he had stayed in a place that kept a registry of visitors. The Hitit Hotel in Ankara’s historic Ulus district, where the bomber stayed, is close to many government buildings. These four days remain a dark point in the probe. What is more, GSM card 536 682 XX, used by the bomber between Dec. 18 and Jan. 10, was activated in another mobile phone on Jan. 14 in Ankara, two days after the bombing took place. There is no information as to how and why this happened.

The bomber came to Istanbul on Dec. 24. and checked into a hotel in Fatih that must have been monitored by Turkish intelligence because of the way it operates for foreigners, especially from Iraq and Syria. Fadli had stayed there until Jan. 11, making tours of the city’s historic places such as Hagia Sophia, Galata Tower, Sultanahmet and Taksim squares and the Roman Catholic St. Anthony of Padua Church in Beyoğlu. He had scouted possible bombing targets and photographed them. Surveillance video footage in Sultanahmet Square showed him visiting the place on four separate occasions, on Jan. 7, 8, 9 and 11.

Another bizarre thing in the case is the fact that Mohamed Khaled Hawasli, an ISIL suspect who helped the bomber, did not clean up the room where Fadli had stayed before the attack. Hawasli, who knew the bomber and heard about the incident the moment it happened, decided to leave all traces of the bomber intact in the room. In fact, the indictment included excerpts from the testimony of another suspect named Muhammed Isa, the manager of the makeshift hotel, who responded in the negative when Hawasli asked him whether they should sweep the place. It does not make any sense. Forensic police found six separate fingerprints in the room that matched those of the bomber.

When police showed up to search the room in the three-story unlicensed hotel in Fatih, a broken Samsung cell phone and a tablet, also broken, were waiting to be found. Conveniently, the bomber’s fingerprints were all over the phone. The investigators were able to recover some data from the phone, showing conversations with Omer/Abu Abed, the alleged mastermind behind the suicide attack. Abu Abed, likely a code name, lives in Iraq and was in constant contact with the bomber, giving him instructions until the day he blew himself up in Sultanahmet Square. According to the indictment, investigators failed to crack the code on some of the digital material protected by TrueCrypt.

This case needs to be looked at carefully and puzzling questions that still linger must be answered satisfactorily. For one, why is there a pattern of releasing suspects who face serious charges and lifetime sentences if they are convicted? This does not make any sense despite seemingly convincing evidence in the case file against so many suspects who have been released. Secondly, there are too many bizarre twists in the case that require an explanation such as why the bomber left so much evidence behind as if he were screaming to be found out. Why is it that ISIL has never claimed responsibility for the attack and yet the Turkish government was so quick to blame it on ISIL without waiting for the results of the investigation? Perhaps Germany should do its own investigation as the Russians decided to do in the murder of their ambassador in Ankara.

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