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[OPINION] ISIL takes root in the secular western provinces of Turkey

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by Abdullah Bozkurt
Jihadist cells linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have not only taken root in conservative, nationalist and predominantly religious provinces in Turkey’s heartland and the Southeast but also in western provinces where the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) maintains a strong constituency. Radical militants have been able to operate freely thanks to the political cover provided by the regime of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which systematically and deliberately shields militants from the wrath of the criminal justice system.

Abdullah Bozkurt

The case of Manisa, a booming industrial province in the west of Turkey with a population of 1.4 million and next to the secularist bastion and CHP stronghold of İzmir, tells the tale of how provinces thought to be immune to the encroachment of radical ideology can easily fell prey to the appeal of jihadists. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government took only a few steps to round up jihadist militants every time a deadly ISIL attack occurred in the country, only to release them quickly from the revolving door of the criminal justice system so that they could keep operating.

For years, the serious allegation that ISIL had been setting up in Manisa province were raised by local politicians from the main opposition CHP and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), but they were completely disregarded by local officials, who take their cues from Turkish President Erdogan on how to behave. Former Police Chief Tayfur Erdal Ceren, who has been busy surveilling the political opponents of Erdogan, flat out denied allegations of ISIL setting up shop in the province in November 2014. He said there were no ISIL camps in Manisa. Ceren, who was accused of turning a blind eye to ISIL cells, was later reassigned by the government to the position of chief inspector. During his farewell remarks, he said he had no regrets whatsoever while serving in Manisa.

The governor of Manisa, Erdoğan Bektaş, had also downplayed nationwide police operations against ISIL, saying that there was no need to be alarmed about the ISIL threat. “Do not consider every man with a beard to be an ISIL militant,” he said mockingly when he talked about the threat ISIL posed for Manisa province in July 2015. Bektaş was later reassigned to become governor of Rize province, President Erdoğan’s hometown and considered to be a highly prestigious position among governors’ posts.

When a deadly attack in Suruç on July 15, 2015 blamed on ISIL killed 33 people, the Turkish government came under intense pressure to clamp down on the ISIL network. As a result, the first security sweep targeting ISIL cells in Manisa took place on Aug. 7, 2015 during which police and gendarmerie units raided 20 locations in six neighborhoods and detained 20 suspects on charges of aiding and abetting ISIL and helping recruit militants for the terror organization. Three rifles, jihadist literature and an ISIL flag were seized during the operation.

The crackdown targeted two separate cells in Manisa province which were led by 25-year-old Erhan Efe and 37-year-old Abdülkuddus Ulusal (aka Şenol Hoca). These ringleaders and other suspects identified as Cevdet Efe, Mehmet Efe, Saddam Çelik, Yunus Efe, Burhan Efe, Abdullah Efe, Faruk Efe, Selahattin Utku Özdiken, Ercan Özdemir, Mehmet Alper Dalgıç, Mehmet Biral, Mehmet Şakir Açar, Şahin Yeşilyurt, Nazmi Mersinli, Halil Talha Arlı, Hasan Kaymaz, Ahmet Açıkgöz and İbrahim Coşkun were all formally arrested on Aug. 11, 2015.

Erhan Efe and his cell of 10 operatives had worked out of a village called Emlakdere, eight kilometers from the provincial center. The cell is linked to Halis Bayancuk (aka Abu Hanzala) who is a top jihadist preacher with links to both the al-Qaeda and ISIL networks. Abu Hanzala is also a suspect in several ISIL cases, served some time in jail but was released in March 2016. He was arrested again in Sakarya province on June 7, 2017. The group in Manisa was linked to another ISIL cell called the “Tombul brothers” in İzmir province and helped recruit fighters to send to Syria.

The criminal complaint in the indictment file stated that Efe and his group had arms training on the outskirts of the village on the weekends. The photos showed them in fatigues and bearing arms. İbrahim Coşkun, a suspect in Efe’s cell, said in his deposition that he backed ISIL because of its compliance with Islamic law and engagement with jihad.

The indictment said the second cell leader, Abdülkuddus, turned a shop into a makeshift mosque and started preaching ISIL ideology in this place near the downtown area. In testimony given to the police and prosecutor, Abdülkuddus described the Republic of Turkey as an “infidel” [taghut] regime and admitted supporting ISIL actions. Ahmet Açıkgöz, an imam in the Taşkuyucak neighborhood and member of Abdülkuddus’ cell, said in his testimony that he does not vote in elections because he considered voting to be un-Islamic and polytheism.

The Manisa public prosecutor indicted all 20 suspects on Jan. 7, 2016 on terror charges and asked for lengthy sentences. The indictment revealed safe houses in two neighborhoods and included how militants trained in firing arms in a rural area of Manisa. Photos, criminal complaints and other evidence were included in the case file. Yet they were released in the first hearing, held on March 10, 2016, on the grounds that they had roots in the community and did not pose a flight risk. The suspects had even had a quarrel with the Manisa 2nd High Criminal Court’s presiding judge, Şahap Mutlu, during the hearing and refused to testify, saying that judgments can only be rendered by God, not the people’s court.

The second operation against ISIL was conducted on Oct. 29, 2016. The police detained six suspects including Erhan Efe and Halil Talha Arlı, who were arrested but released in March. (The others were identified only by the initials İ.O., S.T., H.U. and İ.E.). They were all released in four days by the prosecutor’s office. The third operation was launched against ISIL cells in Manisa right after an İstanbul nightclub attack by ISIL militant Abdulkadir Masharipov, an Uzbek national, in the early hours of New Year’s Day that killed 39 people and injured 65 others. Two suspects, M.F and G.T., were detained in the operation.

The cells in Manisa were also connected to ISIL cells in the predominantly conservative Konya, led by Abu Hanzala. In fact, when the police launched raids on ISIL groups in Konya on July 25, 2015, a woman identified as Fadime Kurt, a suicide bomber wannabe, was among 16 suspects who were detained. Kurt was one of three bombers (the other two were Özlem Yılmaz and Nuray Demirel) police had been searching for. The wiretap records showed Kurt made a phone call to an ISIL militant expressing her desire to become a suicide bomber. Kurt, a 34-year-old mother of two, lost her two brothers who fought for jihadist groups in Syria, and she herself made a trip to Syria. A court in Konya formally arrested 10 of these suspects, including Kurt, pending trial. Yet the Konya 2nd High Criminal Court decided to release the wannabe bomber on Dec. 11, 2015.

In the meantime, the ISIL militants who were released continue their activities in Manisa province, raising new recruits under the watch of Turkish authorities. For example, on Dec. 9, 2016, police received a complaint from families in Manisa that three children identified only by the initials Y.D., A.O. and M.K. had gone missing. Police found the children as they were about to board a train bound for Konya in order to join ISIL.

The deliberate failure of the criminal justice system to successfully prosecute ISIL militants in Turkey despite incriminating evidence shows how jihadist networks in the country keep operating without much hindrance under the political cover of the Erdogan regime. The fact that jihadist cells are able to gain a foothold even in the western provinces and predominantly secular cities suggests that the challenge to Turkey’s national security is bigger than one may think. The lack of political will to acknowledge and confront that threat only makes it worse.

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