[OPINION] Is ISIL setting its sights on Sweden as a place to settle?

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The Swedish flag at half mast is pictured at the Stockholm City Hall prior an official ceremony and a minute of silence to commemorate the victims of a terror attack on Drottninggatan, Stockholm, April 10, 2017. Four people died and fifteen were injured when a truck plunged into a crowd at a busy pedestrian street in the Swedish capital on April 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / TT NEWS AGENCY AND TT News Agency / Anders WIKLUND / Sweden OUT

Abdullah Bozkurt

In what is seen as a deliberate and systematic pattern, Turkey’s Islamist government continues to fail in cracking down on jihadist networks including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as militants attempt to find their way to Europe and other countries, with a special focus on migrant-friendly countries like Sweden.

Led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has invested in Islamist groups including a radical bunch in Syria as part of his proxy battle plan to replace Bashar al-Assad with Islamist brethren, the Turkish government has been enabling and facilitating jihadist militant travel back and forth from Syria. While Turkey’s notorious National Intelligence Organization (MİT) has been secretly running a program to issue passports for militants as documented in the case of Chinese Uyghur fighters, the Erdoğan-controlled judiciary continues to give free rein to militants caught up in the maze of the criminal justice system.

At best, the detained jihadists are given a slap on the wrist in many cases, while a large number of them are let go as part of what I have come to conclude is “the undeclared revolving door policy” of the Turkish government after studying many ISIL and al-Qaeda cases from confidential investigation files, indictments and court documents. The failure of the Turkish criminal justice system in the successful prosecution of jihadists despite serious incriminating evidence implicating militants in arms smuggling, document forgery and counterfeit papers and passport schemes is quite worrying given that so many of them set their sights on traveling to Europe and other countries.

The case law I have examined from Turkey suggests jihadists identified Sweden and Germany, a migrant-friendly country with a sizable influx of Muslim refugees from Syria and other countries, as destinations for a fallback position that would allow them to hunker down for a while. I wrote in detail before how a 26-year-old Turkish man named Suphi Alpfidan (DOB: Nov. 22, 1981), a suspect in the case of a twin bombing that took place in Ankara on Oct. 10, 2015 — the deadliest terror attack ever to take place in Turkey, which killed 107 people including the two suicide bombers – posed as a refugee and made his way to Germany through Greece. Alpfidan, who is linked to Turkish intelligence, later returned to Turkey after spending months as an asylum seeker in Germany and was immediately let go even though there was an arrest warrant outstanding for him and he was a fugitive in an ISIL case. (More details on his case can be found here: https://stockholmcf.org/turkey-intel-linked-isil-man-posed-as-a-refugee-went-through-greece-registered-in-germany/)

The new details suggest Sweden appears to have been targeted early on by ISIL militants. Serdar Kerim, a 34-year-old Turkish national (DOB: May 8, 1983) and resident of Kastamonu province, was identified by investigators back in 2014 as the point man in trafficking foreign fighters, moving logistical supplies and obtaining passports for ISIL militants. He was red-flagged by the police in the early years of the Syrian conflict when families reported him as the man who helped their children join jihadists in Syria. He was recorded while discussing how to move a high-profile ISIL militant named Moustafa Agha to Europe. The wiretaps on Agha show he has been acting as a middleman for counterfeit documents and passport forgery for ISIL militants. There is not much information available about him. The file indicates he uses a Turkish mobile phone registered in the name of Agha, a non-Turkish name. He sought a trip to Sweden in case things heated up on the Turkish-Syrian border, aiming to settle there for a short time before returning to Turkey.

In a recording dated Sept. 20, 2014 at 16:11, Kerim talks to Agha about obtaining a counterfeit passport to enable him to travel to Italy at a cost of 10,000 euros. Agha says he has a Syrian passport and recently renewed it. But he sounds unwilling to go to Italy, saying that the Italians provide little money to refugees. Instead, he asks Kerim to look into possibilities of moving to Sweden, where a Syrian community exists. In response, Kerim said he would explore both Sweden and Switzerland options for him. Stating that there are difficulties in crossing the Greece-Turkey border, Agha asks for other routes that will take him to his country of choice, preferably via an airport.

In various recordings, Kerim talks about counterfeit documents, moving arms, ammunition and vehicles to jihadists including ISIL and the Nusra Front. He’s also involved in moving historic artifacts as well as diesel oil from Syria to Turkey to generate funds for jihadists. For example, on June 16, 2014 at 16:59, Kerim phones Agha to ask about the status of the oil smuggling business. Agha says there was no problem on the routes but complained about the Nusra Front creating some troubles on the Syrian side. In response, Kerim instructs Agha to work with the Nusra Front as well. The investigation file discloses that Kerim and his operatives paid as much as $1,000 to jihadist groups as a commission for each vehicle they illegally brought from Syria to Turkey to sell in the used car market.

In a wiretap recording dated July 24, 2014, he admitted to being an ISIL member when he started threating an unidentified man on the other end of the line. He said he might go to Gaziantep, a city known for its ISIL network, kidnap his wife and children and turn them into slaves. Kerim was detained by the police on July 10, 2015. In his statement to the police, he admitted travelling to Syria and joining the Nusra Front but claimed he did not do anything there while with Nusra. When police searched Kerim’s residence, a cache of digital materials showing his involvement with jihadist networks, a blank-firing pistol and car registry documents for Syrian license plates were found.

Kerim was indicted by Istanbul prosecutor Murat Çağlak, a pro-Erdoğan prosecutor who sought from five to 10 years’ jail time for him on charges of belonging to the ISIL terror group. Çağlak, specially selected by Erdoğan to hunt down his critics, is a notorious prosecutor who demanded from 15 years to life for critical journalists who have been locked up in Turkey for a year without a conviction. Yet he was going easy on ISIL suspects. When Kerim was released by the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court on March 24, 2016, along with all the detained ISIL suspects in a case in which 97 suspects were being tried including Halis Bayancuk (aka Abu Hanzala), the alleged ISIL leader in Turkey, prosecutor Çağlak did not even bother filing a motion to challenge their release.

Yet, Kerim and other ISIL suspects were caught up with by the law shortly afterwards in a separate case where public prosecutor Mehmet Şenay Baygın indicted 35 suspects including Kerim on ISIL charges. The indictment revealed ISIL had been running training and education centers in places very close to the police station in the Sultanbeyli district of Istanbul. The indictment exposed how ISIL scouted for targets in both Ankara and Istanbul as part of what investigators believe was identifying possible attack sites. For example, a suspect named Selim Sümeli made a trip to Ankara to visit the Turkish Parliament to assess the site for a possible assault. This information was also confirmed by Deputy Parliament Speaker Ahmet Aydın, who in responding to a parliamentary question said ISIL suspect Sümeli was recorded as scouting the parliament building on Oct. 12, 2016.

It is interesting that prosecutor Çağlak decided to drop charges of membership in a terrorist group against Sümeli in his own indictment when the suspect was running around, scouting out sites for a possible ISIL attack. Sümeli and Kerim are now facing life sentences if they are convicted on the second indictment filed by prosecutor Baygın. But even the second case is not promising for a successful prosecution, either. The indictment listed 35 suspects (28 were in pretrial detention at the time it was submitted to the court). When a hearing was held on June 14, 2017, only 17 were left in pretrial detention. At the end of the hearing, the court decided to release 12 more, leaving only six in detention including Kerim and Sümeli. Judging from the pattern in similar ISIL cases, they will most likely be released at the next hearing as well.

By the way, in the investigation into ISIL cells in Istanbul where Kerim was listed as a suspect also uncovered a long-running Uzbek jihadist network in the Pendik area of Istanbul. A wiretap recording shows how an Uzbek cell led by Ebu Musa received $30,000 from ISIL. In a wiretap recorded on Jan. 11, 2014, ISIL operative Asaad Khelifalkhadr (aka Ebu Suheyf), a Kuwaiti national, was talking to an unidentified man about their comrades who were detained by the Greek police on the Turkish border and taken to Athens. They discussed how to resolve the matter discreetly and decided to enlist the help of Ebu Usame, identified as another ISIL operative who provides passports for jihadists, according to the indictment.

That suggests the ISIL network is capable of moving jihadists from Turkey to Europe using forged passports and travel documents while Turkish authorities turn a blind eye. Perhaps that explains how Rakhmat Akilov, an Uzbek national and failed asylum seeker who killed five people when he deliberately drove a stolen vehicle into a crowd in the Swedish capital, entered Turkey and exited without any immigration record. He might have been provided with help from this network to allow him to easily travel back and forth and cover his tracks along the way.

The trafficking of Uzbek jihadists has taken place not only through European destinations but also via the Iranian border. For example, in a secret recording dated Oct. 31, 2014 at 15:51:41, Yakup Uzun, a Turkish trafficker who founded a safe house for foreign jihadists and helped them move to Syria through his contacts, talks to an unidentified person about how to move an Uzbek family that came through Iran and was staying in Turkey’s eastern Van province. Uzun said the family was brought to Turkey by smugglers for a cost of $3,500 and that it was urgent to move the family out of Van.

On Nov. 21, 2014, Kerim Akyüz, another ISIL suspect who appears to have been tasked by ISIL to take care of Uzbek and Azeri jihadists and transfer them to Syria, received a phone call from an unidentified Turkish person in Syria. The unidentified person appears to be a very close friend of Akyüz and told him there were about 500 Turks including Uzbeks in a place run by ISIL in Syria. They talked about shaving off beards and changing phones to evade detection while travelling back and forth on the Turkish-Syrian border. On another wiretap dated Dec. 2, 2014, Akyüz talks to a man named Ammar about arms, walkie-talkies and military materiel and how to move them to Syria. Ammar, who apparently lives in Syria, also said a bag was sent to Syria from an Uzbek community in İstanbul’s Pendik district, a place where Uzbek migrants are concentrated in İstanbul.

Turkish intelligence, which has clandestinely helped jihadists move to Syria through Turkey since the outset of the Syrian conflict, is now facilitating jihadists’ travel back to Turkey for a safe place to regroup and make the trip to Europe and other destinations. In the meantime, the Erdoğan government is helping them avoid criminal prosecution when somehow the militants manage to run into trouble with the law while they are in Turkey. No wonder the judiciary, which is fully controlled by Erdoğan, is letting jihadists walk free despite a huge amount of incriminating evidence. Turkish judges and prosecutors who receive their signals on how to proceed from Erdoğan’s palace turn a blind eye to jihadist militant networks, but they have been busy prosecuting and jailing tens of thousands of innocent people including 274 journalists who are behind bars on trumped-up charges because they belong to critical and vulnerable groups that do not support Erdoğan’s authoritarian and jihadist tendencies.

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