[OPINION] Erdoğan vigorously defends Turkish al-Qaeda group that has cells in Germany

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Abdullah Bozkurt

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has saved an al-Qaeda-affiliated Turkish jihadist group that has been infiltrating diaspora groups in Germany and France while punishing prosecutors and police investigators who had dealt a heavy blow to degrade this radical organization’s capabilities in the past. 

The group, called Tahşiyeciler in Turkish, is led by 66-year-old radical cleric Mehmet Doğan (aka Mullah Muhammed) who had been on the Turkish government payroll until his retirement from the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) in 1998. This al-Qaeda-affiliated Turkish group has been active in Turkey and among Turkish expat communities in Europe as part of a jihadist campaign to recruit militants, raise funds and plan suicide attacks. The cache of intercepted communications and the physical evidence uncovered during the search and seizure in suspects’ homes and offices clearly paint a picture of a dangerous, albeit small, group that follows slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s lead. 

Mustafa Kaplan, the 77-year-old chief aide to Mullah Muhammed, has been identified as a man who is responsible for the group’s operations in Europe and made trips to cities in France and Germany to organize cells. His speeches that were recorded in the German cities of Bonn, Ahlen, Dortmund and Anderten contain chilling accounts of what they plan to do. In one recording he claims that Turks are hostages and prisoners in Germany and says Germany would soon face the wrath of Muslims. He promises to Turks in Germany that the Germans would soon regret sending troops to Afghanistan since fighters would come to Germany to punish them for Berlin’s contribution to NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan. 

A court-authorized wiretap that was recorded on Sept. 4, 2009 exposes a man named Murat Yaprak as the militant responsible for Tahşiyeciler’s secret madrasa network in Bonn. In a petition filed with the court on Dec. 18, 2015, Kaplan inadvertently admitted he commanded disciples in Germany. In a disk that was seized from Kaplan’s home, the investigators found a file under the name of “el-Kamer,” a code name that symbolizes the young people who are supportive of al-Qaeda in Turkey. The list included seven names with experience in explosives, guns and intelligence — for example, a man named Muhammed Ebu Suheyl Ebu Ahmed Ş., listed as located in Germany, a mechanic and kickboxing trainer who also has experience in hacking. 

There was flurry of wiretap recordings that were intercepted between Kaplan and his operatives in Germany that indicates two-way traffic, and this was included in the criminal case file. For example, in a wiretap dated Oct. 12, 2009, Kaplan talks to Ahmet Kalayci, a man from Germany, and the two had a chat on how to arrange an invitation for Kaplan to bring him to Germany. Kalayci says his brother Beytullah would take care of the arrangements to secure a visa for him. In another one, Kaplan discloses a group that would come from Germany to meet Mullah Muhammed. In a recording dated June 19, 2009, Kaplan reveals how he tries to cross to a Greek island with a fake passport but was stopped by the border guards on the Turkish site. It looks like he later managed to obtain a visa from the German consulate. 

The evidence further shows that Tahşiyeciler raised funds in Germany and transferred funds to Turkey to finance operations. In a wiretap recording on May 8, 2009, Ali Karakale, a Turkish man residing in Germany, calls Mullah Muhammed and tells him he had managed to collect 40,000 euros and would bring it to him as soon as he arranges tickets for a flight. There were other recordings that show money transfers through couriers and on occasion through bank transfers. Investigators identified Hilmi Azbay as the bookkeeper for Tahşiyeciler in Turkey. The report by the Finance Ministry’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) found that Azbay received a total of TL 59,748 from Karakale in 2005. 

A venomous speech delivered by Kaplan, the number two in the Turkish al-Qaeda cell, while touring Germany certainly raised red flags with the Turkish police who kept tabs on the group. For example, in seized tapes, Kaplan was heard saying that American soldiers have panic attacks when they see a 15-year-old Muslim boy in the streets of Iraq because young boys strap bombs to their bodies and blow themselves up, instilling fear in the hearts of infidels. He says a believer is not afraid of anybody and that killing himself in a suicide bombing is better than living as a prisoner. He promises that heaven is waiting for those who martyr themselves, exactly what al-Qaeda’s twisted ideology states. He makes a prediction that Muslims who are loathed today will soon take over Germany and France if they are really committed to their faith and act in line with God’s wishes. He says Berlin and New York will be battleground cities for violent clashes. 

According to taped conversations, Kaplan pointed out that the whole world heard al-Qaeda’s voices when the call to prayer was sounded from the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He ridicules US troops for being afraid of teenagers in Iraq and says how the US troops are panicked by Muslim boys, stressing that only death would scare US soldiers. He brands the US as Dajjal, an evil figure in Islamic literature who is also called the anti-Christ. Kaplan makes a point that Christians and Jews are infidels and that they should be killed wherever they are found. In one speech he was heard saying how drug, tobacco and alcohol-addicted Muslim boys would become heroes by leading the jihadist fight. He tells the tale of a drug-addicted Turkish boy from Istanbul’s Sefaköy district who went to Afghanistan, was trained in arms and displayed heroic efforts afterwards. 

Why is that Erdoğan has done everything to protect this group from criminal prosecution? Perhaps the remarks by Erdoğan, who tried to bully the European Union on March 22, 2017 when he said “If you continue to behave like this, tomorrow — in no part of the world — no European, no Westerner will be able to take steps on the street safely and peacefully” are not just empty rhetoric. Surely, the Turkish president’s intensive efforts to save the al-Qaeda-affiliated Tahşiyeciler, which has been advocating the view of suicide attacks in Western cities, could not simply be justified by the shared jihadist Islamist ideology. He might very well be motivated by a desire to use groups like Tahşiyeciler as a proxy and spoiler to strengthen his hand in his bargains with Turkey’s allies and partners.

Otherwise, it does not make any sense why Erdoğan vouched for Mullah Muhammed, helped him avoid conviction after his group faced a crackdown in January 2010 and thwarted the criminal prosecution and trial. To the surprise of many, the Erdoğan government intervened in the case, secured the release of all the militants and helped them get acquitted all charges while turning the case around to jail journalists who wrote about it and police investigators who had monitored the group’s activities. As if that were not enough, the Turkish government even hired controversial lawyer Robert Amsterdam to file a frivolous civil suit in the US against Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen for criticizing this al-Qaeda group. The US judge simply tossed this absurd case out.  

The farcical indictment filed by public prosecutor Hasan Yilmaz against 33 defendants, including journalists who criticized the group and police investigators who pursued criminal probes against Tahşiyeciler, claims the al-Qaeda group is innocent of charges. The prosecutor, specially assigned to the case by the Erdoğan government, even defended that the wiretapped communications and seized materials did not contain any criminal elements. Apart from the evidence that was laid out above and an 80-page book titled “Davetname” that was sized from the suspects, it was argued that infidels have no right to life and must be exterminated. That should be followed by the killing of Jews and Christians. Muslims are encouraged to wipe out democratic, socialist and community regimes from the face of the earth. Similar arguments were found in Tahşiyeciler’s other books such as “Ikazname” and “Cihadname,” which were admitted as evidence in the case file. 

In addition to printed materials, the police also seized dozens of handwritten notes that reveal how the group approved suicide bombings that kill Muslims as well. One document said it was obligatory upon Muslims to kill Americans, civilians and military alike. The video and photos that show how to make a bomb and prepare for a suicide attack were among the evidence uncovered from the suspects. Some of the videos were shot from actual bombing attacks that took place in Russia, Afghanistan and other places. In another document, the beheading of Jewish women was ordered. 

It is an utter shame that Mullah Muhammed is now defended by the Erdoğan government and his partisan prosecutors who brought criminal charges against journalists such as Hidayet Karaca for defaming the al-Qaeda group and investigators such as Ömer Köse, Yurt Atayün, Ali Fuat Yılmazer, and Tufan Ergüder, who investigated Mullah Muhammed. These veteran police chiefs who worked in law enforcement for decades did nothing except their jobs as they were authorized by the prosecutors who conduct criminal probes under court supervision. How could the Turkish government stand by a man who was described in video footage aired by CNN Türk with the title “A Call for Jihad by al-Qaeda leader Doğan” on Jan. 23, 2010. In the video Mullah Muhammed was seen urging his followers to take up arms and saying that it was certainly allowed in Islam. He brags about how one of his militants started making rockets at his residence for the jihadist cause. 

There is more evidence listed in the original case file against Tahşiyeciler. In a recorded conversation that was seized in the home of Mehmet Emin Karakaya, one of his followers in the western province of Bursa, Mullah Muhammed claimed the Islamic Prophet predicted Osama bin Laden’s army in Afghanistan and ordered Muslims to join his army when it emerged with its black flags. In another recording seized from a suspect named Hilmi Azbay, Mullah Muhammed was heard saying Muslim terrorists would always be preferred to infidels under any circumstances, and he asks for the killing of all non-Muslims in Turkey, turning them into slaves and seizing their properties. 

In another recording, Mullah Muhammed was heard encouraging his followers to join jihadist groups abroad according to a wiretapped phone conversation that was recorded on Dec. 6, 2009. When news about the death of a Turkish jihadist in Pakistan was brought to him, Mullah Muhammed praised the slain Turk and said he very much wished to be in his place. “I’m telling you to take up your guns and kill them,” he said in another recording. He also asked his followers to build bombs and mortars in their homes, urged the decapitating of Americans, claiming that the religion allows such practices. “If the sword is not used, then this is not Islam,” he stated. 

According to this fanatic preacher, all Muslims were obligated to respond to then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s armed fight. No wonder a cache of al-Qaeda materials, many translated into Turkish from the original Arabic, was found in suspects’ homes. Among the documents in the case file, it can be seen that the group praises leading al-Qaeda figures Osama, current al-Qaeda leader Ayman Mohammed al-Zawahiri, jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Mohamed el-Sayed, who was one of the ringleaders of the Sept. 11 attacks in the US, and Mullah Omar, the slain leader of the Taliban. 

The group was flagged as a radical organization by all three of Turkey’s intelligence services. The National Intelligence Organization’s (MİT) intel note on Tahşiyeciler dated March 5, 2009 profiled Mullah Muhammed as a man who was fully supportive of al-Qaeda, trying to combine all madrasah schools in Turkey to serve al-Qaeda ideology. It pointed out that Mullah Muhammed believed Turkey would be saved by an Islamic army led by al-Qaeda. The note also revealed Mullah Muhammed’s activities abroad, listing Munich, Berlin and Cologne as cities where Tahşiyeciler had been active. In France, the al-Qaeda-linked group had limited activities according to MİT. It also had cells in the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina. The MIT intel further confirmed other intelligence gathered by the police in Erzincan on Dec. 19, 2008 and the National Police Intelligence Bureau on April 29, 2009.

The intelligence assessment on March 13, 2009 by Turkish military intelligence that was signed by then-intelligence director of the Turkish General Staff, Lt. Gen. İsmail Hakkı Pekin reached a similar conclusion as well. It concluded that Mustafa Kaplan has been running a campaign to promote Tahşiyeciler and trying to carve out a sphere of influence within the al-Qaeda group. When prosecutors ordered the police raid on Tahşiyeciler for the first time on Jan. 22, 2010 after completion of their investigation, three hand grenades, one smoke bomb, seven handguns, 18 hunting rifles, electronic parts for explosive devices, knives and a large cache of ammunition were found in the homes of the suspects. 

The Erdoğan government helped Mullah Muhammed and his men avoid punishment when they were indicted, turned the case upside down, prevented original trials from proceeding in appeal and eventually succeeded in acquitting them all in 2015. As if that were not enough, the Erdoğan government invited Mullah Muhammed and his thugs in 2014 to file criminal complaints against police, prosecutors and judges who investigated the group as well as journalists and Muslim scholars like Gülen who criticized this al-Qaeda-linked group. 

Portraying Tahşiyeciler as a victimized group, Erdoğan launched a public campaign on behalf of Mullah Muhammed, saying in a speech he delivered on Dec. 15, 2014 that he had been unjustly arrested. Erdoğan’s remarks came a day after police raided Turkey’s largest-circulated paper, Zaman, and detained its editor-in-chief, Ekrem Dumanlı, and arrested the top manager of the Samanyolu TV network Karaca for smearing Mullah Muhammed and Tahşiyeciler. 

What is more, Erdoğan ordered his media machine to run a favorable campaign for the group to win the hearts and minds of the Turkish people for the al-Qaeda-affiliated fanatics. Daily Sabah, an English-language daily that is owned by the Erdoğan family, ran stories to present Mullah Muhammed as a saint. Mustafa Kaplan was invited to pro-government TV networks including AHaber, a news channel also owned by the Erdoğan family, and he was provided a platform to freely promote his radical views.

Ibrahim Kalın, Erdoğan’s spokesperson, prepared an information file in English exonerating Tahşiyeciler as a “religious community,” and Turkish embassies were instructed to defend the group with the talking points Kalın helped craft in the document. In a leaked email sent to Erdoğan’s son Bilal, daughters Esra and Sümeyye and son-in-law Berat Albayrak on Jan. 7, 2015, Kalın stated that Erdoğan personally handed over the document to Thorbjørn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, during a meeting. The EU minister sent the file to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk. US congressmen and EU parliamentarians were also provided a copy.

Now we are confronted with an unprecedented challenge by a rogue Turkish state with an 80-million-strong population that is led by an Islamist authoritarian president who unleashes radical jihadists to threaten, intimidate and blackmail Turkey’s long-time allies and partners. Erdoğan is playing a highly dangerous game to promote his interests, and Turkey under his iron-grip rule presents a clear and imminent threat to all.

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