Publicizing an otherwise private audience for senior jihadist figures including a prominent al-Qaeda-linked fighter in the presidential palace of Turkey’s Islamist leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the first week of April shows how emboldened the Turkish president has become in pushing a jihadist ideology in Turkey, neighbouring countries and beyond.
The Turkish leader has apparently shifted his ideology-driven foreign policy into high gear following the takeover of the Afrin region in northern Syria by Turkish military troops and Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements. After he received and listened to in his office a group of intelligence officers accompanied by jihadist elements attached to the FSA, Erdoğan told his party’s faithful on April 7 how proud he was of the FSA fighters, who he glorified by stating how committed they are in their belief in God.
In this bizarre speech delivered during a ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) convention in the western province Denizli, he specifically singled out one man who was wounded and underwent several surgeries before rushing back to the field to continue fighting. “My dear brothers, I hosted a group from the FSA this week in my office and chatted with them. I was sorry for myself when I saw how committed they are in their beliefs and faith. One of them was among the commanders [of the FSA], a very interesting [man]; his friends introduced him. They said, Mr. President, you know this man does not have a stomach. It turns out his stomach was removed because of bullet wounds. I asked him to lift up his undershirt. He pulled it up and there were stitch marks everywhere. Not only there [his abdomen], he also took bullets in his shoulder, back and all over his body. The PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] put a bounty on his head, yet he went back to the front after these surgeries…Thank God, he wears a Turkish flag on his shoulder.”
Addressing lawmakers at his party’s group meeting in Parliament on April 10, Erdoğan again brought this man to the attention of AKP deputies [and to the Turkish public as well because his speeches are always televised live on more than a dozen national TV networks]. “You know, the FSA top brass in Afrin visited me, we talked, and I listened to their introductions. I gave them presents as I bid them goodbye. And it was very interesting, one of the commanders, a colonel, was described as the most devoted. I asked how so, and they said his stomach was removed in surgery. I said how that could be, I asked them to expose his abdomen to see for myself, and they did. Really, this entire area [Erdoğan points to his belly as he speaks] underwent surgery. Not only that, he also took bullets in the shoulder, back and all over. But, my beloved brothers, he did not stop, and he actually went back to the field again and now he is on the front lines.”
This man, identified as Yasir Abdul Rahim, aka Abu Aref, presented as a role model by the Turkish president, was a major figure in the al-Qaeda-linked Jaysh al-Fateh campaign few years back. Nicholas A. Heras wrote a detailed background about this man in a Jamestown Foundation piece that was published on March 30, 2015. As a Syrian military officer who had defected, Abdul Rahim was described as the most prominent commander in Faylaq al-Sham, an Islamist rebel group that has been active in the Aleppo, Idlib and Hama governorates. He has been trying to secure a prominent position among disparate rebel groups, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Erdoğan’s public support may have provided a new boost to his ambitions to become a key military broker in Syria.
He was already embedded by Turkey in the peace talks with Syrian rebel leaders that were launched by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2017. He caused a scene when he got up and protested Iran during the talks. The video posted on Facebook shows him lashing out at the host, the Kazakh foreign minister, and storming out of the meeting. He later rejected the deal agreed in Astana, saying the opposition did not sign on to anything. He has been interviewed by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency several times, which has provided him a platform for conveying his message to a Turkish audience.
Abdul Rahim was interviewed by the pro-Erdoğan İHA news agency after the Turkish president’s tribute, and he told the reporter that he sees Erdoğan as the leader of all Muslims. Posing with his comrades-in-arms in the background in a mobile unit that he commands, Abdul Rahim was saying how he is pursuing jihad and fighting against the crusaders’ alliance in Syria with supplies provided by the Turkish army, the second largest military in the NATO alliance in terms of manpower. The interview was broadcast by all pro-government media outlets, and excerpts were published in pro-Erdoğan dailies the next day. This is quite a stunning spectacle in which Erdoğan is clearly pitting his FSA militia, some apparently originating from al-Qaeda factions, against the militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), backed by the US and other NATO allies.
We know that Turkish Islamists led by Erdoğan have never seen eye-to-eye with allies and partners when it comes to battling al-Qaeda groups even though al-Qaeda’s ideology poses a fundamental security challenge for Turkey, a predominantly Sunni nation of 81 million. The organization has claimed some dozen bloody attacks in Turkey, taking the lives of many people, yet the AKP government has deliberately thwarted any serious crackdown on the group and its Turkish affiliates. In January 2014, when a major al-Qaeda investigation was made public, leading to the detention of many including a former Gitmo detainee, Erdoğan stepped in to hush up the probe, helped free the detainees and punished investigators who exposed the ring after months-long monitoring of al-Qaeda.
When the US and the UN listed Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi as a financier of the al-Qaeda terror group, which put him on a sanctions list in Turkey, Erdoğan secretly met with him half a dozen times and facilitated his entry into Turkey despite a ban under Turkish law and UN resolutions. He and his son Bilal aided and abetted al-Qadi’s clandestine business dealings to move funds in and out of Turkey. When a corruption investigation was made public on Dec. 25, 2013 that incriminated Bilal, al-Qadi and dozens of others, Erdoğan ordered his police chief to refuse to carry out court detention orders. The prosecutor who looked into these unsavvy characters was immediately reassigned and later dismissed and faced an arrest warrant himself.
In dozens of other cases in which Turkish al-Qaeda suspects were caught by the criminal justice system, Erdoğan and his associates have intervened in prevent their successful prosecution. There is a clear, deliberate and systematic pattern that one can detect from all these separate cases where the Erdoğan government often sides with jihadist figures against Turkish security needs. The public praise of Abdul Rahim as a role model for Turkish Islamists suggests Turkey has unfortunately shifted into a different and new phase where al-Qaeda’s basic ideology of confronting non-Muslims with bloody jihadist campaigns has been publicly entertained by people who hold the highest offices in the land. That means Erdoğan has not only turned Turkey into a rogue nation but also a terror-sponsoring state where the armed jihadist ideology is welcomed and encouraged.