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[OPINION] Turkey scrambled to contain fallout from Erdoğan’s jihadist friends

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Abdullah Bozkurt

It appears Turkey’s intelligence agency, which has long trafficked, armed and supported foreign fighters in the bloody Syrian civil war since 2011 in order to topple President Bashar al-Assad, has started to cut its losses in a bid to contain the fallout from the growing exposure to its clandestine operations.

The cases of Danish and Swedish nationals who were arrested last year as part of a crackdown on the network of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Turkey represent such an attempt on the part of the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has scrambled to counter the growing criticism of Turkey for aiding and abetting jihadist groups. The arrests, which were advertised as a successful joint police and intel agency operation, were the first red flag that caught my attention at the time simply because the modus operandi of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) hardly allows the police to launch joint task operations, especially as part of an investigation that may very well expose its secret operations. In most cases, MİT tries to hide information from the police and endeavors to hush up any investigation due to the risk of exposure of its operatives or assets.

The exception comes into play when MİT thinks it would benefit from burning its assets or has difficulty in containing the immediate fallout and wants to limit the damage. Only then does it stop blocking the probe by the police, the main law enforcement agency in Turkey, and let the criminal justice system to do its work, albeit in controlled fashion. At times, MİT also puts skeletons out in the open in a coordinated scheme to gain credibility, earn some credit among the public and deflect the angry finger pointing that could otherwise undermine the agency. Another marker in this special case of the Danish and Swedish nationals that simply did not make any sense to me is that the suspects were reportedly held in detention for 10 days and interrogated by a special team when no such practice was seen in similar ISIL cases that were investigated, prosecuted and tried in the same province, Adana.

The third red flag was the profile of the prosecutor who drafted the indictment against these suspects. His name is Osman Tezcan, an attorney who was head of the legal affairs department for the municipality of Eyüp in Istanbul, run by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). In other words, a political operative of Erdoğan’s party was groomed to be prosecutor in March 2013. No wonder his name came up in many cases that have dealt a blow to Erdoğan’s legitimate critics and opponents. The last but not least road marker is the character of the chief of police in Adana province at the time the arrests were made. His name is Osman Ak, who was suspended from the police department after he was found to be running a secret cell for illegal wiretaps on a range of prominent people in Turkey. He was suspended, prosecuted and tried. Following the corruption investigations that incriminated him and his family members, Erdoğan reactivated this thug in 2014 in a bid to remove veteran police chiefs from the force and transform the police department into Germany’s Nazi-era partisan paramilitary apparatus the Schutzstaffel (SS). Today Ak is Erdoğan’s leading henchman who set up special torture teams across Turkey to persecute, abuse and at times kill Erdoğan’s opponents in detention centers and prisons.

Nevertheless, the combined pressure of the US, European, Russian and Chinese governments on Erdoğan that grew over time eventually forced Turkey to take action, albeit limited, on cracking down on the ISIL network in Turkey. Hence we now know from court papers more details of how foreign jihadists entered Turkey, travelled to border areas and crossed into Syria and later moved back and forth. The detention of the Danish and Swedish suspects came few weeks after a deadly attack on Istanbul’s Reina nightclub in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2017, which resulted in the murder of 39 people. The nationwide manhunt was under way for an Uzbek named Abdulkadir Masharipov, the ISIL militant who also went by his code name Abu Muhammed Horasani, while MİT came under fire for not detecting ISIL’s plot in advance. At the same time, the Erdoğan government was feeling the heat of international criticism for letting ISIL bombers travel to Europe and other places to stage deadly attacks, from the Brussels bombers to the Paris attackers.

It was in this critical atmosphere that Danish national Abdullah El Halabi of Lebanese origin (46), also known as Abu Huzayfa, and Swedish national Muhammed Tofik Saleh of Iraqi origin (39) were detained by the police in a hotel room in the district of Seyhan in Turkey’s southeastern border province of Adana. The detention was reported to have been triggered by an anonymous tip that suggested MİT already had an asset inside the ISIL network and sounded alarm bells. Both men were picked up by the police in January 2017. They were interrogated for days before they were brought to court for arraignment on Feb. 10, 2017. They were formally arrested by the court and placed in pretrial detention. The timeline is still sketchy as authorities are have not been forthcoming with precise dates.

The government-run Anadolu news agency touted the arrests as a major blow to ISIL and claimed it exposed a plot that targeted Europe. Although the indictment revealed no such plot with specificity, the search of the suspects’ belongings uncovered their identities while they were in Syria and how they were involved in guns and ammunition training as well as facilitation of jihadists’ travel. Halabi was carrying a fake passport in the name of Mahamad Laban. Another suspect named Safwan Qahwati, a 24-year-old Syrian, was also detained on March 15, 2017 over his links to these two suspects. He was picked up by police in a bus after he crossed from Syria to Turkey, which also means MİT practically handed him over. Qahwati was alleged to have been taking care of shipping and logistics for ISIL. An examination of Qahtawi’s belongings revealed that he had video footage of ISIL attacks as well as promotional video messages for ISIL suicide bombers on his electronic devices. He had two silver rings with the ISIL flag inscribed on them.

The content of an iPad owned by Halabi had various photographs of him and his buddy Saleh dressed up in military fatigues while shooting AK-47s. ISIL propaganda materials were also found on the iPad including one with a picture of Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a slain al-Nusra-affiliated Turkish police officer who assassinated Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, on Dec.19, 2016. Deciphered WhatsApp communications of Halabi revealed his talks with another ISIL member identified by the user name of Abu al-Hasan, who asked Halabi to return bombs he had earlier left with him. In another message written by a man with the handle El-Ansari, Halabi was requested to provide help for a suicide bomber who was instructed to cross into Europe via Greece, a route they considered to be easy to navigate.

In a conversation with a user name Gailiiini, Halabi said there was an explosion in Turkey [he was possibly referring to the Reina attack on New Year’s Eve] and that Turkey had tightened security on the border. He wrote that he hoped to receive a shipment sooner so he could make it across without getting captured in Turkey. In response, Gailiiini told him to delete everything and change his phone and number before going. Gailiiini said he was detained before in Turkey and was placed on a plane bound for Sweden after the police interrogated him for one-and-a-half hours at the airport but could not find anything incriminating on his phone. He urged Halabi to only keep the names of his family members and people from Denmark on his contact list. It appears that Saleh was using the screen handle Gailiiini.

Halabi was caught by the Turkish military in Reyhanlı in Hatay province on the Syrian border in 2014 and handed over to the police for deportation. He came back again with a fake passport under the name of Mahamad Laban and entered Turkey through İstanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport. He worked with a fugitive suspect named Ilyas El Basha (also known by the code name Hac) in acquiring a drone for ISIL from Denmark. The suspects were indicted in July 2017, and the Turkish prosecutor asked the court to sentence the suspects to 15 years for membership in the ISIL terrorist group.

The first hearing in the trial was held on Aug. 10, 2017 at the Adana 13th High Criminal Court. Saleh denied the charges leveled against him in the indictment and explained his reasons for going to Syria which he said included getting married to a second wife, having his children nurtured in the tradition of their ancestors and to treat his sick (second) wife with traditional cures offered in Idlib province. Saleh added that his first wife also had come to Turkey with the intention of crossing into Syria but later changed her mind due to jealousy over him marrying a second woman. He admitted that photographs of him with guns on his seized cell phone belonged to him and defended himself by saying that the guns were only for his protection and that the pictures were taken for a souvenir of Syria. He maintained that he sold his rifle and handgun for $900 when he decided to return to Turkey.

Saleh, originally Palestinian, stated that he acquired Swedish citizenship in 2008 or 2009 and visited Turkey numerous times. On one of his trips, he took his wife Fatima el-Rudeyni and two daughters to Turkey’s border province of Hatay in order to cross into Syria, but the wife decided to return to Sweden where she filed an abduction claim for the daughters with the police. The daughters were later taken back to Sweden by a fixer she arranged. He said he shared the house in Syria with Halabi, who was distributing cash to people there. The two came back to Turkey together.

In his defense, el-Halabi denied his membership in ISIL and claimed he went to Syria only to deliver humanitarian aid from Denmark, where he worked as a cook. He said he knew Salah as a person who was engaged in humanitarian assistance and admitted that through Saleh he was involved in the same network. He testified that Saleh asked him to deliver a drone, electrical parts, clothes and boots to Syria. Halabi also admitted to having his picture with ISIL’s black and white flag on his phone and training at a shooting range in Syria. Halabi said he acquired the fake passport to go to Syria from Copenhagen and obtained counterfeit Turkish migration ID cards from smugglers. He also recanted the earlier testimony against Salah he gave during police interrogation which he said was obtained under duress. During questioning by the police, Halabi was recorded as saying that Saleh was an influential figure in ISIL and was responsible for the logistics of the ISIL military wing. When asked about his communications on WhatsApp, he denied writing the messages that indicated he was looking for a suicide bomber.

The third suspect in the case, Qahtawi, who was residing in the northwestern province of Bursa, testified that he had come to Turkey six years earlier and claimed his photos including one with him putting a knife to the throat of another man while his own face was covered were merely jokes that were taken when he was in Libya two years earlier. When asked by a judge if there was still a war going in Syria back then, he said yes. He had downloaded seized video footage of ISIL out of curiosity and claimed that some of it was sent by his friends. He admitted that he was interested in guns. There is no update of what happened in this case as I assume it must have already been wrapped up.

It is quite probable that this case may very well represent a counter move by MİT to neutralize the increased pressure by the government of Denmark over another ISIL suspect, a Lebanese national who was turned over to ISIL in secret negotiations by the Turkish government in order to secure the release of Turkish hostages kept in Mosul by ISIL. Basil Hassan, who fled Turkey after shooting Danish author Lars Hedegaard in his Copenhagen home on Feb. 5, 2013, was jailed in Turkey following his capture. However, he was later picked up from Maltepe Prison in Istanbul by MİT and handed over to ISIL despite a pending extradition request from Denmark. Hassan was named a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the US in November 2016 and was described as an external operations plotter for the terrorist group.

As the dirty laundry of the Turkish intelligence agency, run by Erdoğan confidante and Islamist Hakan Fidan, is exposed to public scrutiny, MİT has scrambled to contain the damage for fear of being held to account. Erdoğan, who controls the Turkish judiciary with a tight leash on judges and prosecutors, may save MİT from the wrath of the criminal justice system in Turkey but may be having a hard time stopping international review and inquiry by governments whose security was adversely impacted by Erdoğan’s aiding and abetting of jihadist groups in Syria and other countries.

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