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Two front aid groups that operate in Turkey’s southeastern border provinces near Syria, led by known militants of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have been allowed to keep collecting new recruits to fight for armed jihadist causes in the permissive environment created by the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
A high-profile Turkish al-Qaeda operative identified as Aytaç Polat has been involved in several charity outfits to mask his jihadist activities and appears to be untouchable despite the fact that his front association was named in court proceedings as an operation that sends fighters to Syria for enlistment with armed radical groups. Polat is the president of an association called Genç Muvahhidler Egitim, Kültür, Sosyal ve Yardımlaşma Derneği (Young Muvahhids Association for Education, Culture, Social and Charity), an outfit that indoctrinates Turkish youth with radical views, raises funds and provides logistical supplies for jihadist groups, mainly al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
The association was named as an ISIL hub during the trial of suspects who were alleged to have been involved in the deadliest terrorist attack that has ever taken place in Turkey, killing 107 people when two suicide bombers targeted NGOs and supporters of left-wing and pro-Kurdish parties holding a peace rally outside the Turkish capital’s main train station on October 10, 2015. In his testimony to the court, Yakup Şahin, an ISIL suspect who purchased and stockpiled explosive materials in a storage unit he rented in Gaziantep and provided an escort to ensure the safe arrival in Ankara of the suicide bombers, said he was attending lectures of the Young Muvahhids (also written as Muvahhits in some papers). Şahin, who is a baker by profession, purchased fertilizer, the sale of which is controlled by the government, and put it in storage for use in explosives. When he was detained, he said he was told by the police chief to not worry because “both the prosecutors and the judges are with us.”
In addition to Şahin’s testimony in the ISIL case, three other suspects who played various roles in the bombing attack also named Genç Muvahhidler as the place they had frequented. Suspect Hüseyin Tunç, a courier who was responsible for procuring and transporting explosive materials, told the prosecutor that he started attending lectures there after he stopped using drugs. Another ISIL suspect, Resul Demir, who is known as the accountant of the terrorist organization and helped purchase the cars that were used in a vehicle suicide bombing, also admitted that he was hanging out at Genç Muvahhidler. Halil Durgun and Halil Alçay, both named in the indictment against the ISIL network, also testified that they were part of a group taking religious courses at Genç Muvahhidler. Alçay stated that he knew ISIL militants were being raised by the association when he started going there.
Polat, who was leading Genç Muvahhidler, was working as a baker when he left his job to join al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and abandoned his young wife Zeliha (23), four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son in 2001. The battle-hardened Polat responded to a call to jihad by Osama bin Laden after 9/11 and went to Afghanistan in 2001 to enlist in the war. Led by al-Qaeda’s Turkish chief Mehmet Yılmaz, Polat and others in the group of 20 crossed into Iran on Oct. 8, 2001 from Turkey’s border province of Agri. They were assigned by the Taliban to a military camp in the Afghan city of Bagram and underwent training in guns and explosives. He fled to Pakistan when US forces bombed the camp, and from there he returned to Turkey in 2002. He was arrested on Feb. 12, 2002 when he landed at the airport in Ankara from a connecting flight from Istanbul.
After the Erdoğan government came to power in November 2002, Polat and many radical Islamists were released from prison as part of an amnesty bill pushed through Parliament by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Polat continued to be active in al-Qaeda cells and joined a group led by Mehmet Yılmaz, a Turkish national also known as Khalid al-Turki, who was killed in Iraq’s Kirkuk in June 2007 in an operation by US forces. He was described by the US military as “a known terrorist and senior leader in al Qaeda who operated a cell that facilitated the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq for al Qaeda operations.”
Four suspects were killed in the armed clash that resulted in the murder of one police officer and the wounding of seven others. In total, 25 suspects were detained in the police operation. Polat was among the detainees when police found four rifles in his residence along with ammonium nitrate and other chemicals used for bomb making. He was later indicted along with 24 co-defendants whose names were listed as Ramazan Erkenov, Ahmet Yıldız, Müslüm Kılıç, İrfan Polat, İlker Gürban, Aytaç Polat, Hüseyin Işık, Coşkun Ayyıldız, Ali Karapolat, Mehmet Çınar and Yavuz Selim Çimen, Göktaş Durmuş, Mehmet Abdi Kartal, Hilmi Polat, Murat Özkılınç, Davut Yılmaz, Murat Kıraz, Erdal Sarıoğlu, Mehmet Polat, Müslüm Bozkurt, Ali Kara, Hasan Karalar, Zübeyir Çetin and Mithat Çulha. The public prosecutor demanded jail sentences ranging from seven to 16 years for the suspects on terrorism charges. Yet again, Polat and all the other suspects were released in January 2009.
Jihadist outfits Genç Muvahhidler and Ahsen-Der have not only been active across Turkey through various activities but are also involved in operations in Asian countries Bangladesh and Myanmar as well as African countries Cameroon and Uganda. On occasion they were joined by another controversial Turkish charity group called the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH), a government-backed aid and charity group that has been working closely with the Turkish spy agency, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), to facilitate jihadist terrorist groups. The IHH was named by Russia at the United Nation Security Council as an outfit that runs arms to Syrian jihadist groups.
It is clear that the Erdoğan government has been in bed with many jihadist groups, providing them a permissible environment, to say the least, and arming and funding them in the worst cases in order to promote extremist Islamist views both in Turkey and around the world. That explains why unsavory groups like Genç Muvahhidler and Ahsen-Der have been operating comfortably in Turkey. One day Erdoğan has to be held accountable for deliberately and systematically empowering all the known, notorious al-Qaeda and ISIL figures and unleashing them to do his own and his proxies’ dirty bidding.