As part of a nurturing campaign to raise an ideologically committed, new generation of religious zealots by Turkey’s Islamist rulers led by autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, radical groups have for some been infiltrating the nation’s main law enforcement agency, the police department, which is responsible for the safety and security of 79 percent of the country’s population, with the rest being protected by the gendarmerie and coast guard.
The massive purges that took place in the police force right after major corruption scandals erupted in December 2013 that uncovered Erdoğan’s deep involvement in graft as well as a January 2014 exposé on illegal arms shipments bound for radical groups in Syria have not only paralyzed the police but also pried the door wide open for the recruitment of radicals and Islamists to fill the void in the force. Veteran police chiefs who tracked all sorts of militant networks including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda were dismissed and subsequently arrested, while jailed leaders of radical groups including Abu Hanzala, al-Qaeda’s leader in Turkey, and Salih İzzet Erdiş, popularly known by his followers as commandant Salih Mirzabeyoğlu, the head of fundamentalist militant group the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders Front (İBDA/C or IBDA-C), were released.
With a special, fast-tracked, four-month-long program, Erdoğan brought in thousands of new recruits with a jihadist and xenophobic mindset to replace tens of thousands of police officers who were arbitrarily and summarily dismissed and arrested on false charges. This new generation of police officers was carefully groomed by Erdoğan, who often fired them up with rousing speeches that were heavily flavored with religious and nationalist symbolism. In fact, on the day an angry mob protested some 30 diplomats who wanted to honor victims of the Dec. 10 twin bombing attacks in Beşiktaş by visiting the scene and laying wreaths, Erdoğan was whipping up police at the Bayrampaşa riot police station, telling them how imperialist powers were trying to dismember Turkey. He was asking them to do everything in their power and promising them the state and the nation were fully behind the police.
Perhaps the Russian ambassador’s killer, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the riot police officer, was not in Bayrampaşa as he was assigned to Ankara. But he was likely to have been among those who were easily swayed by poisonous speeches from firebrand Islamist ruler Erdoğan. This 22-year-old hitman entered the police force in 2014 after Erdoğan’s mass purges of those who are believed to be sympathetic to interfaith dialogue advocate Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen and distant to radical religious groups. He must have been carefully vetted to make sure he had no affiliation whatsoever with the Hizmet movement inspired by Gülen’s teachings. The fact that he served many times in the protective detail that was assigned to President Erdoğan during his travels and rallies means he passed the screening by intelligence with flying colors. Reuters profiled the hitman by talking to his school buddies and neighbors, who described Altıntaş as introverted, antisocial and mostly keeping to himself. The killer’s tale points to a rather disturbing pattern in the transformation taking place in the most important force in Turkey.
Today, the police force has manpower of 265,391 under the command of the Interior Ministry. The gendarmerie and coast guard have 139,721 and 5,007 members, respectively. In addition, the government put 65,814 village guards on its payroll, predominantly in the southeastern part of Turkey, to help maintain security in the region mainly against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU. All these force units are controlled by Süleyman Soylu, a right-wing politician who later joined Erdoğan’s Islamist cause by leaving his own party. Soylu has been pictured posing with jihadist Emrah Çelik, who was fighting in Syria with the Nusra Front. Soylu revealed the latest figures for police in Parliament on Nov. 23, 2016. He said last year 4,000 cadets for special ops were accepted into the police school and that 2,500 high school graduates and 10,000 university graduates were recruited as police. What is more, the government is continuing to recruit an additional 10,000 high school graduates as special ops police. It allocated TL 23.5 billion ($6.7 billion) for the year 2017 to be used for the police department, an increase of 11.3 percent over the 2016 budget.
The manifestation of radical change in the police force has clearly been seen during the dirty and brutal clashes in Kurdish cities and towns since July 2015 where not only the police and military are involved in the conflict but also a new, hitherto unknown, special force called “Esedullah” (Lions of Allah) that suddenly emerged in cracking down on Kurdish neighborhoods. The term was first seen when journalists in September 2015 photographed graffiti in Cizre, a town in Turkey’s southeastern Şırnak province on the Iraqi and Iranian borders. The slogan sprayed on the wall in big letters said “Esedullah timi burada” (the Esedullah team is here) and was exposed after a curfew was lifted in Cizre. The same graffiti appeared in other Kurdish cities and towns that saw intense clashes.
The locals I talked to described this force as quite distinct from the regular police and military units that they used to know and said they appear to be heavily influenced by Islamist ideology with strong nationalistic tendencies. Some even suggested that they are more like ISIL or al-Qaeda-type militants dressed in Turkish fatigues. They are from the new recruits mostly accepted into riot and special ops units that use heavy equipment and high-caliber guns.
Many pictures have emerged from the scene showing Esedullah fighters spraying walls with Islamist slogans, chanting “God is Great” with index fingers pointing in the air like jihadists in Syria and Iraq. These unprecedented images and footage prompted both the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to file motions in Parliament asking the government for an explanation on Esedullah. The government, although obligated by law to respond within two weeks of filing, did not respond to these queries. The police department did not launch an investigation into these claims, either.
During the October 2014 anti-government protests in Turkey when the Syrian town Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) came under ISIL siege, a Turkish riot police officer in the Başkale district of the eastern province Van was recorded as chanting “Long live ISIL” as he pointed an index finger into the air. Several days later, a riot police unit stormed a university campus in Ankara to crack down on students who were protesting the Kobani events. All of them were seen pointing index fingers in the air. No probe was launched into these pictures, either. Rather, police chiefs who led riot police units and Esedullah teams in harsh clampdowns in many provinces of Turkey were rewarded and promoted by the government.
In heated parliamentary debates in a plenary session on Nov. 28, 2015, ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Kırıkkale deputy Ramazan Can owned up to the Esedullah teams and threatened Kurdish lawmakers. That prompted an outcry among Kurdish deputies, who said the government openly acknowledged the existence of this vicious faction in the region. The HDP deputies say Kurds who were victimized by this heavy-handed force described them as speaking in the Arabic and Azeri languages and having beards, making them quite distinct from the regular police and military units the Kurds used to know. When Kurdish lawmakers raised Esedullah with district governors and police chiefs, they were told Esedullah is operating under the direct command of the Turkish capital and that they have no control over them. Similar allegations were made in a main opposition CHP report as well.
These teams were also covered by a European Parliament resolution in the 2015 report on Turkey which said Parliament “Is dismayed by the actions of special operations police forces known as ‘Esedullah teams,’ which appear to be responsible for grave human rights violations, including the deliberate killing of civilians in the southeast of Turkey; demands a thorough investigation by the Turkish authorities into the actions of the ‘Esedullah teams,’ and full accountability and punishment of those guilty of human rights violations.”
All these developments point in the direction of a significant shift in the Turkish police that Erdoğan and his Islamist thugs are determinedly keen to encourage rather than to inoculate the nation’s most important law enforcement agency against radical ideologies and religious zealotry. Surely, Turkish leaders are not just appeasing fanatic groups in the force but are actively working to expand the presence of the jihadist mindset in the police. The jihadist remarks made in the 33-second-long video by the killer of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov shows he was undoubtedly a product of such a poisonous atmosphere created by Erdoğan’s indoctrination machinery. Particularly worrisome is that how many more in the police force are empowered to execute such acts is not known.