As in many recent cases involving Jihadists and radical militants, it came as no surprise to trace the footprints of Turkish intelligence in the ISIL suicide attack that killed three Israeli and one Iranian tourists on March 19, 2016 in İstanbul’s bustling hot spot, İstiklal Street, before the building of Greece Consulate.
The facial recognition and DNA evidence indicated that the heinous attack was perpetrated by 24-year old Turkish national named Mehmet Öztürk (born in 1992 in Gaziantep) who was described as withdrawn and reclusive by his family members. The bomber did frequently attend to meetings held by Muslim Youth Association (Müslüman Gençler Derneği) at a place located in Şehit Kamil district of Turkey’s Gaziantep, a southeastern province that is known as a hotbed for Jihadists and that is run by the Islamist ruling party AKP mayor Fatma Şahin.
The family of Öztürk says Mehmet Öztürk’s behavior visibly changed starting in 2014 after he had started going to this place. He refused to pray in mosques managed by the government religious directorate affairs (Diyanet), stopped using mobile phone, did not like watching TV or listening the music. His psych and social profile point out that he was the perfect candidate for the ISIL to recruit and have him join the ranks of trained suicide bombers.
The bomber had been operating as part of the cell run by Nusret Yılmaz out of Gaziantep under the watch of government agencies and intelligence services. The group is the mastermind of not only Beyoğlu attack but also the deadliest terror attack that has ever taken place in Turkey, which killed 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, weeks ahead of the Nov. 1, 2015 snap elections.
The body of evidence made public after the attacks demonstrated that Öztürk and others operating in Turkish ISIL’s Nusret Yılmaz group have been known to the Turkish intelligence and have been monitored, surveilled and wiretapped closely at least since 2012. Yet, none of their operatives were arrested, convicted and faced a through, effective and successful prosecution by the criminal justice system. Brief detention of some militants took place before ISIL struck with suicide bombers and some who got implicated in terror attacks including number one suspects were let go after the bombings happened.
The indictment filed with respect to the Ankara train station attack included a secret intel document by Turkey’s notorious National Intelligence Organization (MİT) which confirms the long-held view that Turkish government knew all along the militants who were organized on the independent cell-based networks that were maintained by the ISIL. That included leaders, traffickers, smugglers and recruits. The five-pages document, prepared on September 2015 and distributed to all police departments across Turkey, Nusret Yılmaz group in Gaziantep was identified as leading the ISIL company in the conservative province.
Öztürk went to Syria in 2013 and returned to Turkey in late 2015 by crossing the border at Elbeyli district of border province Kilis. He kept working with ISIL network upon his return. He was flagged and profiled by the MİT as a person who is supportive of terror groups in Turkey. His intelligence file included his full name, travels to Syria, passport photos and acquaintances who were also identified as affiliated with ISIL network. In fact, when Öztürk blew himself up and killed foreign tourists in the center of İstanbul, MİT was the first agency to identify his remains from facial figures that matched to the one kept in the confidential files of the intelligence agency. The police intelligence took him for somebody else until the DNA testing matched from the sample taken from Öztürk’s parents.
It was clear the MİT knew him, yet, how he had somehow managed to make a 1257-km long trip from Adıyaman province in the southeast to İstanbul by wearing explosives without drawing any attention to law enforcement and intelligence services remains to be a mystery. The CCTV camera records show he went to the bus station in Adıyaman to purchase the ticket on March 18, 2016 at 16:44 hours while he was packing the explosive vest under his coat. After 13-hours on the bus, he arrived to İstanbul on March 19. Then, he got on the subway to get to Fatih district. From there, he used a cab to go directly to Taksim where he got off at the underpass. He proceeded directly to İstiklal street, located the Israeli tourist target before the building of Greek Consulate and pulled the switch by putting his hand in his pocket and triggered the explosion. It was like a clock work and he knew what he was doing.
The target and location was not random and the bomber is believed to be guided by handlers and/or spotters until the moment he decided to blow himself up. The footages also showed he made a similar trip on March 16 to scout the area and conduct the surveillance of possible targets before returning to Adıyaman to pick up the bomb. The suicide vest was packed with TNT and ammonium nitrate and killed three Israeli citizens identified as 60-year-old Simha Simon Demri, 40 year-old Yonathan Suher and 70-year-old Avaham Godman, along with an Iranian, 31-year-old Ali Rıza Khalman. 44 people were injured in the attack including 24 foreign nationals from various countries like Ireland, Germany, Iceland and others.
Five suspects — Hüseyin Kaya, Erkan Çapkın, Ercan Çapkın, İbrahim Güler and Mehmet Mustafa Çevik — have been identified as suspects in connection with the attack. They were all detained and formally arrested by the court pending trial. The indictment asked six consecutive life sentences for suspects Kaya and Çapkın brothers on one count of ‘attempting to destroy the constitutional order of Turkish Republic’ and five counts of “murder.” They also face various sentences on 44 counts for attempting to murder, being administrators in a terror organization, possessing dangerous explosives, and threats to public security. Çevik and Gürler face up to 15-year jail time on charges of membership to a terror group if they got convicted. Police found two explosive-laden suicide vests buried in the ground during a raid to the farm house in Gaziantep and believe Çevik and Gürler were groomed to be suicide bombers as well.
Despite serious charges, the İstanbul No.23 High Criminal Court decided to release Erkan Çapkın on health grounds during the trial hearing held on March 9, 2017. Erkan Çapkın denied all charges in his testimony to the court and he was let go while so many political detainees in Turkey with serious health conditions were denied from release. His brother Ercan Çapkın admitted his involvement in the lease of the farm house to ISIL militants although he said he did not know the bomber Mehmet Öztürk and other suspects in the case. None of the suspects were physically present in the courtroom during the hearing and they were linked to the court through video feed from the jail cells using the communication system called SEGBİS.
This fits the pattern we have seen in all the other high-profile ISIL cases where suspects often release in trial hearings. It is clear that the current Turkish government, run by Islamist zealots, has been turning a blind eye to Jihadist networks in Turkey since 2011 when Arab revolutions started. Erdoğan’s government even helped, financed and armed Jihadists including al-Qaeda and ISIL militants to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime and replace him with a proxy Islamist regime. For that, ISIL and al-Qaeda cells were allowed to operate in raising militants, trafficking fighters, procuring logistical supplies and arms in and through Turkey. All this nasty and dirty clandestine business has been going on under the protection of Turkish intelligence agency MİT. The courts, tightly controlled by Erdogan regime, has been releasing detained Jihadists after brief detentions because of this policy by Erdoğan government.
Turkish government knew pretty much all Jihadist operatives, tracked their movements, wiretapped their communications and monitored their activities closely. A cache of documents found among digital archives that were seized from Yunus Durmaz, the senior ISIL operative in the country, during the police raid on ISIL safe house in Gaziantep’s Şehit Kamil district on May 2016, revealed how ISIL planned attacks on foreign tourists. For example, in a document titled WRD0904.TMP.DOCX, Durmaz recorded his exchanges with the ISIL Emir in Syria which revealed his endeavors to seek the approval of his plans targeting Jews and Christians by the higher-up in ISIL command structure. In another document titled haci.docx, he promises to find out meeting places attended by Jews and Christians.
The letters show that his requests were approved by ISIL that instructed him to find touristic targets that have more foreigners than Turks. In the document, titled Dek.docx.DOCX, ISIL Emir said “the point where you are going to stage the attack must be a venue frequented by Europeans and not attended by Turks,” the order said. In the document, titled ahagenegeldi.docx, the ISIL Emir talks about air strikes against Jihadists in Syria and complains about the heavy causalities they sustained. He asked Turkish operative Durmaz to stage suicide attacks on touristic target to raise the morale of ISIL militants in Syria and take a revenge on the enemy. Upon the approval, Durmaz said he sent militants to identify targets in touristic places.
Turkish intelligence was aware of these activities while ISIL militants were scrambled to organize attacks with known Jihadists and their handlers and enablers. For example, according to the testimony by ISIL suspect Ersen Çelik (a.k.a. Ebu Musa, born in 1987 in Turkey’s western province Denizli) who told the police in Gaziantep on August 8, 2015 during his detention that the MİT knew all the suicide bombers in Turkey. Çelik who spent some time in both al-Qaeda group Nusra Front and ISIL network in Syria since 2012 said in his deposition that he informed both the MİT and police anti-terror unit in Ankara about the names of suicide bombers while he was working in Syria. He said the WhatsApp chats with intelligence officers are still recorded in his phone.
Çelik went to Syria in 2012 to fight in the ranks of Nusra Front and returned to Turkey in 2014 to shop for drones for the use of the Jihadist group. He spent six months in Turkey’s southeastern province Adana before returning to Manbij areas to join the ISIL. He is a musician and tach-savvy guy that was promoted to Emir position in handling surveillance, electronic monitoring activities for the ISIL. He bought two drones in İstanbul at a cost of $50,000 and helped ISIL set up electronic monitoring center in Aleppo. When he came back to Gaziantep, he was detained on August 6, 2015. The indictment asks upto 15 year jail time for him. His case is still pending.
Ersen’s parents informed the police about him when he also took his 13-year old brother E.Ç. to Syria in one of his trips during the summer of 2014. İlyas Çelik, his father, said his son married to an Arab woman in Syria and had a kid from the marriage. He said Ersen used to come home three to four months intervals, told his parents that he fought for ISIL, rebels and worked for charity group in Syria. The father said he petitioned to the police, prosecutor’s office and the governor’s office about retrieving his sons from Syria but his efforts remained futile.
All these documents, testimonials and official court proceedings suggest a pattern by which ISIL and al-Qaeda networks have been mushrooming in Turkey with the full knowledge and at times with the help of Turkish intelligence service MİT. For political gains, Erdoğan appears to have been directing the intel services to facilitate, enable and empower Jihadist enterprise while thwarting the criminal justice system from cracking down hard on the detained suspects. That is why hundreds of ISIL and al-Qaeda suspects were released after brief detentions in Turkey while 264 journalists were locked away on trumped up charges because of their critical writings and comments on despotic Erdoğan regime.