The threat of al Qaeda in Turkey is significantly understudied, considering the nature and number of targets against which the terror group has plotted attacks, including many targets affiliated with the United States. Perhaps this is because the Turkish police are successful in thwarting such attacks; foiled plots are not as sensational as those that are carried out and cause tragedy. Or it could be because terror in Turkey has historically been synonymous with the terrorism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which distracts from the al Qaeda threat. It is also easy to dismiss Turkey as an unlikely target for al Qaeda, given its 99 percent Muslim population and currently Islamic-rooted government.
A look at al Qaeda’s targets, which appear to be concentrated on US, Turkish, British, Jewish, and Christian facilities, demonstrates the point. Plots involving American targets include a plan to attack the İncirlik Base in Adana in 2003; a foiled attack on the NATO summit in Istanbul in May 2004 that was to be attended by then-President George W. Bush; and an attack on the US Consulate in Istanbul in July 2008, which killed three policemen. In July 2011, an attack on the US Embassy in Ankara was thwarted just before Secretary of State Clinton’s visit. In April 2013, Turkish police found evidence of a new plot linked to al Qaeda to bomb the US Embassy in Ankara. As recently as May 2013, Turkish police uncovered a plot by the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front to conduct sarin gas attacks against Turkish and American targets, a relatively new phenomenon which appears to be a result of the spillover effects of the Syrian war into Turkey.
Other targets include suicide attacks on the British Consulate, the headquarters of British HSBC international bank, and two big synagogues in Istanbul in November 2003, which killed some 60 people and injured at least 700; a possible attack on the Pope during his visit to Turkey in November 2006; and a plot to attack the Bilderberg Summit in Istanbul in June 2007. Turkish authorities have also intercepted al Qaeda plans to conduct attacks on churches and clergy in Ankara, Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan after their takeover of the Kabul Regional Command in November 2009, the Turkish parliament building, and an Israeli cruise ship to Turkey.
These incidents suggest that the al Qaeda threat in Turkey persists. In fact, an al Qaeda-linked document found during a recent raid in Turkey said that it was more beneficial for the group to target Turkey than the West. Routine operations and mass arrests of suspected al Qaeda members and sympathizers indicate the presence of a support network for its cause within Turkey. These indications, combined with the recent emergence of jihadists in Syria, and the presence of Al Nusra Front elements along certain parts of Turkey’s 570-mile border with Syria, make this a threat worth examining.
There are challenges in trying to decipher the al Qaeda threat in Turkey, however. Reports based on open sources such as this one have to make analyses based only on the information that is available. The media does not give much attention to thwarted attacks. And the Turkish press does not publish names of people arrested, to protect the privacy of the individuals and investigations; instead, only the suspects’ initials are published. Moreover, many al Qaeda operatives have one or more code names. In addition, many of the details of operations or what they reveal is not reported. Nevertheless, some conclusions can still be made about the characteristics of al Qaeda in Turkey today.
2. WHY IS TURKEY A TARGET? HOW DOES AL QAEDA VIEW TURKEY?
Al Qaeda’s narrative on Turkey suggests that it views Turkey as a Muslim traitor that abolished the Caliphate at the end of the Ottoman Empire, which for al Qaeda marks the start of the “Muslim world’s humiliation and contempt over the last 80 years.” Al Qaeda views Turkey — a country with free elections and a liberal economy, a member of NATO, and a strategic ally of the United States — as a US or Western puppet. Turkey was also one of the first countries to recognize Israel, and takes part in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which leads al Qaeda to accuse Turkey of “cooperating with Israel” and “killing Muslims in Afghanistan.”
In the wake of the Arab Spring, al Qaeda appears to be particularly bothered by Turkey’s being hailed as a potential model for Muslim nations in the Middle East today. Turkey stands as an obstacle to al Qaeda’s plans to create polarization between Islam and the West. For example, Turkey’s participation in ISAF in Afghanistan undermines al Qaeda’s rhetoric that ISAF is a “crusader force.” Turkey’s tolerant interpretation of Islam is also directly opposed to al Qaeda’s interpretation, which calls for replacing existing governments in Muslim countries with a single Islamic state or Caliphate and the imposition of a strict form of government based on its specific interpretation of Islam. Al Qaeda calls the Turkish government an “apostate” one that does not adhere to the terror group’s definition of “true Islam.”
The organization has criticized Turkey’s cooperation with the US in fighting al Qaeda. The quote below is a good example of the kind of rhetoric the group uses regarding Turkey’s cooperation with the US. In a May 23, 2007 interview which aired on Al Jazeera, Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid, a senior al Qaeda official in Afghanistan, threatened Turkey after it was revealed that Ankara had handed over Abd Al-Hadi Al-Iral Qaedai, an al Qaeda operative, to the US:
Regarding the arrest of the heroic brother Abd Al-Hadi Al-Iral Qaedai…. He was on his way to Iraq…. He was arrested in Turkey and the puppet government in Turkey extradited him to the Americans…. Despite the fact that the brother Abd Al-Hadi had requested political asylum and the Turkish courts had agreed to grant it…. What freedom do they [the Turkish government] claim? What justice do they allege? And to what Islam do they belong? Their punishment from God and from the mujahedeen is coming, God willing.
Similarly, in July and August of 2010, al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the group’s second in command, warned Turkey twice, accusing it of collaborating with Israel and sending troops to Afghanistan, and killing Muslims in Afghanistan (even though Turkish forces do not participate in combat missions in ISAF). In a 20-minute Arabic video published online, he said, “The Turkish government shows sympathy with the Palestinians through statements or sending some relief aid, but actually recognizes Israel, engages in trade, carries out military training, and shares information with it.” He called on Turks to pressure their government to end relations with Israel. Quite interestingly, these warnings came following a severe deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel after the infamous Mavi Marmara incident.
On the other hand, with its 75 million Muslims, Turkey is also seen as a potential al Qaeda recruitment pool. The Turkish people’s proximity to and influence in Central Asia, along with their linguistic, religious, and ethnic affinities with Uzbeks and others in the region, make them a potential target audience for support and recruitment. A large Muslim diaspora in Germany also positions Turks as a recruitment source for other Islamist militant groups operating in Europe.
3. TURKEY’S 9/11: THE NOVEMBER 2003 ATTACKS
On Nov. 15, 2003, at 9:30 a.m., two trucks filled with explosives slammed into the Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Istanbul. The explosions devastated the synagogues and killed 24 people, most of them Turkish Muslims, and injured more than 300 others.
Five days later, on Nov. 20, 2003, at 10:55 a.m., two more simultaneous suicide attacks took place. An attack on the HSBC Bank Central Directorate in Istanbul killed the bomber and 15 others; five minutes later an attack against the British Consulate in Istanbul killed British Consul Roger Short and 34 others, and injured hundreds. The attacks came as then-US President George Bush was meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London.
These four attacks, which resonate as a 9/11 for Turks, marked the point at which the al Qaeda presence in Turkey became apparent to the world. Turkish police uncovered the organization quickly, and details of the operations and perpetrators emerged. The bombers had established a detergent company in Turkey six months prior to the attacks, and used it as a front to produce the 12 tons of chemical explosives used in the bombings. They had opened several cell phone stores in order to easily access SIM cards and establish cell phone communication with each other. They also had purchased four trucks, trained the drivers on the attack locations, and practiced the attack many times. The financing for all this, $150,000, had come from Osama bin Laden through a Syrian, Louai Sakka (a Turkish-speaking Syrian, with code name Aladdin).
During the planning stage, other targets were discussed, including the US Consulate in Istanbul (which was attacked five years later, in 2008); the Incirlik Air Base in Adana; and Israeli ships approaching Turkish ports. In fact, initially, the first suicide attack in Turkey was planned for Nov. 7, 2003 against an Israeli ship expected at a port in Alanya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. A follow-up attack was planned for the next day, with suicide bombings in two synagogues in Istanbul; and another attack was planned for one week later, with suicide bombings on the HSBC Central Branch in Istanbul. When the expected ship did not arrive in Alanya on that day, however, plans were postponed by a week.
4. AL QAEDA TARGETS TURKEY
The following is a list of all known al Qaeda targets in Turkey, and includes attacks that have been carried out as well as foiled plots.
• Nov. 15, 2003: Suicide bombers attacked two synagogues in Istanbul, killing 24 people and injuring more than 300.
• Nov. 20, 2003: Suicide bombers in Istanbul attacked the British Consulate and the HSBC Bank Central Branch, killing 34 people and injuring at least 400.
• March 9, 2004: Two suicide bombers attacked a Masonic Lodge in Istanbul, killing two people, including one of the suicide bombers.
• May 3, 2004: Turkish authorities thwarted a plot by the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Al-Islam to bomb a NATO summit in Istanbul at the end of June, which was to be attended by President George W. Bush.
• August 2005: A suspected member of al Qaeda, believed to be planning a terrorist attack against an Israeli cruise ship in Antalya, was arrested in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır.
• December 2006: Police arrested 10 people ahead of the Pope’s visit to Turkey, based on email exchanges of al Qaeda members they had been tracking. The organization had denounced the visit as part of a “crusader campaign” against Islam.
• May 30, 2007: Turkish police arrested 11 people in Istanbul who were allegedly planning to attack the Bilderberg Summit in Istanbul, a meeting of prominent statesmen and businessmen, sometimes referred to as “covert world government,” which took place from May 31 to June 3.
• April 1, 2008: Simultaneous raids in Istanbul, Gaziantep, and Hatay led to the arrests of 45 suspects, including one of the top leaders of al Qaeda in Turkey. The suspects were allegedly planning a high-profile attack.
• July 9, 2008: An attack on the US Consulate in Istanbul killed three police officers and three attackers.
• Jan. 15, 2010: Seven separate raids in Ankara and Adana revealed and foiled a plot to attack Turkish soldiers at the Kabul Regional Command in Afghanistan to protest Turkish soldiers’ taking over the command as part of ISAF in November 2009.
• July 13, 2011: Turkish police arrested 15 al Qaeda militants in Ankara, Yalova, and Bursa who had 1,550 pounds of bomb-making explosives, and prevented an attack against the US Embassy in Ankara just ahead of a visit to Turkey by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The indictment report revealed that they were also planning to attack Ankara’s churches and Christian clergy, as well as the Turkish Parliament. This foiled plot was speculated to be al Qaeda’s revenge for the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
• Feb. 27, 2013: In a counterterrorism operation against two cells, carried out by the Tekirdağ Police Department, 11 al Qaeda members with explosives were captured after reportedly planning to stage attacks on the US Consulate in Istanbul and a synagogue in Istanbul.
• April 2013: Based on the raid in February 2013, Turkish police also found evidence of a plot linked to al Qaeda to bomb the US Embassy in Ankara.
• May 2013: Seven members of the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusrah Front were detained after police found sarin gas, which was reportedly going to be used in a bomb attack against targets in Turkey, during a search of the suspects’ homes in Adana and Mersin.
5. BACKGROUND: RADICAL ISLAMIST COMMUNITIES IN TURKEY
According to a BBC report from January 2010, “[t]here are pockets of sympathy for jihadist Islam in parts of Turkey, numbering around 5000 Salafi Muslims.” This group “serves as a potential recruitment pool for al Qaeda operatives” notes a 2009 report in Eurasia Daily Monitor. Members of these communities have gone to Afghanistan and Pakistan for military training, and to Saudi Arabia for religious training. These groups include members who have fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, and Kashmir. The Salafist view sees Turkey as a country that is not ruled according to Islamic laws. Salafists do not believe in praying with an imam who is paid by the government, nor do they believe that the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) represents Muslims. They want to abolish the secular order, bring Islamic law (sharia), and spread the Salafi-Wahhabi version of Islam in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.
How did this demographic base emerge in Turkey? In a 2007 report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Turkish expert on Islamic movements Ruşen Çakır observes that it started in the 1970s, with the influence of the Egyptian Islamist theorist and author Sayyid Qutb. Subsequently, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran opened new horizons for Turkish Islamist ideology. Çakır notes that many young Islamists from Turkey visited Iran and then began to research ways of transforming Turkey into Iran when they returned. Under the influence of the Iranian regime’s strategy of “export of revolution,” books written by ayatollahs, particularly those of Khomeini, were translated into Turkish.
Çakır writes that the Islamist movement in Turkey started growing stronger in the 1980s, and that in 1983, Turkey transitioned to a democracy and opened up to the world both economically and culturally, allowing its citizens access to translated Islamic publications from around the world. Almost all books written by the world’s most prominent Islamic scholars from Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan were translated into Turkish during this period. However, military coups in Turkey prevented this movement from becoming fully politicized, thus forcing it to remain underground as it continued to grow. When al Qaeda emerged on the world stage in 1996-1998, it found a group of Turkish volunteers from within this demographic, which became the organization’s base in Turkey in 1999. A 2009 Jamestown Foundation report notes that most raids on al Qaeda in Turkey today take place in cities such as Gaziantep, Konya, or Istanbul, where Salafist communities live, “suggesting the existence of a relationship between al Qaeda members and the Salafi communities within Turkey.”
6. AL QAEDA’S ALLEGED LOCAL PARTNERS IN TURKEY
Three local groups in Turkey stand out as being (or having been) potential collaborators with or ‘subcontractors’ to al Qaeda in Turkey: the Turkish Hizballah; the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front (IBDA-C); and in the past, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department, while the other two are included in the State Department’s list of ‘Other Terrorist Groups.’
Turkish Hizballah (TH) is a Kurdish militant radical Islamist group in Turkey which, before going underground in January 2000, sought to set up an Islamic Kurdish state. It is comprised exclusively of Kurds, and has no known associations with the Hizballah organization in Lebanon. Some of the militants from the November 2003 attacks were linked to this group, and there is evidence that suggests a cooperative relationship between TH and al Qaeda operatives in Turkey in recent years. In 2008, police operations in Istanbul, Ankara, and Diyarbakır revealed that high-level TH leaders had cooperated with al Qaeda and had even sent some TH members to Afghanistan for training. Arrests in police raids against al Qaeda in Turkey reveal that many of its members are descendants of TH militants. One of the leaders of al Qaeda in Turkey, Halis Bayuncuk, was also the son of former TH member Haci Bayuncuk. In addition, Gaziantep, which has emerged as an important hub for al Qaeda activity in Turkey, serves also as a major operation center for TH. The US State Department has designated TH as a terrorist group.
It is unclear whether the TH urges its former militants to join forces with al Qaeda, or whether they join by individual choice. During a raid in April 2009, Turkish police discovered that the TH maintains operatives with knowledge of weapons and explosives whom it wants to install in the al Qaeda network.
Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front (IBDA-C)
The Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front (“İslami Büyükdoğu Akıncılar Cephesi” in Turkish, or IBDA-C) is an Islamist militant organization whose self-proclaimed goal is to create an Islamic federate state in the Middle East and reestablish the Caliphate. Like al Qaeda, IBDA-C considers the Turkish government illegal and has carried out acts of terrorism in Turkey in the past. This group initially claimed responsibility for the November 2003 attacks, but it quickly became apparent that the perpetrators were part of an al Qaeda cell in Turkey.
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)
Although the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and al Qaeda are not aligned ideologically, there have been claims that al Qaeda has courted the PKK to exploit its knowledge of Turkish security vulnerabilities. Al Qaeda’s Kurdish ally Ansar al Islam was based in the same mountains of northern Iraq where the PKK is based. While the geographic proximity and common enemy may have made such cooperation plausible in the past, it should be noted that this is no longer the case, given the PKK’s ceasefire and the peace process that is ongoing between the Turkish government and the group as of early 2013.
A 2004 article which appeared in the Turkish mass daily Sabah reported claims that al Qaeda was collaborating with the PKK, and noted: “Some groups from the PKK have started to collaborate with Al-Qaida. The alliance between the PKK and Al-Qaida is a nightmare which is getting stronger in northern Iraq.” It is also worth noting that around 2007, the PKK started adopting al Qaeda’s tactics, such as simultaneous attacks, suicide bombings, kidnappings, and the use of YouTube videos, suggesting possible cross-pollination between Kurdish insurgents and al Qaeda.
Some reports claim that al Qaeda-PKK cooperation lies behind the July 2008 attack on the US Consulate in Istanbul. Although security sources suggest the attack was carried out by al Qaeda, others noted that it was far from having the hallmarks of that organization. This triggered the intelligence services and security officials to question whether al Qaeda had the support of the PKK. Many alleged that the two organizations, under increasing pressure from both Turkish and American intelligence services, had a cooperative relationship in which al Qaeda had used the PKK as a “subcontractor.”
7. GAZIANTEP: AN IMPORTANT HUB
Operations against al Qaeda cells in Turkey reveal that Gaziantep, a city near Turkey’s border with Syria, is a logistical and military base for the group. It has also been a way station for al Qaeda militants traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan and, more recently, Syria.
Following the 9/11 attacks, a group of 20 militants departed from Gaziantep to Afghanistan to join the jihad. They were headed by Turkish militant Mehmet Yılmaz and his assistant, Mehmet Reşit Işık, who later resurfaced in Iraq, where the two men were killed by US forces in June 2007. Yılmaz had been facilitating the movement of foreign fighters to Iraq for al Qaeda operations, via the Gaziantep cell. Gaziantep was also a home base for militants returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. On Oct. 29, 2001, 14 militants who had fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan were captured in Gaziantep.
Writing about Islamic movements in Turkey, Ruşen Çakır discusses the importance of Gaziantep for al Qaeda militants heading to Iraq in 2008:
Al-Qaida prefers the Syrian route to Iraq. Those who cannot get to Syria directly, and who have connections to Al-Qaida, come to Turkey first. Then they go to Gaziantep and contact their Al-Qaida affiliates, and then they get to Syria through illegal ways, and on to Iraq. These include volunteer suicide bombers from Europe and professional teams who are directed to Iraq by Al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Gaziantep is also the only city where al Qaeda militants have responded with gunfire to Turkish police during a raid, suggesting their strength in that city. On Jan. 24, 2008, Turkish security units conducted an operation against an alleged al Qaeda cell in Gaziantep, amid reports that the cell was planning an operation of “sensational” proportions in Turkey. Suspected militants responded with gunfire to police calls to surrender, resulting in a firefight that led to the deaths of five militants and a policeman, along with the detention of 19 others.
Following the operation, codenamed “Ufuk” (Horizon), intelligence officials from the Gaziantep Anti-Terror Directorate interrogated the suspects and determined that the cell coordinated activities with other al Qaeda cells abroad. The officials further revealed that members of this cell frequently traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran with false passports. During these visits they had met with other al Qaeda militants, informed them of their activities in Turkey, and taken directions from them.
8. TURKEY AS PART OF AL QAEDA’S GLOBAL STRATEGY
Al Qaeda’s global strategy includes a phase that entailed an expansion into Turkey. The third phase of the group’s seven-phase global strategy, called the “Rising and Standing Up” phase, was to begin in 2007 and last until 2010. Militant activities in this phase were planned to concentrate on establishing an al Qaeda presence and influence in the “Land of Sham,” corresponding to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and northern Jordan. Developments and al Qaeda-related arrests in Turkey between December 2006 and June 2007 (which correspond to the early part of this phase) were consistent with this plan.
Between December 2006 and June 2007, Turkish police arrested over 100 people suspected of having links with al Qaeda, and seized fake documents, weapons, and training manuals related to the organization. An operation in Konya province in January 2007 discovered a villa being used as an al Qaeda base, which housed a school for Turkish children age 12 and under. The school’s activities included studying the Quran, and swearing to pursue martyrdom through daily recitations pledging “to give their lives for Shari’a [Islamic law] and being ready to rise to the level of martyrdom.” The school also had other sections for recruiting adults, and contained thousands of publications, along with weapons training videos and compact discs. The school’s existence demonstrated al Qaeda’s longterm goals in recruiting Turkish youth and adults.
Al Qaeda also debuted its Turkish-language website, Sehadetvakti.com (Time for Martyrdom), in early 2007 (the site went offline in mid-2012). Since then, a growing number of similar Turkish websites have emerged, which suggests an increase in Turkish involvement in jihadist activity.
The Time for Martyrdom website advocated a message of militant jihad, and featured an array of violent videos from established al Qaeda media organizations focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan. The website would routinely eulogize fighters killed in jihad and hold them up as role models for others.
9. CONCLUSION: THE MAIN CHARACTERISTICS OF AL QAEDA IN TURKEY
The following conclusions can be drawn based on the information known about al Qaeda in Turkey today.
• As Gareth Jenkins, a senior fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy’s Turkey Initiative, observes, there does not appear to be a Turkish “branch” of al Qaeda with a “country representative” at its head. Instead, the network appears to be run by a few people of similar hierarchical status in different regions. In fact, there are many different networks in the country, Jenkins says, “some of which are in contact with al Qaeda members outside Turkey and others who merely share the same goals but have no direct links.”
• Al Qaeda uses elements of local radical Islamist groups in Turkey, and appears to have links with Turkish Hizballah (TH). Some of TH’s members are thought to have regrouped under the al Qaeda movement in Turkey. Terror analysts have also alleged past links with the PKK through Ansar al Islam, a former Kurdish al Qaeda unit in northern Iraq near PKK bases.
• Al Qaeda’s plans in Turkey are more likely to be carried out in the organization’s name as the work of localized networks picking targets of opportunity that they identify, rather than being managed by a senior operational group in Afghanistan.
• Turkish security forces are very efficient in monitoring the activities of Islamist militants and successful in preventing attacks.
• Al Qaeda’s violent interpretation of Islam receives no public backing in historically secular Turkey. As Prof. Serhat Erkmen, an al Qaeda researcher notes, Turkey’s tolerant understanding of Islam provides a “natural immunization” against al Qaeda. This, coupled with the language barrier (most Turks do not speak Arabic), makes Turkey unlikely to ever become a strong al Qaeda base.
• Gaziantep, the largest city in the southeast, has been used as an important hub for militants traveling to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. Gaziantep is also a major operations center for TH.
• Iraq, an important activity area for al Qaeda, was also where al Qaeda members from Turkey would escape. Some of the main organizers of the attacks in Turkey escaped to Iraq via Gaziantep.
• Several Turkish al Qaeda militants have recently surfaced in Syria.
• As a result of the Syrian war, elements of the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front have surfaced in the border regions between Turkey and Syria, which can tap into the already existing al Qaeda network in Turkey.
• Al Qaeda is still targeting Turkey.
APPENDIX: CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF AL QAEDA PLOTS, ATTACKS, AND ARRESTS IN TURKEY
Nov. 15, 2003: Suicide bombers attacked two synagogues in Istanbul, killing 24 people and injuring more than 300.
Nov. 20, 2003: Suicide bombers in Istanbul attacked the British Consulate and the HSBC Bank Central Branch, killing 34 people and injuring at least 400.
March 9, 2004: Two suicide bombers attacked a Masonic lodge in Istanbul, killing one person and one of the suicide bombers.
May 3, 2004: Turkish authorities thwarted a plot by Ansar al Islam to bomb a NATO summit in Istanbul at the end of June that was to be attended by President George W. Bush.
August 2005: Syrian national Louai Sakka, (code name ‘Syrian Aladdin’), one of the masterminds of the November 2003 Istanbul attacks, was arrested under the false ID of Ekrem Özel in Diyarbakır on charges that he was preparing a bomb attack on Israeli ships arriving in Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
December 2006: Police arrested 10 suspected militants before the Pope’s visit to Turkey, after determining a potential threat based on email exchanges.
January 2007: In operations around the country, Turkish police arrested 48 people suspected of links with al Qaeda. In Konya province, this operation discovered a villa being used as an al Qaeda base which housed a school for Turkish children age 12 and under. The school’s activities included studying the Quran and swearing to pursue “martyrdom” through daily recitations, pledging “to give their lives for Shari’a [Islamic law], and being ready to rise to the level of martyrdom.” The school had other sections for recruiting adults, and contained thousands of publications, along with weapons training videos and compact discs.
May 30, 2007: Authorities arrested 11 people in Istanbul who were allegedly planning to attack the Bilderberg Summit in Istanbul, a meeting of prominent statesmen and businessmen, sometimes referred to as “covert world government,” that took place from May 31 to June 3.
June 23, 2007: Mehmet Yılmaz and Mehmet Reşit Işık, two Turkish al Qaeda members, were killed by Coalition forces in Baghdad, Iraq.
Dec. 29, 2007: Simultaneous raids in four Turkish cities resulted in the detention of 20 suspected al Qaeda militants. The raids took place in Aksaray, Adana, Ankara, and Istanbul after the Aksaray Gendarmerie Intelligence decided to preempt a planned attack by a sleeper cell in Aksaray that had been under surveillance for several years.
Dec. 31, 2007: An article in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth claimed that Israeli intelligence reports suggested al Qaeda cells in Turkey were preparing for an imminent attack against Israeli and US targets inside Turkey. Israeli institutions and companies in Turkey were issued warnings by the Israeli government.
Jan. 24, 2008: In several simultaneous raids, Turkish security forces arrested members of an al Qaeda cell in Gaziantep. Suspected militants responded with gunfire to police calls to surrender, resulting in a firefight which led to the deaths of four militants and the detention of 19 others.
April 1, 2008: Simultaneous raids in Istanbul, Gaziantep, and Hatay led to the arrests of 45 suspects, including one of the high-level members of al Qaeda in Turkey. The suspects were allegedly planning a large-scale attack to avenge the January 2008 operations against the Gaziantep cell, which had killed four terrorists, including Halis Bayuncuk, said to be one of the senior members of al Qaeda in Turkey. (He was the son of a former Hezbollah member, Hacı Bayuncuk.)
July 9, 2008: Three police officers and three attackers died during an attack on the US Consulate in Istanbul, in which four armed men drove a car up to the high-walled compound. The attackers then jumped out of the car and started firing at police at a guard post. The police officers fired back, killing three of the attackers, as bystanders ran for cover; at least one attacker escaped in the car.
April 9, 2009: Police arrested 28 suspects in Eskisehir. The Eskişehir cell was allegedly organizing discussion groups to recruit new members to its network.
April 22, 2009: Raids in Gaziantep, Konya, Adana, Kahramanmaraş, and Şanlıurfa resulted in the arrest of 37 suspected al Qaeda members believed to be planning attacks on Turkish soil.
Jan. 15, 2010: Seven separate raids in Ankara and Adana resulted in the capture of Ebubekir Aslan, allegedly a top al Qaeda Turkey leader; his assistant Ali Mert; and 30 others, who were reportedly preparing an attack on Turkish soldiers at the Kabul Regional Command in Afghanistan to protest Turkey’s taking over the command as part of ISAF in November 2009. (Turkey doubled its troop numbers to about 1,750 at that time.) Aslan had been trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was allegedly the organization’s Taifatul Mansura branch. Weapons, al Qaeda-linked documents, and fake IDs and passports were found. Police also found quantities of camouflage clothing to be sent to Serdar Elbaşı (code name Ebu Zer El Turki) in Afghanistan, who was allegedly al Qaeda Turkey’s leader in Afghanistan. Another theory was that they were plotting to kill Turkish soldiers in Adana or Ankara, or to murder police in Turkey.
Jan. 15-20, 2010: In countrywide operations, over 100 suspected al Qaeda militants were arrested, 17 of whom were detained for conducting al Qaeda-linked activities under the fake association NIDA-DER, producing fake IDs, and fundraising and recruiting fighters for al Qaeda.
April 2011: In Istanbul, 50 raids resulted in the arrest of 26-year-old Halis Bayancuk, considered one of the ringleaders of al Qaeda in Turkey, along with 42 others. He is the son of Hacı Bayancuk, a former leader of the Kurdish Hezbollah in Turkey. He had been sent to prison in 2008 but released in 2009. In Van, 10 others were arrested.
June 2011: Authorities arrested 10 suspected al Qaeda militants in Adana, home to the İncirlik Air Base, which is used by the US to transfer supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan.
July 13, 2011: Authorities arrested 15 al Qaeda militants in three cities (Ankara, Yalova, and Bursa), and seized 1,550 pounds of bomb-making explosives. The indictment report in December 2011 revealed that the militants were planning to attack Ankara’s churches and Christian clergy, as well as the Turkish Parliament and the US Embassy in Ankara, during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit. Documents found said, “It is more advantageous to wage jihad against Turkey than the United States.” Among the documents seized was a list of names and addresses of Christian clergy and church workers living in Ankara. This foiled plot was speculated to be al Qaeda’s revenge for the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Nov. 22, 2011: Authorities arrested 14 al Qaeda militants in Konya.
Dec. 9, 2011: Istanbul authorities confirmed that police were searching for three al Qaeda extremists and five others involved in stealing $3.5 million from a Turkish businessman’s account by using false identities and bribing bank employees. The group hoped to use the money to support the al Qaeda cause. This was the first “fiscal terrorism” operation in Turkey.
Dec. 14, 2011: Six militants were arrested in Izmir and Manisa, including group regional leader Erdal Akpınar. They were apparently working for the organization’s Turkish leader, Halis Bayuncuk, who had been arrested in April 2011.
Dec. 20, 2011: Authorities arrested 12 suspects in operations in 15 locations in Gaziantep.
June 2012: Authorities arrested 21 suspected al Qaeda members in operations in Bursa, Balıkesir, Gaziantep, and Yalova.
Aug. 3, 2012: Osman Karahan, publicly known as the lawyer defending al Qaeda members in Turkey, was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Karahan had defended Louai Sakka, a Turkish-speaking Syrian and one of the planners of the November 2003 attacks in Istanbul.
Aug. 16, 2012: Metin Ekinci was killed in Syria. One of the trucks used in the November 2003 attacks was registered under his name. He was the brother of suspected al Qaeda member Azad Ekinci, who was one of the planners of the November 2003 attacks. Azad has been wanted in connection with the attacks since then.
Aug. 18, 2012: Baki Yiğit, one of the main planners of the November 2003 attacks, was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Yiğit had been prosecuted for organizing the attacks and was known to have had personal contact with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He had been charged with being a member of al Qaeda, attempting to change the Turkish Constitution, and organizing a bomb attack on synagogues, HSBC bank, and the British Consulate, and had been sentenced to life in prison in February 2007. He was released on Oct. 12, 2010 based on time served, however, and was not prohibited from traveling outside the country.
Aug. 30, 2012: Authorities arrested 13 suspected al Qaeda militants in Kocaeli.
Feb. 27, 2013: In a counterterrorism operation carried out by the Tekirdağ Police Department against two cells, 11 al Qaeda members were captured with explosives after reportedly planning to stage attacks in Istanbul on the US Consulate, a church, and a synagogue.
April 10, 2013: Based on the raid in February 2013, Turkish police also found evidence of an al Qaeda plot to bomb the US Embassy in Ankara.
April 15, 2013: An antiterrorism operation against an al Qaeda cell in in Konya led to the arrest of 10 suspects on charges that they were funneling weapons to the Syrian opposition and recruiting members to send to Syria.
May 30, 2013: Seven members of the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusrah Front were detained after police found sarin gas, which was reportedly going to be used in a bomb attack against targets in Turkey, during a search of the suspects’ homes in Adana and Mersin.
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