In a recent report submitted to the country’s National Security Council (NSC), Turkish police warned that the most powerful militant Islamist group in recent Turkish history has now recovered from the killing of its founder and the arrest of a substantial proportion of its armed wing in a series of police raids in 2000-01. The report claimed that what became commonly known as the Turkish Hezbollah has built a formidable social powerbase in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country and once again begun to pose a serious threat to national security (Hürriyet, January 9).
The Turkish Hezbollah has no connection with any other radical organization with the same name . Until recently the Turkish Hezbollah preferred to refer to itself either as İlim, meaning “Science”—after the name of the bookshop where its members originally met—or simply as Cemaat, Turkish for “community.” It was only in 2004, when one of its members published a clandestine defense of its violent campaign under a pseudonym, when the organization first referred to itself as Hezbollah .
Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır by Hüseyin Velioğlu, an ethnic Kurd and former student activist. During the 1980s, members of the organization are known to have travelled frequently to Iran, where they received training in tradecraft and the use of weapons from elements in the Iranian intelligence services. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the Iranians tasked Hezbollah with any operations. In fact, Velioğlu appears to have run the organization as a highly centralized autocracy, making every decision himself and insisting that his subordinates present him with detailed reports on all of their activities.
Contemporaries describe Velioğlu—who is thought to have been born in 1952—as a poor public speaker with only a rudimentary knowledge of the subtleties of Islamic theology, although he compensated for such shortcomings with an unerring self-belief and a genius for organization. Velioğlu’s ultimate goal was the establishment of an Islamic state, which he envisaged as expanding from a base in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey to encompass the entire country. He believed that the process would comprise three distinct phases. First would come a period of propaganda and indoctrination, known as tebliğ, or “communication.” This would be followed by the consolidation of a popular base in society, which was known as cemaat, or “community.” The third and final stage would be jihad, in which the group would use its social powerbase to launch a violent campaign to overthrow the secular order and establish an Islamic state.
Hezbollah was divided into a political and military wing, each of which had a separate hierarchical structure reporting to Velioğlu himself. Most of the members of the political wing were active in the local community, often as teachers and imams. The military wing, however, was composed of full-time militants in a traditional, highly compartmentalized cell structure.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Turkish authorities ignored the organization’s propaganda activities in the Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey. At the time, the first insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was at its height and the Turkish security forces appear to have regarded the propagation of any form of Islam as providing an ideological bulwark against the PKK’s atheistic Marxism. Nor did they react when Velioğlu decided to initiate the jihad by targeting rival organizations in the region, starting with the PKK. In the early 1990s, Hezbollah is estimated to have killed over 400 PKK militants and played an important role in preventing the organization from supplementing its rural insurgency by establishing an effective urban cell network in southeastern Turkey. There is also evidence of occasional low-level collusion between elements in the security forces and members of Hezbollah, particularly in terms of identifying PKK militants and sympathizers as targets for assassination.
However, by the late 1990s, even if it had yet to start targeting the Turkish state itself, Hezbollah had expanded its influence to the point where Turkish security forces finally realized that it had become a major threat in its own right. After a series of raids on Hezbollah safe houses in southeastern Turkey in 1999, Velioğlu and the rest of the organization’s leadership relocated to Istanbul. On January 17, 2000, Velioğlu was killed during a police raid on a Turkish safe house in Beykoz, a suburb on the Asian shore of Istanbul.
It was only when the police began to sift through the organization’s computer archives in their safe houses that they finally realized just how powerful Hezbollah had become. The archives contained biographical details of 20,000 people who had applied to join the organization, including 4,000 members of its armed wing . No other recent radical Islamist organization in Turkey has ever had more than a few hundred members. In the safe houses the police also found hundreds of video cassettes of the torture and execution of people seized by the Turkish Hezbollah, mostly moderate Islamists, suspected informants or members of rival Islamist groups. Through 2000 and 2001, the police detained over 4,000 suspected members of the organization based on the information found in the safe houses. Yet, in conversation with Jamestown, members of the Turkish security forces admitted that the country’s jails simply did not have enough space for all of the organization’s members and that they had been forced to focus only on its leaders.
In addition to the damage to the Turkish Hezbollah’s networks, the death of Velioğlu and the mass arrests had a devastating psychological impact on the organization’s members. The majority had believed that they were carrying out a divine mission and that success was, in itself, proof of God’s approval. Although most continued to advocate the creation of an Islamic state, the killing of Velioğlu and the detention of thousands of militants represented an unequivocal defeat. Subsequent police interrogations suggested some militants subsequently began to wonder why they had lost divine support, with many concluding that it was Hezbollah’s methods, rather than its aims, which were to blame.
A handful of Velioğlu’s leading subordinates managed to avoid arrest. They are believed to have fled Turkey and gone into hiding among the Turkish Diaspora in Germany and the Netherlands. The Turkish police estimate that currently there are around 200 active Hezbollah members in Europe under the overall leadership of Isa Altsoy—born 1961—one of Velioğlu’s close associates . Nevertheless, with its networks crippled by the mass arrests, Hezbollah was widely believed to be a spent force inside Turkey by 2002. Although it has yet to return to violence, there is increasing evidence that Hezbollah has not only recovered but now has the potential to become even stronger than before.
Since 2002, the Hezbollah leadership appears to have concluded that Velioğlu’s decision to launch the jihad was premature and that the situation in Turkey was closer to the second of his three-stage process; namely, that of cemaat, or the establishment of a broad social base which could later be used as a platform for jihad.
In recent years, Hezbollah has concentrated on publishing and conducting social activities under the cover of NGOs. In its report to the NSC, the Turkish police singled out one such NGO, the İnsan Hakları ve Mustazaflarla Dayanısma Derneği (Association for Human Rights and Solidarity with the Oppressed, or Mustaza-Der), which it claimed was being used as a front for Hezbollah activities. Mustaza-Der was formally established in 2004 in Diyarbakır. In addition to publishing Islamist treatises, organizing religious discussion groups and hosting conferences, the association also provides socials services, such as distributing food to poorer members of the community. The first sign of its growing power came in April 2006, when it organized a rally of 80,000 people in Diyarbakır to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. In addition to its headquarters in Diyarbakır, Mustaza-Der has 16 branches and 19 representatives’ offices in Turkey, most of them concentrated in the southeast of the country. Recent reports from the region suggest that Mustaza-Der and other NGOs alleged to be affiliated with Hezbollah are continuing to grow in strength (Milliyet, December 18, 2007).
Mustaza-Der has been able to benefit from the attitude of denial about Hezbollah adopted by many non-violent Turkish Islamists. The vast majority are genuinely appalled by the violence attributed to militant Islamist groups both in Turkey and abroad and tend to prefer improbable conspiracy theories to accepting that violence and terrorism can be conducted in the name of a religion they associate with peace. In the case of Hezbollah, their doubts have been reinforced by the evidence that there was a degree of low-level collusion between militants and some members of the security forces in the early 1990s. The result is that many believe that Hezbollah never existed as an independent organization but was created and run by elements in the Turkish security forces as an instrument in their war against the PKK and other Islamist organizations.
Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor of the Islamist daily Zaman, was recently interviewed about Hezbollah. Zaman is run by supporters of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has consistently opposed violence in the name of Islam. According to Dumanlı, “There was a group that called itself Turkish Hezbollah that killed Turkish Muslims, but I, and many others, have doubts that they are Islamists because of the way that they selected their victims and carried out operations… I, as well as others, have suspicions about the organization and if there really is a Turkish organization affiliated to Hezbollah” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 14).
Yet, the evidence is overwhelming; whether it is the tens of thousands of pages of documents found on the organization’s computers, the confessions of arrested militants or the hundreds of video cassettes of Hezbollah interrogations and executions. In fact, both the computer archives and the video cassettes of interrogations make it clear that one of Velioğlu’s main priorities was trying to prevent penetration of the organization by the Turkish security forces, which often resulted in the execution of anyone suspected of working for the Turkish state.
However innocent the intention, there is no doubt that the climate of denial about Hezbollah in the Turkish Islamist community has enabled organizations such as Mustaza-Der to extend their influence to the point where the organization is once again well-established in southeastern Turkey. More ominously, publications associated with Hezbollah make no secret of their belief that a return to violent jihad remains an option; the only question is if or when the return will be made.
1. Hezbollah means “party of God” in Arabic.
2. I. Bagasi, Kendi Dilinden Hezbollah ve Mücadele Tarihinden Önemli Kesitler (Hezbollah in Its Own Words and Important Cross-Sections from the History of the Struggle), 2004.
2. In comparison, at the height of its power in the early 1990s, the PKK is estimated to have had 8,000 militants in the field, although for most of the PKK’s existence the figure has been closer to 5,000.
4. There has been speculation that Isa Altsoy is the real author of Kendi Dilinden Hezbollah ve Mücadele Tarihinden Önemli Kesitler.