El Kaide Turka: Tracing an al-Qaeda Splinter Cell

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 22

The terrorist attacks of November 2003 marked a milestone in Turkey’s struggle against the forces of radical Islam. As the Turkish police and intelligence services broaden their investigation into the existence of a local terrorist cell that carried out the horrific bombings of the British consulate, as well as the HSBC bank and two synagogues, they have uncovered evidence of a home grown Islamist network of the sort utilized by al-Qaeda from Indonesia to Morocco. It is this indigenous extremist movement that has, like the radical Jamaah Islamia in Indonesia, or the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigade in Morocco, provided al-Qaeda with the opportunity to “farm out” its terrorism to like-minded regional extremist cells.

From Ataturk to al-Qaeda: Unraveling the Roots of Extremism in Turkey

To understand the emergence of a terrorist cell characterized in the Turkish press as El Kaide Turka (Turkish al-Qaeda) in a country known for its staunch Ataturkist secular constitution, it is important to explore the reintroduction of Islam into the Turkish public sphere under Turgut Ozal (Prime Minister 1983-1989 and President 1989-1993). In the early 1990s, Ozal, a market friendly reformer, inaugurated vast economic and political reforms which opened up the Ataturk system to liberalizing Western influences. In the process, Ozal, who was a devout Sufi Muslim with ties to the Naqshbandi Order, allowed politicized Islam to re-enter Turkish society.

The greatest threat to the Turkish state in the early 1990s came from the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (the PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which waged a deadly guerilla campaign in Turkey’s Kurdish areas. As a response to the threat of the PKK, the Ozal government played with fire by utilizing a newly emerging Islamic extremist group in south-eastern Turkey known as Turkish Hezbollah (a largely Sunni Islamist Turkish-Kurdish organization with no relation to the Shiite party in Lebanon of the same name) as a counter-terrorist force against the PKK. The extremist “blowback” threat that Hezbollah posed to its Turkish masters was graphically demonstrated in 2000 when its leader, Huseyn Velioglu, was killed in a shoot out with Turkish police who found scores of tortured bodies on the premises of his house. [1]

By this time, however, many less-outwardly threatening and legal organizations with a Salafite agenda, such as the Musluman Genclik (Muslim Youth) had become such an accepted part of mainstream Turkish society that they could not be dismantled easily. As the influence of the Salafites increased, several hundred devout Salafite Turks took advantage of the new lax environment in post-Ozal Turkey to partake in jihad in Bosnia and later in Chechnya.

Moreover hundreds of Turkish Islamists enrolled in Islamic universities in Pakistan after 1994. From there, many went on to Afghanistan to partake in a more “hands on education” at the numerous jihad camps in that country. Many of the Turks who trained with Kalishnikovs, C-4 explosives, and light artillery in these camps came under the tutelage of a Turkish trainer named Burhan Kus, and a Turkish religious scholar named Ali Uzum. Interestingly, the Turkish government made no real effort to detain or keep track of these Turkish radicals who often traveled to Afghanistan with their wives and children.

The Formation of a Turkish al-Qaeda Cell

By 2001, a group of the Turkish militants at the Khaldun Camp (near Khost) had coalesced around the leadership of an Emir named Habib Akdas, who eventually met with a member of al-Qaeda’s ruling troika, Abu Hafs al Masri (aka Muhammad Atef, later killed by a U.S. hellfire missile on November 15, 2001). [2] This meeting led to a subsequent meeting with bin Laden himself one week before the al-Qaeda attacks on 9/11. As punishment for Ankara’s “anti-Islamic” policies and ties to Israel and the U.S.A., Bin Laden recommended that the Turkish militants unleash bombing attacks on the U.S. airbase at Incirlik (Eastern Turkey) and on Israeli boats that docked at Turkey’s southern port of Mersin. [3]

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Habib Akdas and his followers returned to their home country in order to escape the anticipated U.S. led onslaught. Coalition forces subsequently found copies of the notorious al-Qaeda terror manual translated into Turkish in one of the camps in the Khost region which should have served as a warning to the Turkish authorities.

With ample training, $150,000 in “seed money” transferred to their group by Abu Hafs al Masri via Syria, and fanatical devotion to the concept of killing Jews, Americans, and other infidels, Habib Akdas and his followers were clearly a lurking threat. But they remained largely below the radar in Turkey as they worked carefully and patiently to plot their attacks.

For two years the terrorist cell patiently plotted its attack and worked to recruit and brainwash devout Turks who were angry at Turkey’s “anti-Islamic” policies to become suicide bombers. The al-Qaeda cell also revised its list of targets when the U.S. airbase at Incirlik and the U.S. consulate and embassy proved to be too well guarded, deciding to strike at “softer” British targets instead. These would eventually include the HSBC Bank and the British consulate. Israeli shipping at the port of Mersin was also passed over as a target when it was seen to be too heavily guarded and two of Istanbul’s most attended synagogues were targeted. [4]

By November 2003 the cell, which had set up a soap company as a front to disguise the fact that its members were amassing detergents for the production of bombs, had found four willing suicide bombers and the mission entered the final operational phase. After a group prayer, the lookouts and drivers parted ways to carry out their attack on Istanbul’s ancient Jewish community.

Jihadi Collateral Damage

On November 15, 2003, a Turkish lookout guarding the site of a crowded synagogue gave a coded “all clear” message via his cell phone to the two drivers targeting the Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Beyoglu, Istanbul. With the fateful words “yengeyi al, gel!” (take your mother-in-law and come!), the operative gave the all clear and walked away from the doomed synagogue. [5] As he did so, a blast wave coursed through the streets behind him even as another bomb went off almost simultaneously across town.

Five days later the other two suicide drivers drove their massive 500 kilo bombs into their British targets and the combined attacks killed over 60 people. Much to the dismay of the remaining cell members and anger of the Turkish people, however, the vast majority of those killed in the bombing spree were Muslim Turks. When informed of the “collateral damage” inflicted on Turkish Muslims, several of the team claimed to have felt deep remorse. A police investigation even found a bizarre coincidence when analyzing the DNA of those killed in the explosives. One of the suicide bombers was found to have killed a distant relative from Bulgaria who happened to be passing by one of the targets at the time of the explosion. [6] According to members of the team later arrested and interrogated by Turkish authorities, even the elusive Osama Bin bin Laden conveyed his disappointment with the unintended results of the clumsy attack.


As in many other countries similarly targeted by al-Qaeda, the carnage of November 2003 appears to have galvanized Turkish security services into clamping down on citizens who trained in the camps of Afghanistan or fought on the jihadi battlefields of Eurasia. In addition, scores of Turkish Islamists who lent support to the plotters were rounded up and detained even as Habib Akdas, the mission leader, escaped to Iraq to wage war against the Americans.

In the ultimate twist of fate, Akdas’ career as a jihadi in Iraq has proven to be short lived. Akdas was killed in much the same fashion as his al-Qaeda sponsor, Abu Hafs al Masri, when he was targeted by a U.S. air strike that eerily resembled the U.S. air forces’ killing of al Masri in 2001. [7]


1. “Huseyn Veligolu Olduruldu.” Ozgur Politika. January 19, 2000.

2. “HSBC Bank’a Sailiriyi Gerceklestidigi one surulen Habib Aktas, 8 yildir. Nethaber.com. Habib Akdas had overlaps with both Turkish Hezbollah and Turkish jihadists.

3. “Esler, El Kaide’nin bomba kuryesi cikti.” Millyet. Feb. 28. 2003. (www.millyet.com.tr)

4. “Ilk Bomba HSBC’ye.” Hurriyet. Nov. 21, 2003.

5. Mehmet Farac. El Kaide Turka. Ikiz Kuleler’den Galata’ya. Istanbul, Gunizi Yayincilik. 2004.

6. Mehmet Farac. El Kaide Turka

7. Habib Akdas may have joined up with Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s jihadi group in Iraq and is suspected of being involved in the beheading of Turks. “Ses Turk El Kaide’nin.” Sabah. August 4, 2004.