The northward moves by Kurdish rebels into Turkey in recent weeks and their bombings of Turkish military and civilian targets have been reported extensively, as have the consequent threats by the Turkish military to move into Iraq to bring about a halt to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacks. A firefight with U.S. forces in Iraq on June 23, however, has shed light on the hitherto lesser known southward flow of foreign fighters out of Turkey into Iraq and the role of Turkish al-Qaeda in overseeing that movement.
On June 23, as members of the Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I) approached a targeted building near Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad and south of Kirkuk, an area populated primarily by Kurds, four individuals entered a vehicle and attempted to leave the scene (MNF-I Statement, June 28). MNF-I forces followed the vehicle until it stopped and the occupants got out wielding weapons. A firefight ensued, in which all four were killed (Today’s Zaman, June 29). Rocket-propelled grenades were also found in the vehicle. Two of the men have been identified: Mehmet Yilmaz, characterized as a senior leader in al-Qaeda, whose nom de guerre was Khalid al-Turki, and Mehmet Resit Isik, a courier and a close associate of senior al-Qaeda leaders, also known as Khalil al-Turki (the appellation “al-Turki” carries with it the connotation of nationality or heritage, in this case, Turkey). The MNF-I statement said that the bodies of both men had been positively identified. Yilmaz—also identified through a photo comparison and a forged Iraqi personal identification card—had operated a cell that brought foreign fighters into Iraq (Reuters, June 28).
The history of Yilmaz’s involvement in al-Qaeda supports the description of him as a “senior” leader in the group. In 2001, an MNF-I statement said that Yilmaz led a group of Turks to fight in Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. and coalition invasion to oust the Taliban from power. He was wounded there and, while in Pakistan for treatment, was captured by Pakistani authorities and deported to Turkey. Without elaboration, the MNF-I statement acknowledged that Yilmaz was released by Turkish authorities in late 2005 and resumed his operations in support of al-Qaeda in 2006, this time in Iraq. Turkish authorities are said to be investigating several attacks in which Yilmaz may have been involved (Trendaz, June 28).
There are a number of implications for Turkey and others, including the United States, regarding the involvement in Turkish al-Qaeda of an individual with the depth and breadth of experience of Yilmaz. First and foremost, it reinforces the existing evidence seen in numerous instances across North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East that returning jihadis do, in fact, remain involved in the jihad and assume roles of increasing responsibility within al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. Yilmaz’s combat experiences, including that of being wounded, formed the foundation of and were the preparation for his latest role in Iraq. Those experiences parallel that of any number of other senior al-Qaeda operatives, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Mohammed Atef and Abu Zubaydah.
Secondly, the structure of the al-Qaeda organization near Turkey demonstrates even more clearly the multiple roles played by its members. The weapons and explosives are the province of the operational cells with the responsibility of carrying out attacks against both Turkish targets and non-Turkish targets within Turkey—for instance, the November 2003 attacks in Istanbul. The support cells such as those headed by Yilmaz, on the other hand, rely on Turkey as a source of recruits rather than directly attacking Turkish facilities and citizens; furthermore, they use the historic crossroads of Turkey as a way-station for recruits from beyond Turkey joining the jihad in Iraq against U.S. and coalition forces.
Additionally, estimates of the numbers of al-Qaeda members associated in various ways with Turkey should probably now be increased. In small start-up organizations, including terrorist groups, individual members perform a variety of functions. While compartmentalization is also a factor in the case of terrorist groups, Yilmaz’s apparently exclusive role as a facilitator, moving jihadis into Iraq, and the presence of an associated courier are signs of a more mature, larger organization. The separation of support cells from operational cells normally is evidenced only after an organization has grown in numbers over time and is a “luxury” that small groups simply cannot afford.
From al-Qaeda’s standpoint, the ideal solution would be finding another available Turk to step into Yilmaz’s role. The death of the courier Isik, a vetted Turkish member of al-Qaeda with local knowledge of Turkey and Iraq, complicates that succession problem for al-Qaeda. Similar qualifications of knowledge of the language and the region paired with a reputation as a jihadi of some standing will be difficult to replace in the short term. It is also possible that al-Qaeda may try to demonstrate its retaliatory power and resiliency by having Turkish al-Qaeda members attempt to carry out one or more attacks inside Turkey in the near future.
Definitive proof of cooperation between the PKK and Turkish al-Qaeda members must await the results of further investigation by Turkish, U.S. and coalition authorities. It is highly unlikely, however, that numbers of foreign fighters could move into and through northern Iraq and its numerous Kurdish villages on a continuing basis without at least the knowledge of the PKK, if not its complicity. Even more disturbingly, cooperation between the two Turkish foes carries with it the possibility that the PKK also assists Turkish al-Qaeda operatives inside Turkey, which can only increase the danger to Turkish citizens and visitors to Turkey.