A firefight with U.S. military forces on June 23 near the town of Hawija in northern Iraq exposed the presence of Turkish al-Qaeda operatives. It also revealed their probable role in facilitating a flow of jihadis to Al-Qaeda in Iraq on behalf of al-Qaeda, as well as the identities of two of the operatives and their backgrounds and roles (Terrorism Focus, July 10; MNF-I Statement, June 28). Additional details provided since that time as a result of the continuing investigation by U.S. military authorities serve to reinforce the validity of the implications reported in Terrorism Focus on July 10. The identity of a third individual, Ahmed Sancar (also known as Khattab al-Turki), killed in the June 23 firefight south of Kirkuk, has been announced by U.S. military officials (TurkishPress.com, July 20). Sancar, also Turkish, was characterized by the U.S. military as a “senior” leader in al-Qaeda, and as a “key” financier and facilitator for the group. In a significant finding, the cell’s leader, Mehmet Yilmaz (also known as Khalid al-Turki), was said to be a “close” associate of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. These conclusions continue to reinforce the magnitude of the loss suffered by al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Turkish al-Qaeda organization in the June 23 firefight. These revelations also highlight the difficulty that al-Qaeda will have in replacing the Yilmaz cell in order to restore the flow of jihadis into Iraq from the north to its previous rate.
The loss to al-Qaeda is clearly greater than previously known—there were at least three cell members killed, two of whom are characterized as “senior” leaders; the fourth individual—as yet unidentified—who also participated in the firefight with U.S. military forces can be judged by his actions to also be a cell member. The death of Yilmaz, already known to be a senior jihadi whose combat experience dates to leading a group in al-Qaeda’s anti-coalition operations in 2001 in Afghanistan, is further magnified by his identification as a close associate with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. The group simultaneously lost Sancar, while a third killed member, Mehmet Resit Isik (also known as Khalil al-Turki), operated as the cell’s courier, another key role in the operations of a cell such as this one.
The added identification of Yilmaz as being a “close” associate of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad cements even more strongly the long-posited organizational connection between al-Qaeda and operatives in Turkey as well as to the conflict in Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s presence in Turkey was clearly evident as early as the twin Istanbul attacks of November 2003 and continues through the most recent arrests of al-Qaeda suspects by Istanbul police on May 30 (Terrorism Focus, June 12). To be “close” to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, in turn a very high-ranking al-Qaeda member known personally by Abdullah Azzam (Osama bin Laden’s one-time spiritual mentor), the former head of al-Qaeda military operations, Mohammed Atef, and to bin Laden himself, places Mehmet Yilmaz at the higher rungs of al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda’s focus on the war in Iraq has been amply demonstrated, of course, in the multiple pronouncements since 2003 by both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and were reinforced with the designation of senior al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as its point man on the scene. Deploying at least two additional top operatives to a single operation in northern Iraq such as Yilmaz’s cell demonstrates further the importance that al-Qaeda places on its hopes for success in the Iraq theater of operation.
The number of identified Turkish al-Qaeda members reinforces the assertion that the number of Turkish al-Qaeda members is likely larger than previously believed; this is despite the inroads made by Turkish authorities in recent years. Al-Qaeda, true to its long-standing credo of compartmentalizing its operations to hinder or prevent counter-terrorist successes, has likely established multiple branches and cells inside Turkey and the surrounding region, including the largely Kurdish northern Iraq. As a corollary, the on-scene presence of Sancar and his role as a financier provide additional support to the belief that al-Qaeda in Turkey has expanded to a size that permits the group to assign operational roles to cell members according to the management principle of specialization by function versus having all members perform all roles as is generally noted in smaller terrorist groups.
Taken together, these emerging details portray a situation facing Turkey that is increasingly worrisome and, in the longer term, potentially more formidable than the threat from the military standoff with the PKK, the latter a problem that ebbs and flows annually and one that Turkey has demonstrated in the past that it can mitigate with its military forces. The presence and the organizational abilities of al-Qaeda—demonstrated in abundance in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines, the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe (even the United States)—unless countered effectively repeatedly, will only grow stronger over time.