New Arrests Show Turkey as a Recruiting Ground for Islamist Militants

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 18

On May 30, Istanbul police arrested 11 people suspected of having links with al-Qaeda. The authorities reportedly discovered al-Qaeda-related documents and false passports and identity documents in houses belonging to the arrested men. Police officials reported that they believe those arrested were making preparations for attacks in Istanbul (Anatolia News Agency, May 30). This incident is just the latest in a series of events in recent years that point to an ongoing and active presence of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Turkey. The attacks that have occurred on Turkish soil and the types of materials seized by Turkish authorities suggest that the al-Qaeda presence comprises both operational and support cells.

The twin truck bomb attacks in Istanbul on November 15 and 20, 2003 marked a watershed for al-Qaeda’s efforts in Turkey. On November 15, two truck bombs detonated at the Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues, killing 27 and injuring 300 people, mostly Muslims. On November 20, two additional truck-borne devices detonated at the HSBC Bank and the British Consulate, killing 30 people, including the local ranking British official, and wounding 400 more people. While the total number of casualties in Istanbul did not approach those achieved by al-Qaeda in the August 7, 1998 twin bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, in Istanbul a total of almost 60 people were killed and approximately 700 were wounded. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the November 2003 attacks. Al-Qaeda’s responsibility was further confirmed by Turkish investigators and in the trial of suspects that ended with guilty verdicts in February 2007. One of the confessed Turkish ringleaders of the operations, Harun Ilhan, said in court: “I am not a theoretician of al-Qaeda. I am a warrior” (Anatolia News Agency, February 16). Syrian national Loa’i al-Saqa, the suspect who supposedly had a connection with al-Qaeda’s leadership, had been convicted in absentia previously by Jordan for his involvement, along with the late al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a failed poison gas attack in 2002 (BBC News, February 17).

Two other incidents, which received less media attention at the time, but, taken together with the 2003 bombings and the 2007 trial and its revelations, add considerably to the evidence that al-Qaeda has been and remains present in Turkey.

On May 3, 2004, Turkish authorities announced that they had foiled a plot by members of Ansar al-Islam to bomb a NATO summit in Istanbul at the end of June that was to be attended by world leaders including UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush. Sixteen men were arrested in Bursa, 160 miles south of Istanbul. The police seized guns, explosives, bomb-making booklets and 4,000 compact discs containing training instructions by Osama bin Laden. Charges against the 16 detainees released by Turkish authorities included the following: holding fake identity documents; plotting a bank robbery to raise funds for their operations; and having been involved in the manufacture of fake software, including computer games, to raise money. While all the citations were certainly of a type capable of supporting an operation aimed at the NATO Summit meeting or a synagogue attack that was also alleged by Turkish authorities, the ability to “host” a group’s members brought in at the last moment for an attack, the possession of numbers of false identity documents and the ability to raise funds locally are other hallmarks of support cells (Anatolia News Agency, May 4, 2004; NTV, May 4, 2004).

In December 2006, Turkish Police took 10 suspected al-Qaeda militants into custody in simultaneous raids in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, including an attorney who reportedly admitted that he was the group’s leader in Turkey. The authorities said that the group had been under surveillance for more than a year and that the raids were ordered after it was determined that the group had obtained the materials they needed to construct bombs. Included among the items seized by the police was what was reported to be a “Compact Disc Bomb,” which was designed to explode when played (Turkish Daily News, December 11, 2006).

Finally, on May 30, the latest plot was disrupted, netting 11 suspects who had alleged ties to al-Qaeda. Between the November 2003 operations in Istanbul and the trial of the perpetrators that concluded in 2007, arrests by Turkish authorities of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in 2004, 2006 and 2007 imply that al-Qaeda views Turkey as a fertile recruiting venue and as a choice location in which to strike Western targets. The continued unrest between Turks who prefer a secular environment and those who desire a country ruled solely by Islamic principles ensures that Turkey is susceptible to further turmoil in the years to come.