Turkey in Denial of al-Qaeda Threat

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 2

Aftermath of 2003 Istanbul Synagogues Bombing

While the Turkish government would describe itself as a full participant in the “War on Terrorism,” there is a tendency by the public to view this conflict primarily as a struggle against Kurdish militants, and only to a lesser extent against al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, two recent events have linked Turkey and al-Qaeda. First, according to a story in an Israeli daily, Israeli intelligence recently warned of a possible terrorist strike by al-Qaeda operatives against Israeli institutions in Turkey (Yedioth Ahronoth, December 31, 2007). Second, in the central Anatolian city of Aksaray, Turkish authorities took 19 people into custody that were suspected of links with al-Qaeda; five members of this group were later arrested (Today’s Zaman, December 30, 2007).

It is not yet clear whether the Israeli intelligence reports were accurate, though it is known that al-Qaeda has previously planned attacks against Israeli targets in Turkey. Al-Qaeda operatives who carried out simultaneous suicide car bombings against the Neve Shalom and Beth Israel Synagogues in Istanbul on the morning of November 15, 2003, considered their targets to be Israeli rather than Turkish, even though the 27 initial victims were largely Turkish Muslims. At his court hearing, Harun Ilhan—a top member of a Turkish al-Qaeda cell and the mastermind of the Beth Israel bombing—described Israel as the state of all Jews, Judaism as “Zionism under the guise of religion,” and clearly stated that the synagogue bombings were meant as a message to Israel [1].

Five days later, on November 20, 2003, the same al-Qaeda cell detonated two additional trucks at the HSBC Bank headquarters and the British Consulate in Istanbul. Further investigations revealed that Turkish militants in al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan had organized a cell before 9/11, that the Istanbul bombings were ordered directly by Osama bin Laden and that preparations for these bombings were carried out under the guidance of Muhammad Atef—also known as Abu Hafs al-Misri—then leader of al-Qaeda’s military wing.

Initially, Atef assigned two targets for the Turkish militants: the Incirlik Air Base in Adana and an Israeli tourist ship traveling to the southern port of Antalya. The militants decided that it was impossible to stage an assault on Incirlik, and postponed an attack upon the Israeli cruise ship due to a lack of intelligence.

Two years after the Istanbul bombings, Louai Muhammad Hajj Bakr al-Saqa—an al-Qaeda operative of Syrian origin—was arrested after a failed plot to attack an Israeli cruise ship near Antalya. The court accused al-Saqa of preparing for the operation by purchasing a €6,000 yacht called Tufan that was to be filled with explosives, making a $60,000 down payment on a villa in Antalya’s Beldibi district worth $350,000 and obtaining a diver’s submersible sea-scooter. The plot was foiled when al-Saqa and a Syrian accomplice were arrested after a bomb accidentally exploded in an Antalya safe house they were working in. When it became obvious that al-Saqa—who could easily pass as Turkish due to his fluency in the language—played a key role in al-Qaeda’s operations in Iraq, many began to think that the terrorist organization had set a goal to hit Israeli targets in Turkey (al-Jazeera, February 15, 2007).

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, al-Qaeda is likely to have infiltrated Turkey with some of its operatives for this attack. Even though al-Qaeda has so far never staged an attack on Turkish soil using non-Turkish operatives, the al-Saqa incident shows that it would be possible. Moreover, the 2003 Istanbul bombings demonstrate that the network has the capacity to recruit militants within Turkey, primarily due to the growth of radical Islam there since the 1980s. Over the years, many Turkish youth have volunteered to fight with Islamist groups in areas such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and Ogaden [2]; in so doing, some have developed a close relationship with al-Qaeda.

Following the U.S. occupation of Iraq, there was a steady outflow of Turkish volunteers ready to fight in the Iraqi insurgency. Newspapers often report stories of Turkish nationals who die in suicide attacks or in armed combat. For instance, Habib Akdaş—the ringleader of the Istanbul bombings—was reportedly killed in a U.S. bombardment of al-Anbar province in September 2004 (info-turc.org, September 13, 2004). Similarly, it is claimed that Gürcan Baç, another leading member of al-Qaeda, died in a clash in Fallujah in 2005 (Hürriyet, February 15, 2005). Lastly, a U.S. Army spokesperson announced the deaths of Mehmet Yılmaz and Mehmet Reşit Işık in Iraq’s Hawiya region in June 2007. The spokesperson stated that these individuals helped foreign activists enter Iraq through Turkey. Yılmaz, also known as “Halid al-Turki,” was a top leader of the organization while Işık was his deputy (kerkuk.net, June 29, 2007). Another report revealed that two Turkish al-Qaeda militants, Sadettin Akdaş—the brother of Habib Akdaş, who is suspected of plotting the Istanbul bombings—and Burhan Kuş, escaped from the Abu Ghraib prison in April 2007 (Hürriyet, November 21, 2007).

In the wake of the Istanbul bombings, groups linked to or inspired by al-Qaeda have been the target of greater scrutiny by intelligence organizations. However, as is the case in many parts of the world, it is much harder to trace small groups that have no direct link to al-Qaeda than larger, better organized movements. For example, on March 9, 2004, two Islamist youths—Nihat Doğruel and Engin Vural—independently sought to bomb 40 Masons congregating in the Masonic Lodge in Istanbul’s Kartal district; Masons are considered to be pro-Zionist by many Turkish Islamists. Security prevented the two from deploying the bomb properly and, as a result, only Doğruel and a waiter were killed, while Vural was wounded and arrested. The activists had no direct connection with al-Qaeda, but were clearly inspired by the network (Hürriyet, March 12, 2004).

Far from being professional militants, Turks influenced by al-Qaeda are generally ordinary citizens. One of the suspects arrested in Aksaray was a high school English teacher, and the other four were also employed and socially integrated individuals. It might also be worth noting that one of these bombers—Ilyas Kuncak—had grandchildren. Al-Qaeda-style militancy in Turkey continues to attract individuals outside the usual profile of young, single, unemployed/underemployed youths.

Personal information of militants involved in November 2003 bombings and the Masonic Lodge attacks

Name – Attack – Where from – Age – Profession – Marital Status

Gökhan Elaltuntaş – Neve Shalom – Bingöl – 22 – Student – Single (Engaged)

Mesut Çabuk – Beth Israel – Bingöl – 23 – Unemployed – Married

İlyas Kuncak – HSBC – Ankara – 47 – Tradesman – Married

Feridun Uğurlu – British Embassy – Eskişehir – 27 – Worker – Married

Engin Vural – Masonic Lodge – Kırşehir – 33 – Technician – Married

Nihat Doğruel – Masonic Lodge – Ankara – 26 – Self-employed – Married (wife 7 months pregnant)

How Turkish public opinion views al-Qaeda

Turkey has witnessed attacks by a variety of terrorist organizations for many years. Its intelligence services and security forces are therefore well-equipped and well-experienced in counterterrorism. Yet for several reasons, Turkey is ill-prepared for a potential fight against al-Qaeda:

1. Turkish counterterrorism is overwhelmingly focused on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This organization has carried out armed offensives against Turkish authorities since August 1984, and revoked its latest ceasefire in 2004. Over the past six months the overwhelming majority of Turkey’s security resources have been poured into efforts to liquidate the PKK.

2. Turkish public opinion remains unconvinced of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Some believe that this organization does not exist, having been fabricated for manipulative purposes by countries such as the United States and Israel. Others accept that al-Qaeda is real, though do not view it as an organization countering U.S. and Israeli hegemony, but rather as a tool used by these countries to colonize the Middle East.

3. With Turkish-U.S. relations strained as never before, a larger number of Turks are inclined to sympathize—or at least empathize—with al-Qaeda’s stated goal of combating U.S. policies.

4. Turks do not see themselves as the primary target of al-Qaeda. The Turkish public did not react to the 2003 Istanbul bombings in the way the general public in Madrid and London did to the terrorist attacks that they sustained. Many believe that it is impossible for al-Qaeda to target Turkey, especially as the country is run by a party with Islamist roots. Others subscribe to the theory that al-Qaeda did not, in fact, target Turkey in November 2003. According to this view, the intended victims of the synagogue bombings were Jews, and therefore a “concern” of Israel, even though the victims were Turkish rather than Israeli citizens. Similarly, attacks against the British Consulate and HSBC Bank have been dismissed as attacks upon Britain, though again, most of those killed were actually Turks.

The enforced exclusion of Islamic movements from the political process in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes across the Middle East makes al-Qaeda’s job easier, while Turkey has managed to integrate Islamic movements into its political structure. The fact that the Islam-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power through legitimate elections and has been able to remain in power is testament to this fact.

Yet there is nothing more logical than for al-Qaeda to target Turkey on ideological grounds, since—of all the countries in the Islamic world—Turkey is the most modern, secular and interconnected with the West. It is also the only major Islamic country with the potential to join the European Union (EU). These characteristics render Turkey a potential antithesis to the view of Islam endorsed by al-Qaeda. Finally, Turkey is currently the only majority Muslim country that is a member of NATO, with Ankara having supported the United States in its operations in Afghanistan while for the most part following a pro-U.S. policy over the occupation in Iraq. All these factors make Turkey and its citizens a genuine target for al-Qaeda.


1. From Harun Ilhan’s 74-page unpublished and handwritten defense document.

2. For biographies of Turkish Islamists who died in these jihad battlefields, see Mehmet Ali Tekin, Şehidlerimiz (Our Martyrs), Vol.1 (Istanbul, 1999). The second volume could not be published because the author was arrested during an operation against radical Islamists linked to Iran and was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison.