Turkey’s Al-Qaeda Blowback

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 8

In the 1980’s the CIA commenced a vast covert operation to arm the anti-Soviet Mujahideen factions in Afghanistan as a means of turning the Soviet Fortieth Expeditionary Army’s invasion of this Central Asian country into a Vietnam-style quagmire. In forging this dangerous new transnational holy warrior movement, the CIA brought together such unlikely comrades in arms as the Islamic Brotherhood, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, the Israeli Mossad, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, the Saudi royal family, and Islamic charities such as the International Islamic Relief Organization. In overcoming the differences that had long divided them, tens of thousands of Arabs from Algeria to Arabia left their homes to fight shoulder to shoulder against the Soviet-atheist invaders of the Dar al-Islam (Realm of Islam), often with logistic support from such strange bedfellows as the Israeli Mossad and American CIA.

Absent from this list of Middle Eastern co-sponsors of the 1980’s Jihad movement, however, was NATO member Turkey, a nation that had proven its allegiance to America on other Cold War battlefields (most notably by sending 5,000 troops to North Korea to assist the United States in 1950).

Turkey’s reluctance to partake in the mobilization of its citizens for the purpose of waging an Islamic holy war stemmed from its own decades-long struggle to crush Islamist militant movements at home. Turkey’s military had suppressed domestic Islamic militant movements, such as the Turkish Hezbollah (a fundamentalist movement unrelated to the Shiite organization in Lebanon), as well as the Islamic Great Eastern Raider Front (a diffuse group that still seeks to overthrow Turkey’s secular constitution and reestablish a Caliphate-theocracy), and considered the notion of arming Islamists to wage Jihad to be playing with fire. As the guardians of secularism in Turkey, the army presciently feared that these Islamist elements might threaten the foundations of the Turkish Republic should they be armed and trained for holy combat.

Because it avoided the CIA-sponsored call for jihad, the Turkish Republic was later branded Dar al Munafiqin (a hypocritical irreligious Muslim state) by the Taliban theocracy and the brotherhood of jihadis who were forged on the Afghan battlefields. But Turkey also avoided the boomerang effect that befell the Arab states of the Middle East when thousands of Arab veterans of the Afghan Jihad returned home and redirected their struggle against the “apostate” regimes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt.

Turkey’s cautious policy of avoiding involvement in the unsavory business of jihadism in distant Afghanistan was cast by the wayside, however, when the call for defensive combat to defend threatened front line Muslim groups closer to home began to be heard in Turkey. In the early 1990’s the Turkish people, who are far from being homogenous (millions of “Turks” are actually of Balkan or Caucasian origin – the result of the ethnic cleansing of their Ottoman-Muslim ancestors by nineteenth century Orthodox Christians), began to rediscover their former vatans (homelands). This happened as the Serbs, Armenians, and Russians instigated ethnic wars against the Azerbaijanis, Bosnians, Chechens, and Kosovar Albanians. Thus, as Bosnians were slaughtered by the thousands in Srebrenica by Republika Srbska paramilitaries, so Albanians were massacred in places such as Racak, Kosovo, by Milosevic’s security forces, Azeris were cleansed by victorious Armenian forces in Nagorno Karabakh, and Chechens were butchered in such towns as Samaskhi by Russian Federal forces. And in Turkey, moderate secularist-nationalists throughout the country (that is, those Turks who supported the secularist Turkish constitution) began to call for the defense of these irkdashlar (ethnic kin).

The images of toppled Ottoman minarets in Bosnia, of mass burials in Kosovo, and of fleeing refugees in the Caucasus also provided a sense of déjà vu for those “Turks” whose ancestors had fled their homes to the Turkish-Anatolian core of the sultan’s state in the nineteenth century to escape Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian ethnic cleansers. In the process, the ethnic, religious and historical ties that bound these former Ottoman Muslims (collectively known as Evlad-i Fatih Han, the descendents of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror) to those Turks of Balkan and Caucasian ancestry were rediscovered throughout Turkey.

As this was going on, the trans-national brotherhood of Afghan-Arabs began to look for new fields of Jihad following the collapse of the Najibullah-Communist government in Afghanistan in 1992. As members of the Afghan-Arab alumni traveled to Zenica, Bosnia, to create a volunteer Jihad corps to defend the outgunned Bosnians from the Serbs in 1992, the Turkish government turned a blind eye to those Turks who wished to join this “Mujahideen Brigade.” Together with Iran, Turkey also sent funds to the jihadi volunteers who formed a shock unit – one that was feared by the Serbs for its fanatical ferocity – in the Bosnian conflict of 1992-95. In addition, Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller gained considerable domestic support in Turkey from both Turkish nationalists and the rising Turkish Islamist movement by traveling to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to demonstrate her solidarity with the besieged Bosnians.

In a rare convergence of opposing ideologies, the perceived threat to Turkish-Muslim kin groups in the former Ottoman lands united such disparate forces as the Islamist Refah-Welfare Party, the Boz-Kurt nationalists and the Evlad-i Fatih Han (millions of “Turks” with sub-national attachments to their former homelands of a sort that resemble the links between the Boston-Irish and Ireland). In the process, Turkey joined a vast covert operation, one that had the tacit support of the CIA and U.S. military, to send hundreds of Afghan-Arabs to Bosnia to assist the outgunned Bosnian Muslims against the powerful Serbs.

Many analysts feel that it was the arrival of Arab-Afghans in Europe that globalized the operations of the Afghan brotherhoods and led to the eventual formation of the al-Qaeda transnational terrorist network. In Turkey itself it created a growing network of Turkish Islamists who supported oppressed front-line Muslims with links to the Ottoman Empire (there was less interest in other causes such as those of Palestinian or Kashmir). This support came in the form of zakat (Muslim tithe) funds and a small number of volunteer fighters.

With Russia’s subsequent invasion of Chechnya in 1994, thousands of Turks of Caucasian descent (known collectively as Cerkez-Circassians in Turkey) as well as Turkish Islamists came to identify with the cause of the hard pressed Chechen rebels. At this time, hundreds of Chechen rebels wounded in conflict with the Russian Federal forces were allowed to convalesce in Turkish hospitals, while charities such as the Kafkafasya Yardimlasma Dernegi (Caucasian Assistance Organization) sent aid to the Chechens, and many Turks went to fight in the Chechnya-based version of the earlier Bosnian International Mujahideen volunteer brigade. Several of those who fought for the Chechens in this international jihadi unit, which was led by Amir bin Khattab, an Afghan-Arab from Saudi Arabia, were “martyred” while fighting for the Chechens, who were seen as either fellow Muslims (by those Turkish volunteers with an Islamist agenda) or fellow Caucasians (by those with a nationalist background).

One can find the martyrdom epitaphs of Turks who died fighting Jihad in Chechnya online at: (www.islamicaweb.com/archive/showthread/t-16293) or (www.as-sahwah.com/viewarticle.php?articleID=422 ).

Those interested in the Turkish jihadi movement that has gradually taken on the anti-Western and anti-Zionist rhetoric of al-Qaeda will also find the Turkish website cihad.net/main.htm to be of particular interest. This website documents such events as the recent “martyrdom” of three Turks waging Jihad in Chechnya and has videos of bloody attacks on Russian forces by international jihadi volunteers.

The radicalization of Turks engaged in jihad, including even those espousing a nationalist platform calling for the defense of kin groups in the Balkans and Caucasus, is evident on such websites and in underground Islamist circles in Turkey. Turkish Islamists who support the notion of Jihad increasingly call for severing Turkey’s strategic military ties to Israel and the United States, as well as a lifting of the ban on hijab-veils and the return of Sharia`h law to Turkey. Clearly this Islamist-jihadist platform – which once dovetailed with the agenda of the Turkish military/secular nationalists in the Balkans and Caucasus – represents a threat to the very foundations of the Turkish secular state.

The clear and present nature of this danger to Turkey’s secular order was vividly demonstrated in 2003 by the November 15 bombings of two synagogues in Istanbul and the November 20 bombing of the London-based HSBC bank and British consulate in Istanbul. As the stunned Turkish intelligence services launched mass police sweeps to arrest those who were guilty, their searches quickly took them to the Turkish brotherhood of jihadis who had, like the Afghan-Arabs of the 1980s, been radicalized by their experience in the Balkans and Caucasus. On November 28 Turkey’s Justice Minister, Cemil Cecik, announced the arrest of several militants, claiming that “There are people with Chechen roots among them.”

This reference to “Chechen roots” did not, of course, refer to the largely secular-nationalist-Chechen rebels themselves, who have long held Turkey in high esteem, but to Turkish citizens who waged Jihad in Chechnya. Among those “Chechen-Turks” who had fought in Chechnya prior to drifting into al-Qaeda-linked terrorism against Western targets in Turkey in November of 2003 were the suicide bombers’ two leaders, Azad Ekinci and Feridun Ugurlu. Ekinci, who led the attacks on the Jewish targets in Istanbul, has been traced to jihadi training camps in Pakistan and is known to have fought in both Bosnia and Chechnya. Ugurlu, among those involved in the November 20 bombings of British targets in Istanbul, also fought in the Chechen and Afghan jihads.

As the Turkish authorities launch further investigations of the approximately 1,000 Turks who waged Jihad in Chechnya and Bosnia, analysts believe that they may well disrupt additional sleeper cells. The ongoing investigation clearly reveals, however, that Turkey may well be sitting on a jihadi/al-Qaeda time bomb. The earlier example of the Afghan-Arabs’ creation of al-Qaeda clearly reveals that those Islamist fighters who move in jihadi circles are prone to engage in anti-Western terrorism. Sadly, however, Turkey woke up to this dangerous example of “blowback” too late to save the lives of scores of innocent Jews, Turks and British citizens killed in the November 2003 bombing spree. But Turkey is a largely moderate Muslim country that prides itself on its links to the West. And in the final analysis, this unprecedented bloodshed in Turkey appears to have turned the public there away from supporting jihadi ventures in the lands of the former Ottoman irkdashlar-kin, including in such war zones as Chechnya.