Turkey’s Islamic Raiders of the Greater East Seeking Ties with al-Qaeda?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 40

Izmir, Turkey

On November 20, police in the Turkish city of Izmir arrested six suspected members of the Islamic Raiders of the Greater East – Front (IBDA-C). The detainees are alleged to have established links with al-Qaeda and to have been only days away from staging a high profile assassination (Anadolu Ajansi, November 20; Dogan Haber Ajansi, November 20). If true, the allegations mark not only a return to violence by the IBDA-C after a hiatus of over three years, but also the first time that the most insular and introverted of Turkish radical Islamist groups has cooperated with a transnational organization.

The arrests came during the early morning raids on six addresses in the Izmir area, during which the police recovered arms, ammunition and what is alleged to have been a list of targets that included non-Muslim places of worship, Turkish politicians and foreigners resident in Turkey working for multinational companies and diplomatic missions (Cihan Haber Ajansi, November 20). Unidentified police sources told Turkish journalists that the cell had been under surveillance for some time and that they had decided to act when internet traffic suggested that the militants were about to launch a series of assassinations. The police also claimed that the group had set up a website to exchange information on the procurement and preparation of explosives. However, no explosives were reported to have been found in the raids (Vatan, November 21).

All six men were subsequently charged with membership in an illegal organization, which in Turkey is the usually the initial charge against anyone suspected of terrorism (NTV, November 23). The Turkish media named the alleged leader of the cell as Cuma Tonbul, the 23 year-old Izmir representative of a pro-IBDA-C, Istanbul-based weekly magazine called Baran (Posta, November 21). Baran confirmed Tonbul’s arrest, although it refuted the charges against him.

IBDA-C was founded in 1984 by Salih Izzet Erdis. Born in the predominantly Kurdish city of Erzincan in 1950, Erdis has become better known by his nom de guerre of Salih Mirzabeyoglu. Erdis is a follower of the Islamist poet and activist Necip Fazil Kisakurek (1904-1983), an Ottoman nostalgist and fierce opponent of the West who advocated the creation of a supranational, Sunni Islamic state which he described as the “Great East”.

Kisakurek’s rigorous sectarianism has meant that the Sunni IBDA-C has always been hostile to the Shia regime in Iran. As a result, it has never had any links with elements in Iranian intelligence, which were the main source of expertise and external funding for almost all of the other violent Turkish Islamist groups established in the 1980s and early 1990s. Nor does the IBDA-C’s military wing have a command hierarchy or centrally coordinated cell network. Members of the IBDA-C’s military wing form autonomous cells and conduct operations within the strategic parameters outlined in IBDA-C propaganda; a concept described by Erdis as an “individual dialectic” (Salih Mirzabeyoglu, IBDA Diyalektigi – Kurtulus Yolu, or “The IBDA Dialectic – The Road To Liberation”, Istanbul, IBDA Yayinlari, 1984). IBDA-C members are also encouraged to claim responsibility for operations carried out by other groups in the hope that the resultant publicity will increase public exposure to the organization’s propaganda activities. For example, IBDA-C initially claimed responsibility for the November 2003 bombings in Istanbul, which were in fact carried out by a cell of al-Qaeda affiliates.

During the 1990s the IBDA-C concentrated almost exclusively on low-risk domestic targets associated with the secular Turkish state or what were regarded as “un-Islamic” activities. The “Islamic Raiders” demolished busts and statues of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (founder of the Turkish Republic), desecrated non-Muslim graveyards and places of worship and fire-bombed stores and restaurants serving alcohol. Although IBDA-C members did attempt to stage a number of assassinations, a lack of expertise meant that most were unsuccessful. As a result the Turkish security forces regarded the orgnization more as an irritant than a major security threat.

Nevertheless, during the late 1990s several hundred IBDA-C members were imprisoned by Turkish authorities. Erdis himself was arrested in December 1998. In April 2001, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of attempting to overthrow the Turkish constitution by force.

Erdis had long predicted that 1999 would be the “Year of Liberation” when the IBDA-C would finally overthrow secularism in Turkey. A combination of his imprisonment and the failure of his prediction appears to have led to a deterioration in his mental health. In June 2000, Erdis unsuccessfully tried to hang himself in his prison cell. In 2003, his followers published a book, apparently written by Erdis in prison, in which he claimed that his suicide attempt was the result of his cell being bombarded by electro-magnetic waves from machines developed by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) (Telegram-Zihin Kontrolü [Telegram-Mind Control], 2003).

The publication of Erdis’ book coincided with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, which triggered widespread outrage in radical Islamist circles in Turkey. Although it remained vehemently opposed to the Turkish secular state, the main focus of the IBDA-C’s propaganda now shifted increasingly towards the United States. In April 2004, IBDA-C members demonstrated their continued capacity for violence by assassinating a retired Turkish army colonel and his wife in Istanbul. The pair had been named by Erdis as being involved in the NSA’s attempts to force him to commit suicide.

IBDA-C members have continued to stage attacks, mostly against property. The highly fragmented nature of the IBDA-C’s military wing has often made it difficult for Turkish security forces to identify and predict the actions of individual cells. Neverthless, the IBDA-C’s lack of techical expertise, limited access to weaponry and explosives and low levels of tradecraft have meant that the capabilities of individual cells have consistently failed to match their ambitions.

No precise information is yet available on the Izmir cell’s intended targets. However, IBDA-C publications make it clear that foreign personnel, particularly those associated with U.S. companies or the U.S. government, are regarded as legitimate targets for assassination. However bizarre some of Erdis’s ideas may appear, there is no doubting the commitment of his followers or their willingness to use violence. The reports from Izmir suggest that the IBDA-C may now be seeking to address their lack of weapons and expertise through cooperation with transnational terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. Although it is currently unclear whether the decision was the result of the Izmir cell following its own ‘individual dialetic’ there is little question that, if repeated by other cells, cooperation with foreign Islamists would considerably increase the threat posed by the IBDA-C to foreign interests in Turkey.