Turkish Crackdown on Homegrown al-Qaeda Cells in Gaziantep

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 5

A major crackdown against alleged al-Qaeda militants in southern Turkey that left four militants and one policeman dead on January 24 has proven two things: homegrown Islamic militants still pose a serious threat in this secular but Muslim nation, and the police—aware of the danger—are still busy with a nationwide counter-terrorism campaign launched more than four years ago following suicide bombings by local al-Qaeda cells in Istanbul.

Anti-terrorism police staged simultaneous raids against 18 houses in the southern cities of Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş in an apparently well-planned crackdown. However, stiff resistance triggered a 12-hour gun battle between dozens of policemen and an alleged al-Qaeda leader, Mehmet Polat, and his son. The two skillfully attacked with their Russian-made AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles, killing a policeman and wounding five others before being killed themselves.

Police believed that the 41-year-old Polat had assumed the leadership of an al-Qaeda cell in Gaziantep after his predecessor, Mehmet Yılmaz, joined the insurgency in Iraq and was killed there in June (Today’s Zaman, January 25). Yılmaz, also known as Khalid al-Turki, had operated a cell that facilitated the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq for al-Qaeda operations, U.S. officials in Iraq said (AP, June 27, 2007). Turkish police, intelligence units and the CIA have been following the suspects since 2004 (Hürriyet, January 29).

Some members of the cell, including Polat, are alleged to have traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iran and received orders from al-Qaeda leaders there (Anatolia, January 25). Police sources said several of the suspects underwent military training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion there in 2001 (author’s interview with a senior police official, January 26).

Prosecutors charged 17 of the 25 suspects captured in operations with membership in a terrorist organization the next day. In addition to the 22 men arrested in Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş, another three were detained in Istanbul. The latter three were believed to have worked as couriers for the cell and included a Russian national of Chechen origin (Anatolia, January 26).

Police in Gaziantep said they seized explosives and guns at the houses, adding that the group was preparing bomb attacks against “strategic targets” as well as “sensational attacks on security forces” (Anatolia, January 25). “There was information that units linked to the al-Qaeda terror group were planning acts that would have had a dramatic impact on our province and beyond,” Gaziantep Governor Süleyman Kamçı said in a statement (Today’s Zaman, January 26).

Police sources said the suspects planned to attack U.S. and Israeli missions although authorities did not confirm that report (Sabah, January 25). There were also reports that the suspects were planning to cross into neighboring Syria with the aim of carrying out attacks in Israel (Hürriyet, January 26). Police meanwhile rejected a request by CIA agents to interrogate the suspects, but assured them that all critical information would be shared as part of the fight against global terrorism (Hürriyet, January 26).

There are many local radical Islamic militant groups in Turkey, but al-Qaeda’s violent interpretation of Islam receives little public backing in the country, where a moderate understanding of Islam is predominant. In its search for recruits al-Qaeda has turned to Kurdish groups in eastern and southeastern Turkey with the intent of exploiting existing socio-economic problems (Today’s Zaman, January 29).

In a nation of more than 70 million Muslims, al-Qaeda still finds support among radical Islamic militants who share its goals. Some radical Muslims claim Turkey’s friendship with Israel, the United States and Britain—as well as its efforts to join the European Union—amounts to treason and have declared the state an enemy. According to police, dozens of Turks have joined the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq and some others are allegedly members of al-Qaeda cells in Europe. One such suspect is Attila Selek, accused of being part of a plot to carry out massive bomb attacks on U.S.-related targets in Germany last September. Selek was arrested in the Turkish city of Konya in November. The 22-year-old German national was allegedly in charge of securing the triggering devices for bombs to be used in the attacks (Spiegel Online, November 15, 2007).

Despite a police crackdown on suspected Islamic militants in Turkey, local media have questioned the determination of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamic-rooted government to join a financial crackdown against al-Qaeda and its alleged supporters. In 2006 an administrative Turkish court overturned an order by the previous government to freeze the assets of Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi businessman and reputed al-Qaeda financier, following the 9/11 attacks. Erdoğan’s government has not appealed that decision and Erdoğan himself defended al-Qadi as a “philanthropist” in a television interview in 2006 (NTV, July 11, 2006; Turkish Daily News, September 22, 2006). But a higher administrative court later decided that even though the government did not appeal the decision, the assets of al-Qadi should remain frozen for the sake of the public good (Arab News, December 24, 2007).

Turkey is a country which still questions the role of Islam in society and tensions between the secular establishment and Erdoğan’s Islamic-oriented government have heated up lately over the government’s attempts to lift a ban on Islamic headscarves in universities. This identity crisis makes it easier for Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaeda, to find refuge in radical Muslim neighborhoods where—in spite of police efforts—they are able to flourish by distributing propaganda and recruiting.

An anti-terror official said that the nationwide campaign against various al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic cells was continuing at full speed but it was practically impossible to stop new recruits from joining. “It’s not always possible to spot an emerging cell. They often have a complex organizational structure which makes it difficult to chase them,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “There are various groupings with different ideologies and methodologies of jihad. This is not an easy war to fight” (author’s interview, January 31).