The radical Malatyalılar, a pro-Iranian group that is closely connected to Turkish intelligence agency MİT, has been stealthily penetrating the security and foreign policy apparatus of the Turkish government, shaping policies that nurture jihadist views and transforming Turkey into a rogue nation.
The Malatyalılar, reorganized in 1992 under an illegal structure called Türkiye Islam Hareketi (TİH, Turkey Islamic Movement) with cells established for armed conflict and weapons stockpiled for a future battle, is led by an extremist figure named Zekeriya Şengöz, a convicted felon who was released in 2014 with the help of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. When he was released, a large crowd greeted him in front of the prison with shouts of “Allah Akbar.” Within few hours of his release, Erdoğan personally phoned Şengöz to congratulate him.
The group, whose leaders were trained in Iran, is based on a two-tier leadership structure. One is led by the political wing and the other by a spiritual leader. An armed component was later added to the organization, when the leadership decided that the time had come for that. It is following a three-phase plan to accomplish its goal of establishing an Islamic state, starting with a campaign to indoctrinate people, followed by a plan to build up a large community and with the final stage set for armed jihadist activity.
In the first phase, the group engages in a public relations campaign, with political activity centered around mosques and teahouses. Seminars, study groups and conferences are organized in this stage to educate people and inform about the goals of the group. In the second phase, group members are not only expanded but also consolidated to create a solid base with an organizational hierarchy and loyalty to the leadership. Armed jihad and revolution against the established authority in the government come in the final stage.
The group takes its name from the eastern Turkish province of Malatya because most of its senior leaders hail from there. With several front NGOs and foundations, the Malatyalılar has been branching out in Europe, Africa and Asia, grooming a new generation of Islamist figures for their dream of establishing a global network based on Sharia law with a heavy dose of Iranian influence. It is also called the Değişim group because it used to publish a magazine of the same name, and is also referred as the Şafak group because of a bookstore it set up in 1989 under the Şafak name. They have sometimes been referred to as Meşaleciler as well. They organized in Istanbul and around universities where they set up shops to lure young people to jihadist views under the signature name of Müslüman Gençlik (Muslim Youth).
According to his own statements to the police and prosecutor, Şengöz admitted that the TİH was launched during a meeting of 80 people in the village of Şişman in the eastern province Elazığ. The group decided the leadership and membership structure at the meeting, selecting Şengöz as the political leader. He also said the participants approved his idea of making Fahri Memur, also from Malatya, the leader of the armed wing of the Malatyalılar and admitted he gave him cash to purchase weapons for future use. Şengöz testified that the guns and explosives seized during a search were bought with the money he gave Memur.
This was corroborated with a statement provided by Memur, who said he met with Şengöz in 1980-81 at the Boğaziçi and Sahil teahouses when he was attending a vocational school at İnönü University and started reading books suggested by Şengöz. He later dropped out of school and started training young Malatyalılar members in martial arts such as taekwondo. He also admitted that he was selected as the leader of the armed wing at a 1992 meeting and took young people to camps in the countryside for training in arms, combat and survival tactics. Memur was in charge of three separate cells that were composed of 12 people. He later moved to Istanbul, in 1996, turning the weapons over to others for safekeeping.
Şengöz and other leaders of the Malatyalılar had several meetings in 1992 with the heads of Turkish Hizbullah, a pro-Iranian group that also had links to Turkish intelligence, in search of forging an alliance for a common goal. Şengöz met Hizbullah leader Hüseyin Velioğlu in Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish province in Turkey’s Southeast. According to evidence in the case file, the men met on March 2, July 18, and October 26, 1992. This was not the first time Şengöz had met with Velioğlu, however. The two forged a friendship in 1981 and 1982, when Şengöz returned to Malatya from Erzurum, where he attended school in 1978 and 1979.
In their meetings with Hizbullah, members of the Malatyalılar discussed how the two organizations could coordinate actions and possibly merge to form a single force that would generate more impact for a jihadist cause. However, when Hizbullah leader Velioğlu was killed on January 17, 2000 in a clash with the police during a raid on his home in Istanbul, the Malatyalılar ceased their contacts with the group to protect themselves. According to indictment No. 2000/2, which was filed by the Malatya public prosecutor on October 31, 2000, the Malatyalılar group was exposed when the investigators reviewed all the archives kept by Hizbullah that were seized under a search and seizure warrant executed in the town of Kavacık in Istanbul’s Beykoz district on January 7, 2000.
In various counterterrorism operations between September 27 and October 2, 2000 police detained 311 suspected members of the Malatyalılar, including its political leader Şengöz and religious leader Ramazan Kayan, in a nationwide sweep across 30 provinces. Briefing reporters at a press event, then-Interior Minister Saadattin Tantan described the detentions as part of a crackdown on groups that were aiming to replace the democratic regime with an Islamic state. Fifty-one suspects were formally arrested at arraignment hearings.
During the police raids on the homes and offices of the suspects, investigators seized five AK-47s, one MP-5 gun, 11 rifles, 14 hand guns, six hand grenades, 39 dynamite blocks, 30-meter detonating cable, 40 fuses, 25 gun clips, night-vision binoculars, chemical powder, various materials for explosives and some 6,000 bullets. Because of the large cache of weapons and ammunition found in the homes and offices of the suspects and their statements confirming that they were stockpiling arms for a future battle, Turkish authorities described the Malatyalılar as an armed terrorist organization under the laws in effect at the time. It was concluded that the militants were gearing up for armed attacks, although there had been no known terrorist incident in which the group had been involved up until that time.
The police report prepared about the Malatyalılar on October 20, 2000 and submitted to the court during the trial indicated that the group was heavily influenced by radical movements in both Iran and Egypt and had set up an armed wing for waging battles in the future as their membership numbers grew. The group saw Turkey as a land of infidels (Dar-ul Harb). It was stated that in 1992 the group started purchasing weapons, training militants in camps and stockpiling the weapons. In 1994 Memur was told by Şengöz that a new decision suspending the purchase of firearms had been taken and asked him to keep those already bought in a safe place. In 1996 the arms were buried at a farmhouse in a rural area of Malatya province.
The report also noted that the Malatyalılar provided 22 million Turkish lira to the radical İlim group, which asked for help when they had an internal conflict within the Hizbullah group’s Menzil faction. They also acted as a mediator in 1993 and 1994 when the two factions (İlim and Menzil) within Hizbullah clashed with each other.
The Turkish prosecutor asked for a twenty-two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for the leaders of the Malatyalılar, i.e., Şengöz, Kayan (a 62-year-old imam who led the religious arm) and Memur. On Jan. 27, 2004 the Malatya 1st State Security Court ruled for a sentence of 18 years, nine months for Şengöz and Memur and various sentences for the other defendants. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, however, based on the fact that some suspects in the case had filed motions to benefit from a law that envisages a lesser sentence for suspects who voluntarily share information with the court during the appeal and asked the lower court for a retrial based on the new facts. As a result, the Malatya 3rd High Criminal Court conducted a retrial and convicted Şengöz and Memur and sentenced them to 12 years, six months on June 6, 2007. On the second appeal, the lower court’s decision was upheld by the 9th Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals, on March 24, 2008.
The suspects filed a motion for a retrial on December 12, 2012 after securing a new report from the police department, which issued information document No. 218242 on November 30, 2012 that said there was no information available on whether the group was involved in violent acts but left the final assessment for the court to decide. The motion for a retrial based on purportedly new evidence, namely the new police report, was rejected by a Malatya court on March 19, 2013 on the grounds that the prior police assessment reports (No. 7104 dated October 20, 2000 and No. 2337 dated April 26, 2001) were not fundamentally in contradiction with the new police report of 2012. The challenge to this rejection filed with Diyarbakir 7th High Criminal Court was also thrown out. The suspects again took their case to the Supreme Court of Appeals, but the appeals court unanimously denied the appeal on June 26, 2014.
Nordic Monitor’s investigation has found that Öznur Çalık, a lawmaker and member of the executive committee of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Ömer Faruk Öz, a senior member of the AKP, also a legislator and chief of staff at the Turkish Parliament, Mustafa Şahin, former lawmaker of AKP, all from Malatya, had lobbied hard to secure the release of the jailed leaders of the Malatyalılar. They asked senior officials at the Security Directorate to draft a false report stating that the group had nothing to do with terrorism. The officials refused on the grounds that only courts can make such assessments and that they had no power to make a judgment other than reporting what their investigations found about the group.
In the meantime the Erdoğan government, the executive branch of the country, intervened in the case using a clause in the law that can be invoked for the benefit of the community. The Justice Ministry filed a motion on May 9, 2013 to overturn the verdict that convicted the leaders of the Malatyalılar based on the public interest clause in the law. In the end Şengöz was released in May 2014 and Memur in October 2014, benefiting from a conditional release thanks to the Erdoğan government.
The Malatyalılar group enjoys considerable influence with many deputies in the ruling AKP and even with ministers in the Cabinet. The provincial setup of the AKP in Malatya is reportedly under the total control of this group, which also has control over the appointment of government employees to any position in the province, including academic staff at Malatya’s Inönü University. They are reported to have threatened with death anyone who exposes them.
The Malatyalılar has gained significant strength under the protection of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and its members have infiltrated many branches of the government, from the foreign ministry to the intelligence agency. The footprints of the group can be seen in Turkey’s ill-advised policy in Syria, where radical Islamist groups were armed, funded and supported by the Erdoğan government in order to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime and replace it with an Islamist government. Likewise, the collapse of settlement talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) due to wrong policy choices was partially attributed to miscalculated moves pushed through by operatives linked to the Malatyalılar.
A number of senior political and government figures are tied to the group. The most important is Hakan Fidan, a pro-Iranian asset planted in the Erdoğan government who was tapped to lead the nation’s intelligence agency starting in 2010. The Malatyalılar members in the agency hold huge sway over the operations, human resources and decision-making processes at the expense of other groups. It is no coincidence that Şengöz admitted that he went to Iran twice to meet his contacts according to his own statement in the case file. Both Fidan and Şengöz have had close contacts with the generals of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Quds Force. Davutoğlu and Fidan are long-time friends, and they have been instrumental in crafting Ankara’s policy with jihadist groups in Turkey and its neighborhood.
Beşir Atalay, a former interior minister who was identified as the senior pro-Iranian figure in the Turkish government, is a very close friend of Şengöz, and the two were housemates in their youth. Taha Özhan, a protégée of Davutoğlu, is another key figure connected to the radical Malatyalılar group. Özhan, whose hometown is also Malatya, used the pro-government Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), which he led before entering politics, as a revolving door to staff key positions in the government for militants from the Malatyalılar group. Özhan’s influence waned but did not disappear after Davutoğlu was sidelined by Erdoğan. Mustafa Şahin, a former lawmaker and one-time chief aide to Erdoğan, is also from Malatya, and he worked hard to make sure the jailed leaders of the Malatyalılar were released from prison.
Bülent Tüfekci, a former minister and currently a member of the AKP’s executive body, the MKYK, is from Malatya and is closely affiliated with the Malatyalılar group. Adnan Boynukara is another interesting figure who is connected to the group. He is a meteorologist by trade but somehow managed to land a senior advisor job at the Justice Ministry in 2009 and later became a deputy from Erdoğan’s party. He is believed to be among the architects of a 2014 amnesty bill crafted by the Justice Ministry that allowed the leaders of the Malatyalılar to go free before serving their full sentence. Boynukara wrote for the radical group’s Değişim magazine in the 1990s.
Ahmet Özcan (real name, Seyfettin Mut), a leading figure in the Malatyalılar group, is an advocate of the neo-Ottoman policies that were defended and pursued by Davutoğlu and the Erdoğan government. In the Yarin magazine, which was published between 2002 and 2006, Özcan and Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s spokesperson who instead plays the role of national security advisor today, were writing together, advocating the so-called Eurasianism policies, another name for what is commonly referred as neo-Ottomanism, contrary to EU and US policy. Özcan siphoned millions of dollars from the state-run Turkish Broadcasting Corporation (TRT) through front agency Toprak Ajans, which he established in 2013 with his close friend Kemal Öztürk, who served as the head of government news agency Anadolu from 2011 to 2014.
The Malatyalılar is also influential in the media, and their operatives have been planted in several national media outlets to promote extremist views, often repackaged and sugarcoated for public consumption. Some troll sites are run by its affiliates. They also have their own official TV and newspaper. Vuslat TV has been broadcasting by satellite out of Malatya to over 40 countries since 2009, while vuslathaber.com is published online.
In 1993 the Malatyalılar set up a foundation called the Malatya İslami Dayanışma Vakfını (Malatya Islamic Solidarity Foundation) to run their activities under legal cover. It was closed in 2007 with a decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals. The president of the foundation was Mustafa Kayan, the little brother of Ramazan Kayan, the spiritual leader of the group. Today, Şengöz holds the title of president of the High Consultative Board of the Istanbul-based Anadolu Egitim ve Davet Gönüllüleri Platformu (Anadolu Platform for Education and Dawa Volunteers), an umbrella organization that includes 64 associations and foundations spread across the country. Turgay Aldemir, who was prosecuted in the 1990s for radical activities, serves on the platform’s board of directors.
Ramazan Kayan was detained pending trial and released in 2002. His brother Nurettin Kayan was convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism and sentenced to three years, nine months in prison after the appeals court upheld his conviction in November 2013. He was released on probation after spending 21 months in jail. Davut Güler is another senior figure in the Malatyalılar who helped set up several publications and bookstores for the group from the late 1980s to 2010. They were listed as the Şafak bookstore, the Bengisu and Çıra publishing houses, the Değişim, Özgün İrade Dergisi and Özgün Düşünce magazines and the Özgün Duruş newspaper.
The Malatyalılar group is just one of many radical groups that have been used by the Erdoğan regime to promote extremist views in Turkey and abroad. The group has shown that it is prone to violence and armed jihadist activity as was confirmed in the case file by the large cache of weapons seized at their secret hideout, statements given by suspects and evidence collected from the deadly Turkish Hizbullah group. They have been planted in key positions in the government and wield considerable influence in shaping policies and in promoting radical views.