The Turkish government dropped an investigation launched in November 2013 into arms shipments to jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham when police seized 931 empty mortar shells and 10 metal tubes for launchers from a truck in Adana near the Syrian border.
The arms transfers were done under the auspices of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), and the man who coordinated the entire setup, from manufacturing in machinist shops in Turkey to transport to Syria, was an operative of the Turkish spy agency. Yet the shipment, apparently one of several runs on the same route, was caught when a tip on drug trafficking was received by local security forces, on Nov. 7, 2013.
Police units were scrambled when an alert came in on a tip line at around 8 a.m. that a drug shipment was underway by a tractor and trailer bearing license plate numbers 42 ACF 92 and 42 DZB 06, respectively, bound for Adana. An unmarked police unit trailed the truck, which was registered in Konya province in central Turkey, all the way to Adana, where it stopped at a machinist shop in Adana’s industrial zone, 200 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border.
When the police opened the trailer tarp, they discovered that the truck was full of empty mortar shells. Police cordoned off the area and brought the truck to the Şakirpaşa Police Department and stepped up security around the premises. Suspects were detained, questioned by a prosecutor and referred to court for arrest. At the arraignment hearing, judge Cebrail Cem Alici ordered the formal arrest of driver Lütfi Karakaya (47) and machinists İhsan Polat (42) and Yunus Emre Hotamışlıoğlu and placed them in pre-trial detention.
According to the investigation file, most of the close to 600 mortar shells were manufactured in a machinist shop located in the Fevzi Çakmak neighborhood of Konya’s Karatay district. Police detained seven suspects as part of the investigation into the shop, where they found plates for manufacturing mortar shells. The owner, Hotamışlıoğlu, was formally arrested and sent to Adana, while his employees were released. Hotamışlıoğlu testified that he had manufactured 1,179 mortar shells for Heysem Topalca (aka Haisam Toubaljeh), a MIT operative who run arms to jihadists in Syria. He said three separate shipments were made to transfer the shells to the border at the request of his client.
The rest of the mortar shells, numbering 340, were manufactured by a machinist in Adana named Ihsan Polat, who operated the Çağrı Torna shop. He testified to the prosecutor that he also received the order from Topalca. He said he manufactured 178 shells for him but claimed that he decided to discontinue the job on suspicion that they might be used as arms and told this to Topalca when he came to his shop two months earlier. Topalca responded that he would have made more orders if the machinist had not backed out, according to the account provided by Polat. The mortar shells were seized by the police before the delivery was made.
Topalca, a Syrian of Turkmen background, was also detained but quickly released. According to police records, Topalca had 873 entries and exits at the Turkish-Syrian border between 2011 and 2014. He was a goods smuggler before the Syrian civil war started in 2011 and later turned into a trafficker of arms, ammunition and fighters for Turkish intelligence. He is wanted on multiple counts for his involvement in deadly attacks in Turkey and was tried in at least a dozen cases across the country. Yet he remains a free man thanks to his contacts with MIT.
The forensic report prepared by the bomb disposal unit on Nov. 7, 2013 stated that 931 shells were machined for 120 millimeter mortar bombs as well as metal tubes intended for use as mortar launchers. The expert statement included in the file also verified this, confirming that the seized materials could easily be converted into mortars with firing mechanisms and other components.
After talking to the driver, the counterterrorism unit mapped out the destination of the shipment and concluded in a report on Nov. 8, 2013 that it was supposed to be delivered across the border in Syrian territory near a camp run by al-Qaeda. The driver told investigators that he had run similar trips before and pointed out the crossing and drop points for the shipment, destined for an al-Qaeda-offshoot jihadist group.
In his testimony to the prosecutor and later to a judge, truck driver Karakaya said he drove the tractor-trailer to a point on the Turkish-Syrian border that was a mere 200 meters from a gendarmerie guard post near the Turkish village of Bükülmez. It was impossible for them to make the delivery without the guards noticing the movement at the border.
The driver told investigators he met Topalca and his three associates on a previous run in the border town of Reyhanli and that they took the truck to the border point where another six to seven men were waiting to unload the cargo. “I was paid TL 1,450 by Topalca for this shipment when we went back to Reyhanli after the offloading was done,” he explained.
The truck was owned by Turkish national İsa Çalışkan, the proprietor of coal sales and transportation company Aladağ Kömür ve Nakliyat A.S. When Karakaya was detained by the police, the owner’s brother Ali Çalışkan was in the passenger seat. They were supposed to take a load of coal back to Konya. The driver loaded most of the mortar shells from a machinist shop in Konya and was about to receive more shipments from a machinist in Hatay before unloading everything at the border drop point.
As the police deepened the investigation into the incident, İhsan B., the owner of the Çağrı Torna machinist shop, and employees identified as Sait K, Uğur Ş., Nurullah C., Ferhat Y. and Cihat D. were detained by the police. In all, 22 suspects were investigated on criminal charges of providing weapons to an armed terrorist group, the unlicensed sale, import or manufacturing of arms and membership in a terrorist group.
Testifying in court in 2015, Özcan Şişman, the veteran counterterrorism prosecutor in Adana who was sacked by the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government and later unlawfully jailed for investigating MIT’s illegal arms transfers, said the driver made similar drops on Oct. 6 and 26, 2013 at the point next to the gendarmerie border post. He further confirmed that two suspects detained as part of the illegal arms shipment turned out to be MIT agents. He said the investigation indicated that Ahrar al-Sham maintained a camp near the drop point across the Turkish border.
Most of the authorities had no idea about the shipment, and no formal procedures were followed in the arms transfers, which require prior approval from several ministries including the Defense Ministry. In fact, when the shipment was seized, Adana Governor Hüseyin Avni Coş bragged about how they were intent on cracking down on illegal arms transfers. He said the weapons were believed to be destined for organizations or states outside of Turkey, without providing further details.
“[The arms] are not for humanitarian purposes. As they are ammunition, they were probably [being sent to] some [illegal] organizations or to other countries,” Coş maintained. He has never spoken of the incident since. The Erdoğan government immediately obtained a gag order on the investigation file that prohibited media outlets in Turkey from reporting on the case. Then Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, who also said his ministry was investigating the incident, quickly went silent on the matter.
It was clear that the shipment was a black operation by MIT and was totally illegal. It was not approved through proper channels and was done solely at the direction of Erdoğan, who knew what he was doing was illegal under Turkish law. That is why he rushed to amend an intelligence bill in 2014 so that he could use MIT to do this kind of illegal arms shipment without getting into trouble, at least under national laws.
In December 2015 the Turkish prosecutor who took over the case after the original prosecutor was removed and jailed on false charges of espionage decided to kill counterterrorism investigation case No. 2013/884 on the grounds that mortar shells and metal tubes in their then-state could not be considered ammunition and that therefore there was no need to bring criminal charges against the suspects. The mortar shells and metal tubes were later delivered to MIT, according to the court documents.
Aziz Takçı, another top-notch prosecutor who took part in the investigation into this incident, testified in court that his investigation revealed how MIT organized this shipment with Topalca. He revealed that wiretap surveillance exposed MIT agents who were involved with Topalca and verified these people’s identities with MIT after communicating with the intelligence agency. Takci was later removed from his position by the Erdoğan government, falsely accused of espionage and put in prison.