Nordic Monitor has exposed another jihadist cell in Turkey that operates under the cover of charity and education work with the help of the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The Sirac Education, Service and Culture Foundation (Siraç Eğitim Hizmet Ve Kültür Vakfı) has been recruiting Turks to send to Syria for jihad within the ranks of the Nusra Front, official documents obtained by Nordic Monitor show. Despite incriminating evidence in terms of intelligence reports, witness testimony, wiretap intercepts, a rifle and jihadist books, all of their operatives are free as of today. The cell members were charged and indicted, but some were acquitted while others were convicted but nevertheless were let go pending appeal by Turkish courts.
Siraç has no official status as a foundation and was not registered with the Directorate General of Foundations (Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü, or VGM), which supervises all foundations in Turkey. It appears to exist only in virtual space, yet it has been active in organizing events, lectures and activities in Turkey’s southeastern Adana province near the Syrian border. Five militants from the group raided the Adana branch of Alevi culture association Hacı Bektaş Veli Kültür ve Tanıtım Derneği on Jan. 28, 2016 and threatened their members.
Turkish nationals Recep Tatır, Samet Kardaş and Murat İrge were among those identified by investigators as the jihadists who were recruited by the network and sent to Syria to fight for al-Qaeda.
The group is run by Turkish national Recep Baltacı, a 23-year-old resident of the town of Seyhan who has been using his house to gather young people together and preach to them about jihad and martyrdom. He has also been taking care of the family members of jihadists who went to Syria and helps treat wounded fighters in Turkey. He collects medical supplies to ship to the front line in Syria. In his defense statement he acknowledged that he was the founder of the Siraç network. He said the president of the foundation is a man named Alaattin Çakar.
Baltacı was detained on April 13, 2016 and formally arrested a day later at his arraignment. He was released pending trial on Feb. 14, 2017. He was indicted by an Adana prosecutor under investigation file No. 2015/69653 and indictment No. 2016/16106. The Adana 2nd High Criminal Court convicted him on July 18, 2017 on terrorism charges and sentenced him to nine years under judgement No. 2017/252 but later decided to shorten his imprisonment to seven years, six months. He is a free man today pending appeal.
Another operative in the Siraç network is a man named Selami Ateş, a 45-year-old resident of Adana who was identified by investigators as the man who provides logistics and recruits jihadists for al-Qaeda in Syria. For example, a wiretap recording that was obtained by authorities between Selami and jihadist aspirant Soner Dal, a 29-year-old drug addict from the same province, reveals how Selami talked about logistics and support services to meet the needs of jihadists who fight in the field, and he emphasized that the battle cannot be won by simply sending everybody to the front lines.
His explicit instructions on procuring supplies for jihadists were transmitted by Soner to a man named Mikail Kardaş, who later testified as a witness in the criminal case against the Siraç network. During a search of Ateş’s home, the police found al-Qaeda publications praising jihad such as “Şehadet Yolunda Cihat Erleri” (Jihadist heroes on the Path of Martyrdom) by Harun İlhan, “Hristiyan Gülü” (Christian Rose) by Emine Şenlikoğlu and the translated books of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: “El-Kaide’nin İkinci Kuşağı (al-Qaeda’s Second Generation) and “El-Kaide ve Taliban’ın İçinde Bin Ladin ve 9-11’in Ötesi (Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11).
Like the ringleader Baltacı, Ateş was also detained on April 13, 2016 and formally arrested a day later. He was released pending trial on Feb. 14, 2017. In his defense Ateş claimed he loved reading books about various organizations and that that was the reason he owned al-Qaeda books. On July 18, 2017 he was convicted by an Adana court and sentenced to seven years, six months in prison. Soner received the same sentence. His former fiancé testified that Soner was searching for information about the Nusra Front and was planning to join them in Syria.
One of the people the Siraç outfit was able to send to Syria to fight was a man named Recep Tatıl, a 27-year-old Turkish national who was detained on Oct. 31, 2016 as part of an al-Qaeda probe but released pending trial on July 18, 2017. He went to Syria to fight in the armed jihad and returned to bring back a wounded Turkish jihadist named Murat Ülge. Tatıl returned to Syria along with two new jihadist fighters. He was arrested on Oct. 31, 2016 but released pending trial on July 18, 2017. At the end of the trial proceedings in 2017, he was sentenced to six years, three months in prison.
Feramiz Şahin, a 30-year-old resident of Adana, is another operative in this cell who is responsible for monitoring the status of jihadists who went to Syria, connect with their families and updating information about the new recruits’ performance. The wiretaps on him show he is very committed to violent jihad. Şahin was detained on April 13, 2016 and arrested the next day. The court decided to release him pending trial on Dec. 20, 2016. On July 18, 2017 he was convicted by the Adana 2nd High Criminal Court and sentenced to seven years, six months in prison. He is free pending appeal.
Kazım Dal, a medium-rank operative who frequented lectures at the Siraç house, is a 25-year-old Turkish national from Adana province. He was listed as a jihadist who went to Syria, according to an intelligence file on him. He was detained for only one day on April 13. 2016. Despite the incriminating evidence presented against him during the trial, the public prosecutor changed his mind and asked for his acquittal. As a result, he was acquitted by the court on July 18, 2017.
Fethi Açıkgöz, the right-hand man of cell leader Baltacı, is a person who often accompanied him during family visits according to the profile drawn from wiretaps. He is 45 years old and a resident of Adana. He was detained on April 13, 2016 and a rifle was seized from his home during the search, but he was released the next day. At the end of his trial, Açıkgöz was also acquitted upon the prosecutor’s petition.
Mehmet Şerif Kaplan, a 32-year-old man who went to Syria to fight, is another operative of the same cell. He was detained on April 13, 2016 but released. Cumali Yürek, a 35-year-old militant from the same province, is the man who coordinates the smuggling network in the border area. Wiretaps show him as negotiating prices with human smugglers. He was detained on April 22, 2016 and released pending trial on Dec. 20, 2016. Although the prosecutor asked for Yürek’s acquittal, both Kaplan and Yürek were convicted by the court on July 18, 2017 and sentenced to six years, three months in prison. They are free pending appeal. Yürek is also facing another prosecution on similar terrorism charges from a 2015 case.