A Turkish border cell set up by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) network in Turkey’s border province of Adana continues to recruit and operate freely, with the criminal justice system failing to crack down on it.
The ringleader of the ISIL cell, established in Adana’s Yeşilbağlar neighborhood, is a man named Hasan Çiftçi, who used to operate an Internet café. His main backer and financier is Mahmut Özden, a man who supplies construction materials and is also known as one of ISIL’s emirs in Adana. Along with Ali Çiftsüren, another senior ISIL figure, the trio has been recruiting militants and sending them to Syria to fight while helping wounded ISIL militants get treatment in Turkish hospitals.
The investigation into the cell was launched when law enforcement officers became concerned about ISIL lone wolf attacks and after receiving intelligence that ISIL had been looking for a window of opportunity to stage a sensational terrorist act. As a result, authorities allowed the police to launch an anti-terror sweep to nab the known operatives of this group. Yet the suspects were not only released pending trial but also acquitted at the conclusion of the proceedings.
Here is how the Erdoğan government’s revolving door policy for jihadist networks worked in this particular case:
Police detained two militants — 26-year-old Mehmet Furkan Şenoğlu and 31-year-old Samed Alkoç — in this ISIL cell on Oct. 29, 2017. Şenoğlu refused to answer any questions during the police interrogation and protested the judge by not standing up in the courtroom during his arraignment at the Adana 4th Penal Court of Peace because of his conviction that the court did not rule according to Islamic law.
During the execution of a search warrant on Alkoç’s house, investigators found ISIL publications of which he denied ownership during the trial hearings and attributed them to his elderly father, who he said might have been given the ISIL materials when he went to the mosque for prayer. The police investigation report on seized magazines titled “Şahid,” “Nebevi Hayat” and “Tebliğ” stated that they were connected to jihadist groups.
The Nebevi Hayat magazine was published by the Imam Bukhari Education and Research Foundation (İmam Buhari Eğitim ve Araştırma Vakfı), an al-Qaeda-affiliated outfit operating out of Istanbul’s suburban district of Bağcılar. It was run by Yusuf Mert, brother of Zafer Mert, who was the chairman of the foundation. Zafer was killed in March 2017 by one of its followers. His killer, Fatih K., who frequented his religious sermons in Istanbul, testified that he held the cleric responsible for his brother Yusuf K., who joined Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Yusuf was brought back to Istanbul after he was injured in clashes and later returned to the battleground in Syria.
Another seized jihadist publication, Ümmed Şahid, was banned from sale and distribution by the Mersin 1st Penal Court of Peace on Feb. 2, 2016 under judgement No. 2016/6873. The magazine is published in Adana’s Seyhan district by a group known as Vasat, listed as a terrorist organization in Turkey. The armed terrorist group is led by Şahmerdan Sarı, an extremist cleric, and is believed to be affiliated with ISIL today. He was extradited to Turkey by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government on Feb. 13, 2018 and put in jail, but his network is very much alive and he is able to run it from prison.
Şahmerdan, a 59-year old former imam who resigned from his government job at the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), where he served for 18 years until 1995, had launched the Vasat group, an offspring of Turkish Hizbullah. The group takes its name from an Islamist magazine called Vasat that was published in 1996 and 1997. Şahmerdan gained notoriety when his group bombed a bookstand operated by the Müjde Publishing House, which was selling Bibles in Turkey’s southeastern province of Gaziantep, on Sept. 14, 1997. A 4-year-old boy identified as Ali Özdemir was killed and 24 others were injured in the attack, which was staged by Şahmerdan followers Burhan Kaba and Mehmet Kurt, who tossed a hand grenade into the crowd.
Another piece of evidence against Şenoğlu and Alkoç in the indictment was an account provided by a whistleblower who told the police on Oct. 30, 2017 that he was once with the group, barely escaped their wrath and considered them quite dangerous, fearing that they could stage terrorist acts in Turkey. Despite the intelligence reports and incriminating evidence collected against Şenoğlu and Alkoç, the Adana 13th High Criminal Court ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict these ISIL militants, acquitted them and released them into the community.
In the event the lower court were to fail to save Erdoğan’s jihadist friends, the appeals court would do the trick. In. fact, the leader of this particular ISIL cell in Adana, Çiftçi, was detained and served five months in pre-trial detention before he was released. The lower court convicted him and sentenced him to six years, three months. The regional appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered a retrial. The lower court got the message and ruled to acquit the ringleader in January 2019. Although he still faces criminal charges in other pending cases, he remains a free man and able to run the network.
The main propagandist for the group is a man named Ahmet Can Sakıntı, who was detained by the police and refused to testify or stand up in the courtroom during his arraignment. He has played an instrumental role in converting young Turks to the jihadist ideology. When his house was searched, police found two Tajik nationals identified as Muattar Makhmadiev and Sunatullo Makhmadiev and their four children. In addition to the ISIL terrorism charges, he was also accused of human smuggling. Sakıntı was also prosecuted in another ISIL case in Turkey’s central province of Konya, where the 10th High Criminal Court listed him as a suspect in case No. 2018/391. This case was later merged with another against Sakıntı at the Adana 13th High Criminal Court under case file No. 2018/215.
At the end of the trial proceedings, the Turkish prosecutor decided to drop the human smuggling charges against him but asked the court to convict him on terrorism charges. The court ruled in November 2018 to convict and sentence him to six years, three months in prison. He did not attend the final hearing, during which the judgement was announced. Just like his jihadist comrade Çiftçi, his conviction will most likely be overturned by the regional appeals court. In the meantime, he also remains a free man.
On the other hand, Özden is still in jail, and the court separated his case file at the last hearing held in the ISIL trial on Dec. 21, 2018 in Adana province. He was detained on June 30, 2018 and later formally arrested. Özden had previously been detained six times but was released in all those instances. He will most likely be released in this case as well. The long list of charges against him is overwhelming. For example, in a 2017 case in which Özden was charged under counterterrorism laws, he was accused of involvement with a group that plotted to attack Adana’s Incirlik Air Base, where anti-ISIL coalition forces led by the United States are located. The indictment included a statement by a suspect who spoke about a suicide bombing attack involving the use of two sedans.
The Adana 12th High Criminal Court accepted the indictment, which seeks up to 22 years in prison for the suspects. The other suspects in the network were Abdulkerim Çakar, Ali Konca, Ersin Kıran, Muhammet Toksöz, Murat Tasa, Seyit Ali Şenol, Yılmaz Kotluk, Mahmut Kılıçaslan and Saim Yıldız.