A Turkish court in 2016 acquitted most of the al-Qaeda suspects who were operating in a cell located in Turkey’s eastern province of Erzurum while commuting the light sentences given to a few defendants in a case that confirmed how the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is systematically and deliberately preventing the criminal justice system from pursuing radical militants.
The judges at the Erzurum 2nd High Criminal Court — Ömer Özgür Ercan, Zafer Turan and Burak Akpinar — ruled to acquit 16 al-Qaeda suspects from a cell on Turkey’s eastern border and commuted the light sentences given to the remaining three for good behavior. The judges said they believed the suspects would not engage in further criminal activity and that they should all be released into the community.
According to documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, the al-Qaeda investigation was launched after family members filed a complaint with the police that their children were recruited by radical elements and trafficked to Syria to fight with jihadist groups. Three fathers identified as Resul Belir, Şemsettin Özel and Resul Ağirbaş filed the complaint about their missing children and informed authorities that they were lured by radical groups. Another father, Hasan Palat, testified that his son Ahmet Balat went missing and that he later learned he had been shot to death in a rural area of Aleppo.
Upon receipt of the complaints, the police investigated the network, wiretapped key operatives and other members and raided their homes to execute search and seizure warrants. Even government employees including a preacher who was working for the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) were members of the cell’s al-Qaeda group. The Erzurum cell was run by Turkish national Yahya Demir, a 34-year-old man from the province’s Yakutiye district. The investigation resulted in a police operation on Oct. 12, 2015 with 11 suspects detained. Ten suspects were formally arrested at their arraignment, while one was released pending trial under judicial supervision.
As the investigation deepened, the number of suspects who were later indicted and tried increased to 19 in total. The suspects indicted on al-Qaeda charges on Jan. 12, 2016 under indictment No. 2016/188 are listed as Fuat Karademir, Mustafa Nurullah Çekiç, Adem Araci, Orhan Polat, Ethem Karabulut, Yunus Dinçkan, Kubilay Erçel, Yahya Demir, Rıfat Esen, Emrah Araci, Alibey Tursun, Ahmet Çelebi, Muhammed Emre Eser, Muhammed İşler, Ercan Boztaş, İbrahim Samet Çanğa, Abdullah Demircan, Abdulkadir Şimşek and Murat Akkuş.
The investigators found that the Demir group had been operating with the Malatyalılar group, a radical, secretive organization that had infiltrated the security establishment in the Turkish government. The Malatyalılar, a deadly network, had faced a crackdown in the past, and their leaders were convicted and handed down lengthy prison sentences. Yet they were released in 2014 with the help of the Erdoğan government.
This particular al-Qaeda cell organized themselves around several front NGOs such as the Çağrı Association (Çağrı Derneği), the Abdurrahman Gazi Foundation (Abdurrahman Gazi Vakfı) and the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH). The cell members were also active in the Turkish provinces of Erzincan, Konya and Diyarbakır, from where some recruits were shipped to Syria.
The Demir group ran a student house in Erzurum where not only residents of the province but also others from outside the area were given accommodation while simultaneously receiving training and indoctrination.
Suspect Dinçkan, a 26-year-old from Turkey’s central province of Karaman, was responsible for running this safe house. For example, when suspect Demircan, a resident of Diyarbakır and an operative of the al-Nusra Front attached to the Hami cell in that province, came to join the Erzurum cell on the pretext of education, his contact person was Dinçkan, according to the investigation file. Among the university students who were radicalized were Akkuş, a medical student, Çelebi, also a student, Dinçkan, a theology student at the university, and Erçel, a 26-year-old student at the school of dentistry and a resident of Elazığ. Dinçkan was arrested on Oct. 12, 2015 and released on Aug. 18, 2016.
Asked about Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda materials found on his computer, Erçel said he was interested in learning about them and admitted that he was influenced by the publications. In his defense statement, Çelebi, a 34-year-old resident of Erzurum, stated that the materials in Arabic found in his home concerned the management of Hamas and their publications. He said he came to possess them after Hamas distributed publications at a fair held in Turkey’s conservative province of Konya. Çelebi was arrested on Oct. 16, 2015 but released pending trial on March 29, 2016.
The student safe house was owned by 56-year-old al-Qaeda figure Şimşek, also a suspect in the case, who was detained in 2009 as part of an al-Qaeda investigation and served time in jail in Erzurum. Şimşek was arrested on Nov. 5, 2015 but released on Aug. 18, 2016 pending the conclusion of the trial proceedings.
An examination of the evidence seized in the suspect’s home in a remote village revealed photos that showed him training two Turkish militants: Araci, a 32-year-old resident of Erzurum, and Dinçkan. He was coordinating with the Demir group. A video recording showed him and others training in armed combat and making preparations to go to Syria. He also possessed ISIL’s black and white flag. Although he did not contest the evidence presented against him, the court acquitted him of terrorism charges and convicted only on the “possession of illegal ammunition,” which required a lesser sentence. Even that light sentence was commuted by the court.
Asked during a hearing about a photo in which Şimşek was holding a rifle along with several young men in a village, Şimşek claimed he owned the gun to protect himself from wild animals and denied accusations that he had led arms training for al-Qaeda militants. The police search found jihadist publications in his home and similar materials downloaded to his computer. He also admitted that he had attended an event organized by the IHH.
Among the jihadists who went to Syria from this cell were İşler and Çekiç, who left Konya to illegally cross into Syria on Oct. 1, 2015 and returned on Oct. 4, 2015. They were both listed as suspects in the case. The police investigation found al-Qaeda militant Boztaş was detained on Aug. 3, 2015 by border guards in the town of Altınözü in Hatay province while he was trying to cross into Turkey along with four other suspects. However, all the suspects were released after a brief detention and slapped with a fine. He was later named a suspect in the Erzurum case.
Wiretap recordings of the suspects revealed how the group members were radicalized. For example, the wiretap of a call between suspect Tursun and an unidentified person on Aug. 19, 2015 showed that Tursun was told by the man that he had killed somebody, prompting Tursun to praise him and say that Allah would reward him. The conversation was focused on activities supporting ISIL. In another conversation on Sept. 24, 2015, Tursun commented on the death of 753 people during the annual Hajj pilgrimage of Muslims in Saudi Arabia and stated that they should have been killed while engaging in jihad rather than during the pilgrimage. In other wiretaps Tursun was heard talking about his support for al-Qaeda and ISIL.
Suspect Tursun, a 43-year-old government employee and resident of Erzurum, acknowledged during hearings held on Feb. 8, 2016 and March 29, 2016 that he had connected to other al-Qaeda militants over the Internet and said he was quite pleased with any group that harbored hostility towards the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which are considered to be enemies of al-Qaeda and ISIL. He was arrested on Oct. 14, 2015 and released on Dec. 14, 2015. He was arrested again on March 29, 2016 but released on April 8, 2016.
Karademir, a 41-year-old resident of Erzurum and administrator of the Dawa Association, claimed in his defense that he did not know a flag hung on a wall during a wedding he attended was an ISIL flag and denied his involvement with jihadist groups. He said all the activities of the association were legal.
Çekiç, a 27-year-old graduate of a medical school in Aksaray province, said the ISIL flag was used by all religious organizations in Turkey and even by the Turkish government’s Religious Affairs Directorate. He admitted that he got to know the other suspects in the case through the Çağrı Association, the Abdurrahman Gazi Foundation and the IHH. Demir, who worked for the Çağrı Association, said he handled communications at the association, knew the university students and defended himself by saying that he had been trying to promote his religious views and beliefs according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Known by the code name Mücahid (jihadist), Demir denied claims that he had sent people to Syria to fight but admitted reciting jihadist songs (nasheed) at the wedding that had featured the ISIL flag. He was arrested on Oct. 10. 2015 and released on Aug. 18, 2016.
Testifying in court on March 29, 2016 suspect Adem Araci, a 29-year-old store owner from Erzurum’s Palandöken district, denied the charges leveled against him but admitted crossing into Syria illegally. He claimed he went to deliver humanitarian aid on behalf of the IHH and that the trip did not involve any fighting. “We crossed near a military border checkpoint, and the troops were watching us. We also knew the current government’s position towards victims of war [in Syria]. … I’m sure Mr. Prosecutor would have gone there as well if he had seen the intensive bombardment campaign at the time. This is our humanitarian duty. Was it a crime to help these people?” he asked. He was arrested on Oct. 23, 2015 and released on Aug. 18, 2016.
Emrah Araci, known by his adopted name Huzeyfe, defended himself by saying that he visited the student home to give religious sermons and had nothing to do with either al-Qaeda or ISIL. He was pictured at the wedding with the black and white jihadist flag and also while holding a rifle in a village home. He was arrested on Oct. 14, 2015 and released on Aug. 18, 2016.
Suspect Eser, a graduate student at the faculty of agriculture, admitted to attending a picnic with the other suspects and possessing jihadist books but denied any association with armed jihadist groups. Suspect İşler, 28-year-old university student from Malatya province, said he attended lectures given at the Çağrı Association and admitted posing at his close friend’s wedding with the jihadist flag.
Boztaş, a 39-year-old from Erzurum who was accused of going to Syria to wage jihad, denied he had ever visited there. He said he had applied to go to Syria to deliver aid to the Syrian Turkmen ethnic group but that his application was turned down. Instead he went to a border area in Hatay province by himself but did not cross into Syria. He claimed he was detained by the gendarmerie upon his return. The court papers show he was arrested on Oct. 14, 2015 and released on April 12, 2016.
Çanğa, a 28-year-old government employee from Adıyaman province, claimed the jihadist books he owned were published with the permission of the Ministry of Culture. He said he had attended lectures at the Çağrı Association. He explained that he staged a theater skit during the wedding of Enes Kılıç, at which the jihadist flag was displayed.
Testifying at a hearing on May 25, 2016 suspect Karabulut, a 46-year-old government preacher who had worked for the Religious Affairs Directorate since 2003, defended himself by saying that he went to the wedding in an official capacity and gave a sermon there. A resident of Erzurum, the preacher said the black and white jihadist flag was seen in various places and that it was quite a routine and normal thing to observe.
Demircan, a 31-year-old resident of Diyarbakır and a student at the journalism school of Atatürk University, testified on Aug. 18, 2016 that he came to know the other suspects because he was looking for a place to stay during his studies. The jihadist publications that were found in his possession were materials he downloaded from the Internet to read as a journalism activity. Suspect Esen acknowledged that he had shown an interest in guns and downloaded relevant documents on firearms from the Internet. He admitted that he had raised funds for the foundation.
Eser, a 35-year-old resident from Erzurum’s Yakutiye district, was arrested on Oct. 14, 2015 and released on April 15, 2016. Esen, a 40-year-old resident of Ağrı, was arrested on Oct. 14, 2015 and released on Aug. 18, 2016.
On Dec. 29, 2016 at the last hearing of the trial, the court acquitted all 19 suspects of membership in the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, citing a lack of evidence. Only three suspects, Eser, Tursun and Şimşek, received one-year jail sentences for disseminating the propaganda of a terrorist group, but the judges reduced their sentences to 10 months for good behavior. Their sentences were later commuted and they were freed by the judges, who wrote in their judgement that they believed the suspects would no longer engage in similar activity and that they displayed a good character. On the charges of possession of illegal ammunition, the judges sentenced Şimşek to 25 days in jail but later commuted this sentence as well. A fine of 80 Turkish lira ($15) was imposed.
The case is yet another example of how the Turkish criminal justice system fails to successfully prosecute jihadists and follows the political signals from the Erdoğan government, which aids and abets jihadist groups instead of cracking down on them.