A radical imam whose teachings have influenced many jihadists including the killer of the Russian ambassador to Turkey continues to preach freely with protection provided by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Nordic Monitor research identified Hüsnü Aktaş, a 69-year-old cleric who was jailed several times in the past for radical activities, as one of the influencers in the circle of Turkish jihadists who helped radicalize many including Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the 22-year-old police officer who gunned down Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov on Dec. 19, 2016 in the Turkish capital.
The revelations did not come as a surprise given the fact that the foundation run by Aktaş was previously charged with aiding and abetting a Chechen group that hijacked a ferry as it was about to depart the Black Sea province of Trabzon for Sochi in January 1996. The indictment filed at the time against Aktaş and his Vahdet (Unity) Foundation in 1997 showed that the hijackers — identified Turkish nationals Muhammed Emin Tokcan, Tuncer Özcan, Sedat Temiz, Erdinç Tekir, Ertan Coşkun and Ceyhan Molla Mehmetoğlu; Abkhazian national Roki Gitsba; and Chechen nationals Ramazan Zubareyev and Viskhan Abdurrahmanov – received help from the foundation.
The hijackers kept 177 passengers and 55 crewmembers on board the ferry as hostages and diverted the ferry to Istanbul to publicize the situation of Chechens in Russia and demand the release of Chechen fighters under siege by Russian forces. All the suspects were arrested after the 72-hour crisis was resolved with no causalities except that harbor security chief Rahmi Tunca was shot in the leg by the militants. The suspects were tried and convicted, but most broke out of prison under suspicious circumstances.
Aktaş’s name was brought up again during the investigation into the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey where an al-Qaeda-inspired police officer gunned down the envoy in a cold-blooded murder at an art event. It turned out the reclusive police officer had attended one of Aktaş’s sermons. Yet this dangerous cleric was not listed in the Karlov indictment as a suspect but rather testified as a witness. In his statement to the prosecutor, he claimed he did not remember the Russian envoy’s killer attending any of his lectures but admitted that one of his students named Mustafa Akalın later came to him and apologized for bringing the killer to a gathering. He also said he did not remember what he preached when Altıntaş came to his sermon.
Enes Asım Silin, a 30-year old Turkish al-Qaeda militant and suspect in the Karlov case, told a different story about Aktaş, however. In a statement he provided on Jan. 18, 2017, Silin recounted a conversation with the assassin who told him about the talk he had with cleric Aktaş. In his conversation with Altıntaş, Aktaş urged him to resign from the police force, saying that working as a police officer was incompatible with religious principles. Silin is a senior figure in the Turkish al-Qaeda network and one of the board members of the Global Humanitarian Aid and Political Training Center (Küresel İnsani Yardım ve Siyasi Eğitim Merkezi, or KİSEM), which is a front NGO run by İbrahim Şen, a former Gitmo detainee and a convicted senior al-Qaeda militant.
The Erdoğan government hushed up the 2014 probe into al-Qaeda and released all the suspects from custody including Silin, Halis Bayancuk (known by his assumed name of Abu Hanzala) and Şen. The probe revealed how Şen worked as a trafficker and supplier for al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups in Syria through close coordination with Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Embarrassed by the exposé, the Erdoğan government purged all investigators and prosecutors in this al-Qaeda case and jailed most of them on trumped-up charges. Both Bayancuk and Şen were later rearrested in a separate case. Their trials are pending and will likely result in their release, as has happened several times in the past.
Silin, into whom an earlier al-Qaeda probe was discontinued by a new prosecutor selected by Erdoğan to kill the 2014 al-Qaeda investigation, was detained and listed as a suspect in the Karlov case. This Bilkent University-educated man’s Twitter account, @ilgariniyan, which was active until December 2016 but disappeared after the assassination of the Russian envoy, promoted armed jihadist activity according to a review by Nordic Monitor. He wrote flattering comments about slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and called for armed jihad by all Turks when a Russian campaign against jihadists intensified in Syria. In his testimony to the police Silin detailed his conversations with the Russian envoy’s killer over Twitter’s Direct Messaging system and explained how he befriended the killer.
Therefore, a web of links points to jihadist cleric Aktaş, who has been a long-time friend of Erdoğan. In a video recording posted on YouTube, both appear as speakers at a panel discussion held in 1989 on the future of the Islamic movement in Turkey. Despite his track record of radicalizing young people in Turkey and providing logistics for the jihadists, Aktaş remains free from the grasp of the criminal justice system.
Aktaş has been a radical figure from the start and was tried for his radical views and activities when he was attending the theology faculty at Ankara University in 1969. He was again arrested on Nov. 28, 1984 on similar charges and tried by a military court but was released pending trial on Dec. 12, 1985. He moved forward with his radical activities by establishing the Vahdet Foundation (Vahdet Eğitim Yardımlaşma ve Dostluk Vakfı) on July 1, 1988. Aktaş is also close to Nurettin Yıldız, another jihadist figure who is known as the family cleric of Turkish President Erdoğan. According to the investigation file the Russian ambassador’s killer also attended study groups run by Yildiz, who was not investigated as a suspect in the case, either.
The Vahdet group is known for the Misak magazine, which it has been publishing since 1989. The group also runs a website under the same name at http://www.misak.com.tr/. A survey of the articles in the magazine as well as on the website shows support for armed jihadist activity, especially in Syria. It publishes interviews with Turkish jihadists who went to Syria to fight and encourages recruitment for similar activities. In the September 2018 issue Misak interviewed a jihadist named Muhammed Aşıcı, who had returned from Syria’s north where he fought along with Chechen and Uyghur jihadists.
The 1997 indictment of the foundation’s administrators charged Aktaş, Ahmet Töret, Mehmet Emin Bostancıoğlu, Yusuf Akmaz and İbrahim Koca with aiding and abetting terrorist groups. It also revealed that the Vahdet Foundation wired 1.15 billion Turkish lira in five separate transactions to a militant group known as Aczimendiler between Nov. 11, 1996 and May 7, 1997. Aczimendiler was an anti-secular religious sect led by womanizing cleric Müslüm Gündüz, who was arrested by the police on Dec. 28, 1996 in Istanbul. These funds transfers were not disputed by the Vahdet managers including Aktaş, who defended themselves by claiming they were assisting victims and their families.
Aktaş was detained as part of this investigation on May 28, 1997 and formally arrested on June 1, 1997. The Vahdet managers were indicted on June 12, 1997. Aktaş was released from Ulucanlar Prison in Ankara at the second hearing of the trial pending the conclusion of the proceedings.
Today, cleric Aktaş freely preaches across Turkey, distributing publications promoting radical jihadist views and establishing dozens of liaison offices around the country.