The mastermind behind a string of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terror attacks including the deadliest in Turkey’s history has been working with the National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MİT), new information uncovered by Nordic Monitor has revealed.
According to a secret note compiled by Turkish police intelligence, İlhami Balı (better known by his nom de guerre Abu Bakr or Ebu Bekir), who was indicted on charges of masterminding the ISIL attacks in 2015, met secretly with MİT agents in the Turkish capital of Ankara in 2016. The information note — whose authenticity was verified during interviews with people who worked in the security branches of the Turkish government and have expertise in terrorism and intelligence matters — suggests Balı’s actions were directed by MİT, which coordinated clandestine operations within ISIL for political goals.
Turkish police investigators discovered that Balı stayed in the then-newly built five-star Ankara Söğütözü Anadolu Hotel for three days between May 27 and 29, 2016, courtesy of MİT despite multiple outstanding arrest warrants issued by Turkish courts. He was protected by MİT agents the entire time and was not allowed to leave his room at the beginning of his stay. His handlers in the hotel were Serhan Albayrak, a contract agent who works on the Syria desk at MİT, and Ahmet Özçelik, a translator who worked on the Iraq desk. During his stay Balı had talks with İlhan Kaya, the MİT station chief in Erbil (who currently leads the special operations desk), and other personnel from the Syria desk. He shaved his beard and wore jeans and a T-shirt to avoid attracting any attention, the note explains.
The investigators also identified his phones, although he changed them several times. According to the note, the following numbers were used by Balı: +90 533 438 10 40 in 2012, +90 536 886 82 89 in 2013, +90 545 340 84 82, +90 536 240 01 35 and +90 543 223 56 73 in 2014; +90 506 555 52 66, +90 536 687 78 89 and +90 545 658 01 91 in 2015; and +90 537 547 19 14 and +90 531 608 23 80 in 2016. A hushed-up investigation in Ankara had previously revealed that Balı had been communicating with foreign ISIL militants by phone when they came to Turkey and wanted to cross into Syria to join ISIL.
MİT’s links to Balı were also intercepted when intelligence agents were communicating with him on WhatsApp about the kidnapping of Pvt. Sefer Taş from a border garrison on September 1, 2015 after ISIL clashed with Turkish army guards in a smuggling dispute. A corporal was killed in the clash. The negotiations took place between Balı and MİT agent Kaya and agent Mutlu Tuka, head of the Syria desk at MİT. However, Taş and another captive Turkish soldier, Fethi Şahin, were burned alive in Syria on December 22, 2016 when it appeared that MİT could have helped free them using its accumulated capital and assets within ISIL.
Balı, born in Reyhanlı in the Turkish border province of Hatay on March 17, 1982, was operating in an al-Qaeda cell before joining the al-Nusra Front in the initial years of the conflict in Syria. A Turkish court had previously convicted him — in an investigation predating the 2011 Syrian crisis — on charges of membership in al-Qaeda and sentenced him to three years in prison. Balı relocated to Syria in 2012. He later moved to ISIL, which tasked him with serving as the ISIL border chief (emir) responsible for the smuggling of jihadists and logistical supplies and the transfer to Turkey of wounded ISIL militants along the Turkish-Syrian border.
The secret information note compiled on Balı:Ilhami_Bali_p2
According to various court indictments reviewed by Nordic Monitor, Balı planned and directed major terrorist attacks in Turkey that resulted in the death of nearly 200 people. Three deadly attacks that took place in 2015 and killed 142 people carried the signature of Balı, who was listed as the number one suspect in a suicide bomb attack ― the deadliest in Turkey’s history ― on October 10, 2015 in Ankara. The explosion killed 105 civilians, including the two suicide bombers, as ISIL militants targeted NGOs and the supporters of left-wing and pro-Kurdish parties who were holding a peace rally outside the city’s main train station just weeks ahead of the November 1, 2015 snap election. The ISIL suicide attack in the town of Suruç on July 21, 2015 that left 33 dead was also planned by Balı, according to Turkish authorities.
The ISIL chief’s footprints were also traced to a suicide bombing and shootings at Istanbul Atatürk Airport on June 28, 2016 that killed 48 people including the three attackers. The urgent cable that was dispatched to MİT units across Turkey by the agency’s General Intelligence Directorate on July 4 highlighted a phone intercept that pointed at Balı’s possible role. The intercept noted that a suspect identified as being among those responsible for the attack was provided logistical support by an Arab man who was connected to Balı. Neither of the two men’s names was mentioned in the information note. In a phone conversation with Balı, the Arab asked for his help in finding an operative who could speak Arabic, and Balı said he would send such a person to Istanbul to help him out.
According to the intelligence, Balı was responsible for trafficking 33 suicide bomb vests that were discovered during a security operation in Turkey on October 13, 2014. He played a role in an attack that killed one Turkish soldier and wounded another on September 1, 2015 in the border province of Kilis. He organized the bombing of a Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) election rally on June 5, 2015 in Diyarbakır that left four people dead, and he helped move perpetrator Orhan Gönder, an ISIL militant, across the border.
The intelligence note also underlines that Balı had been searching for an opportunity to stage a terror attack in Europe in early 2016. He was alleged to be connected to ISIL attackers in Brussels although no detailed information was provided on the nature of this alleged relationship. He was also tied to a suicide bombing that took place on Istiklal Street in Istanbul’s major tourist area of Beyoğlu on March 19, 2016 and killed five people, two of whom were of dual Israeli-US citizenship. An ISIL militant identified only by the code name Marac who was involved in the Istiklal attack as well as an attack on the Gaziantep police station on May 1, 2016 worked under the coordination of Balı.
The note also states that Balı was rewarded for his services and promoted to a higher position in Rakkah and that he had been working on plans to attack the US Embassy and consulates as well as Incirlik Air Base, where the US-led anti-ISIL coalition forces were deployed, using drones.
The 2015 ISIL attacks that were coordinated by Balı had greatly benefited the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The president, who lost his majority in parliament in the June 2015 general election for the first time in 13 years of rule in Turkey, was able to regain the lost votes in early elections on November 1, 2017. Between the two elections, major ISIL attacks masterminded by Balı took place. Turkish voters who defected from Erdoğan’s party in June 2015 were intimidated by the terror attacks and returned to the fold to support Erdoğan due to security concerns.
Following the October 2015 terrorist attack in Ankara, then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the popularity of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) had increased in the aftermath of the incident. Appearing on public television, Davutoğlu said the government could not arrest suicide bombers until they acted, even though the government had a list of names of potential suicide bombers.
Ousted from the government and made a pariah within the ruling party over a power grab dispute with Erdoğan, Davutoğlu has been planning to launch his own party. In a recent speech Davutoğlu said if he were to reveal what happened between the two elections in 2015 with respect to terrorism, those who criticize him would be ostracized. “If the books on the fight against terror are opened, people who criticized us won’t be able to show themselves in public,” Davutoğlu said on August 23, 2019. It was not clear what he was implying, but the Turkish opposition called on him to reveal what he knows about the period in 2015 that was marred by back-to-back terrorist attacks.
The information note obtained by Nordic Monitor is not dated, but it is believed to have been written in May or June of 2016 given the specifics and dates included. In view of the precise details in the note, the experts who examined the document told Nordic Monitor that part of the information appears to have been supplied by insiders within MİT who were not happy about the dirty business some sections of the agency were involved in. The two-page note, written in a Word document, was believed to have been circulated as briefing material for the task force members who were assigned to track and arrest Balı within the police department. The note blames MİT for the failure to apprehend Balı, who has proven to be elusive over the years.
The task force was dismantled after a failed coup bid in 2016, and its members were dismissed along with thousands of veteran police chiefs including mavericks who specialized in monitoring radical jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL. During the year more evidence was uncovered that pointed to clandestine ties between the Erdoğan government and the ISIL and al-Qaeda groups in Syria, with MİT often acting as the coordinator in such schemes.