The Turkish government deliberately set the stage for a deadly Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attack in a Turkish border city five years ago by crippling the National Police Department and launching a huge shakeup that resulted in unqualified staff leading critical departments such as intelligence.
The politically motivated shake-up had removed 85 intelligence officers working for the National Police Department, the main law enforcement agency in Turkey, in the border city of Suruç before the ISIS suicide attack killed 33 people on July 20, 2015. The attack targeted mostly members of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), Kurdish socialists who planned to contribute to efforts to rebuild the Syrian border town of Kobani, largely destroyed after a battle in which ISIS was pushed out.
The abrupt and summary removal of 85 intelligence officers out of 115 who had been keeping tabs on terror networks and jihadists in Suruç, a key crossing point to Syria, lent further credence to allegations that the move was deliberate on the part of the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government, which was found to have aided and abetted jihadists for years in a bid to topple the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus. Suruç had been in the spotlight because the nearby Syrian border town of Kobani was under siege by ISIS and the area was a corridor for the passage of ISIS militants.
Five years have passed since the ISIS attack, yet the cloud of suspicion of the government’s complicity has never dissipated, and the trial in the case brought more questions than answers on the masterminds of the attack. The Erdoğan government’s removal of police intelligence officers came after the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) was caught shipping heavy weaponry to jihadist groups in Syria in January 2014. The government managed to hush up the probe into the illegal shipment but also suspended all ongoing investigations into al-Qaeda and ISIS, ordering a halt on wiretaps of suspected militants.
The fact that some of the police intelligence officers were assigned to positions that have nothing to do with their expertise further confirmed that the arbitrary dismissals were punitive and vindictive. It was aimed at sending a chilling message across the law enforcement community that anybody who dares investigate jihadist groups would share the same fate.
For example Metin O., the intelligence chief of the Şanlıurfa police department, a veteran officer with substantial expertise in jihadist groups, was reassigned to work for the Turkish State Meteorological Service. Ali T., a police chief who worked in the police intelligence service in the same province, was shipped to a cultural center as an employee. Ramazan M., another veteran intelligence officer who worked on al-Qaeda and ISIS files in the western province of Izmir, was reassigned to Şanlıurfa, but before he assumed his post in the province he was quickly appointed to a night guard position in the state-run regional highway authority. A police chief named Suat Ç., a well-known expert on Turkish Hezbollah, was appointed to the State Opera and Ballet.
Abdurrahman Alagöz, the suicide bomber who perpetrated the attack, turned out to be on the watch list. His father had reported him and his elder brother Yunus Emre Alagöz as missing persons two months before the attack. The alert issued on June 10, 2015 by the Adıyaman police department about the missing brothers on suspicion of terrorist involvement was transmitted to Suruç three days later, but the authorities failed to take any action.
There is only one suspect in connection to Suruç — Yakup Şahin, who is in a pretrial detention. Fourteen hearings have been held in the trial so far, but Şahin has never been brought to the courtroom and instead has testified by teleconference from prison. The defense lawyers’ repeated motions to have him in the courtroom during cross-examination have been rejected by the panel of judges who are hearing the trial. Moreover, the government did not hand over video footage it collected from public security cameras and nearby shops to the defense lawyers, who wanted to examine the videos that recorded events before and after the attack.
İlhami Balı, the mastermind and number one suspect in the indictment, remains a fugitive. Nordic Monitor previously revealed how Balı was a guest of MIT in the capital after the deadly attacks. Abdullah Ömer Aslan, a radical imam who was caught after the attack, was let go and all charges were dropped even though he had an ISIS flag in his bag and his phone records showed he had frequently communicated with people in Syria. Under pressure, the prosecutor had to initiate an investigation into him later on, but no arrest warrant issued and no indictment filed. Mehmet Yapalıal, the then-police chief of Suruç, was let go with a slap on the wrist and fined 7,500 lira for “neglect of duty and misconduct in office.”
A report prepared by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) after the attack claimed that MIT knew there was a bomb attack planned in Suruç. Families whose children joined the ranks of ISIS told the visiting CHP delegation that their children had joined ISIS with MİT’s knowledge and that the ISIS presence in the city was widely known. The delegation accused Erdoğan of turning MIT into his own intelligence service and claimed that MIT, which wiretaps everyone on Erdoğan’s orders, could not be believed to have been unaware of the attack in advance.
The effects of an unprecedented purge in the police department that started in December 2013 when graft probes that incriminated Erdoğan and his close circle went public were felt the most strongly in provinces such as İstanbul, Şanlıurfa and Diyarbakır, where ISIL cells maintained a significant presence. Erdoğan branded the graft probes as a coup attempt against his government and accused his critic, the Gülen movement, of being behind it. Without providing any solid proof, thousands of police officers and hundreds of prosecutors were removed.