The Turkish government axed a proposal to set up a counter-jihadist study group suggested by the United Kingdom to fight radicalism in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda bombings of two synagogues, an HSBC bank branch and the British Consulate General in Istanbul in 2003, the country’s top counterterrorism chief revealed in court.
The UK proposal, the Planned Turkey UK Fundamentalism Project, was conveyed to Ali Fuat Yılmazer, the then-police intelligence chief, by British Embassy liaison officer for terrorism Jim McKay. The project, which was partially financed by the European Union, aimed to research the root causes of religious fundamentalism, devise preventive measures and methods to identify early patterns, build effective counter-narratives and study the personal, social, political, religious and other traits that lead to radicalism.
Yılmazer, a 53-year-old veteran intelligence chief who ran the C-section, which specialized in tracking and identifying religious extremist groups, was an expert in radical groups, was an accomplished officer who set up a monitoring system in Turkey and prepared a curriculum for the police academies and had a background in social studies. He wrote a comprehensive thesis in 2006 on the social factors behind terrorism that manipulates religion for its cause and studied al-Qaeda as a case study as part of his thesis. He gave series of lectures at the National Security Academy, trained senior government bureaucrats and made trips to other countries to share Turkey’s best practices for combating radical terror groups.
Testimony of police chief Ali Fuat Yılmazer revealed that the government prevented the Turkish police from cooperating with the UK on al-Qaeda:Ali_Fuat_YIlmazer_testimony_alqaeda
Impressed with Yılmazer’s expertise and in-depth knowledge of al-Qaeda and other radical religious groups during a meeting with a visiting British delegation in Ankara, UK officials offered him the opportunity to work on a joint Turkish-British project running a comprehensive study on how to deal with religious terrorism. The minutes of the meeting with a visiting British delegation were detailed in an intelligence report on March 20, 2007 that was submitted to court on January 16, 2017 in a case where Yılmazer was tried on dubious charges of abuse of authority after his unlawful dismissal from his job by the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2014.
During the hearing Yılmazer recalled this proposal and follow-up meetings as evidence of how the Erdoğan government had been lenient when it came to al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups in Turkey and its neighborhood. A week after the meeting with the British delegation in 2006, Yılmazer was assigned to Istanbul as provincial intelligence chief.
However, the British Embassy did not let go of its insistence on a joint project and continued to lobby the Erdoğan government. Dame Mariot Leslie, the UK’s then-foreign secretary’s counterterrorism envoy and director general for defense and intelligence, wanted to meet him in person when she visited Turkey April 25-27, 2007. Leslie made a trip to Istanbul after wrapping up the Ankara leg of her visit to have a sit-down and chat with Yılmazer in a meeting that was attended by then-British Ambassador Nick Baird and McKay as well. Leslie later became the UK’s ambassador to NATO and subsequently retired from the diplomatic service.
Despite lobbying for the launch of the joint counterterrorism project against al-Qaeda and other radical groups by British officials, the Erdoğan government balked at the UK’s request. “About this proposal, the then-head of the Security Directorate General [Emniyet] said, ‘No need for such things,’ and we were unable to implement the project. This ‘never-mind mindset’ has surrendered Turkey today to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS] terrorism and has led to the perception that Turkey is a country that supports terrorism all over the world in a way that we do not deserve. The fight against terrorism is in the hands of such a mentality [in the government today],” Yılmazer said in his testimony in court.
At the time the Emniyet was led by Oğuz Kaan Köksal, a police chief who later became a member of parliament on a ticket endorsed by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Köksal received his instructions to turn down the joint counterterrorism project with the UK from the government. After he became a deputy, Köksal was selected to lead the parliamentary Defense Committee with the support of the AKP group in parliament.
“In today’s Turkey, which sees it [work against jihadists] as unnecessary, this [rejection of the joint project with the UK] reflects the understanding that removed personnel who had been fighting against fundamentalism and destroyed with lies and slander the combat mechanism that functioned as an antibody for Turkey and was vital for the country’s future,” Yılmazer told the judges.
Yılmazer was detained in July 2014 after the Erdoğan government accused the police chief of smearing the Mollah Muhammed group, a Turkish al-Qaeda network also known as Tahşiyeciler, and for involvement in the criminal investigation into the group. Mollah Muhammed — real name, Mehmet Doğan — praised al-Qaeda and its late leader Osama bin Laden and suggested that Muslims all over the world should recognize the authority of bin Laden. In seized taped recordings Doğan was heard calling for violent jihad. “I’m telling you to take up your guns and kill them,” he said. He also asked his followers to build bombs and mortar shells in their homes and urged the decapitation of Americans, claiming that Islam allows such practices. “If the sword is not used, then this is not Islam,” he stated.
Mollah Muhammed and his associates in the cell were detained in an operation in İstanbul conducted by Turkish counterterrorism police against the al-Qaeda-linked radical Islamist group on January 22, 2010. During the police raid, bombs were discovered in one of the safe house used by the group. The İstanbul 11th High Criminal Court arrested Doğan and other members of Tahşiyeciler on January 26, 2010. They were later indicted. However while the case was ongoing, President Erdoğan intervened, described Mollah Muhammed as innocent man and secured his release.
In the end all the members of Tahşiyeciler were acquitted by the redesigned judiciary on December 15, 2015 with the help of the Erdoğan government. Yılmazer and other police officials, prosecutors and judges who were involved in the investigation, prosecution and trials were punished by the government. The witch hunt extended to journalists who wrote critically about the group as well. Hidayet Karaca, a prominent journalist who used to run major TV network Samanyolu was indicted for defaming the group in a TV program aired by the network and sentenced to 31 years’ imprisonment at the end of the sham proceedings.
In March 2017 the Erdoğan government also jailed Yılmazer’s two daughters, Fatma Saadet Yılmazer (28), an attorney, and Rabia Fitnat Yılmazer (26), a law faculty student, on trumped-up criminal charges to force them to stop talking to the press about the wrongful imprisonment of their father. Fatma has also been defending her father as his attorney in court proceedings since 2014.