New details have emerged in the case of Muriel Degauque, a female suicide bomber, revealing that Belgian authorities had been monitoring her for two years and were warned by a top Turkish counterterrorism police chief a month before she blew herself up in Baghdad in a 2005 terrorist attack.
According to court transcripts obtained by Nordic Monitor, Ali Fuat Yılmazer, head of the police intelligence section that specialized in radical religious groups, and his team investigated a foreign national and their associates in Turkey with connections to Belgium and obtained intelligence that the group might be connected to al-Qaeda. The police chief sent a brief note to the security attaché at the Belgian Embassy in Ankara warning about a radical terrorist network that had connections to Belgium and that might be in preparations to launch a terror attack. Among those who were flagged by the police was Degauque.
The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office took the report seriously and invited Yılmazer to give his assessments in person. He went to Brussels to talk to the authorities and found that the same people he had reported on had been under surveillance by Belgian investigators for the last two years.
“The chief federal prosecutor personally presided over the meeting. All the security services had representatives present. He said, ‘How did you determine that they were in preparations for a terrorist act? We do not have any findings indicating if they are al-Qaeda jihadists or if they are seeking to commit an act of violence so that we can pursue legal action. He asked, ‘How did you reach your assessment?’” Yılmazer recalled.
The police chief shared details of his team’s findings in Turkey and said the assessment he and his colleagues had made was based on red flags raised during the course of the probe that suggested to the police that the suspects might have been planning an attack. After the meeting, the prosecutor requested that Yılmazer review the evidence about the group collected by Belgian security and share his assessment based on their findings.
After going through the evidence in a second meeting that was attended by some half a dozen Belgian security officers from various branches, Yılmazer conveyed his conclusions to the federal prosecutor. “I said these individuals are definitely a high-risk group that is making preparations for a terrorist act. You have followed them; you may not have had any concrete findings about a possible act, but know that in the near future, they can act. I gave this evaluation and then returned [to Turkey],” he explained to the court. Degauque was among the people who were surveilled.
Transcript of court testimony saying that Ali Fuat Yılmazer, head of police intelligence at the time, warned the Belgian federal prosecutor about a Belgian suicide bomber:Yilmazer_al_Qaeda_Belgium
A month later, Belgian authorities invited him to Brussels again, but his boss, the then-head of the Security Directorate General (Emniyet) Oğuz Kaan Köksal, a police chief who later became a member of parliament on a ticket endorsed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), prevented him from going, saying, “Let it go.” Then Belgian officials came to Turkey to talk to him to take advantage of Yılmazer’s expertise in tracking al-Qaeda groups.
It turned out that since they talked to Yılmazer for the first time in Belgium and heard his warning about an impending attack by people who were already under monitoring, a terrorist attack took place in Iraq. The suspects, who had been under surveillance in Belgium for the past two years, were Muriel Degauque and her second husband Hissam Goris, a Belgian national of Moroccan origin who helped radicalize her. Degauque married Goris after her first marriage to a Turkish man fell apart.
Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian woman who changed her name to Myriam, blew herself up on a roadside in the northern part of Baghdad on November 9, 2005. Her husband was killed by US forces hours later before he could act. The investigation revealed that the couple crossed into Iraq through Turkey and that they had help with logistics and financing from the al-Qaeda network in Turkey.
On August 15, 2006 Turkish police detained three people in the border province of Hatay. A 27-year-old Tunisian man named Malek Charahili. another Tunisian and one Moroccan were also detained by the police during a raid on their house, where police found materials that could be used in bomb making as well as a pellet gun. Two days later Charahili was formally arrested, while the other two were released and one was later deported.
The police were listening in on the suspects’ phone conversations for six months and found that Charahili was using the code names “Aziz Ebu” and “Mezin Eslim” and acquired a forged passport under the name of Faid Zagdaudi. The police found that Charahili was connected to a man named Bilal Soughir Lougili, a Belgian national, when Charahili first arrived in Istanbul and obtained funding to finance jihadist activity. Turkish police inspected Lougili’s bank accounts to trace his connections. That is when, it appears, Yılmazer decided to contact the Belgian Embassy and alert them about a possible terrorist plot.
Turkish investigators believed Charahili was tapped to replace Louai Sakka, the mastermind of deadly al-Qaeda bombings in Istanbul in 2003, as the senior al-Qaeda figure in Turkey following Syrian national Sakka’s capture in 2005. Sakka was the main suspect in the terror attack, which killed 58 people in Istanbul. Two truck bombs on November 15 and November 20, 2003, struck two synagogues, the British Consulate General and an HSBC bank branch and left more than 600 people injured. It was the largest terrorist act in Turkey at the time.
Among the dead were Consul General Roger Short, 58, and two other Britons. Sakka, a bomb-maker and alleged associate of al-Qaeda’s former leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was given a life sentence for planning and securing financing for the attack, for which a Turkish cell of al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility.
Charahili’s cell was uncovered during the police investigation into a jihadist network that was transporting European militants to Iraq through Turkey. Charahili pretended to be a merchant, selling furniture and luggage in Hatay province. But that was simply a pretense.
In his initial statement he admitted that he had fought along with resistance units under the command of slain al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2005 during clashes in the Iraqi city of Falluja and spent time in an Iraqi jail until his release in 2006. Then he moved to Istanbul and later ended up in the Turkish province of Hatay on the Syrian border. Charahili left his home country in 2003 via Libya and arrived in Syria for a religious education. He was also arrested by Syrian authorities and spent two months in detention before he was released.
After his arrest in Turkey, Charahili was indicted on September 14, 2006. During the first hearing in the trial on November 9, 2006, Charahili denied accusations that he was al-Qaeda member and instead claimed he belonged to the Tunisian an-Nahda organization, a Muslim Brotherhood network that was an outlawed group in Tunisia at the time.
In a hearing held on January 25, 2007 Charahili alleged that the bomb making materials belonged to his roommate and asked the court to not release him from pretrial detention for fear of getting killed and possibly deported to Tunisia, where he faced a criminal investigation that later led to his conviction. “If I get extradited, I would be killed,” he told the judges at the Adana 6th High Criminal Court. On April 12, 2007 he was released pending trial, but his asylum application was denied, and he was put into administrative detention in an immigration center.
As the investigations deepened, the police investigators uncovered a plot by Charahili and his associates, who were planning to launch bomb-laden boat attacks against Israeli ships anchored in the Turkish port of Iskenderun.
Yılmazer said the Belgian officials told him they failed to find solid evidence about the Belgian jihadists in the network even after Degauque and her jihadist husband were killed in the terror attack in Iraq. He and his team helped the Turkish prosecutor launch criminal proceedings in Turkey which he claimed to have contributed to the ongoing case in Belgium.
Yılmazer, a 53-year-old veteran intelligence chief who specialized in radical groups, set up a monitoring system for radical groups in Turkey and prepared a curriculum for the police academies. He has a background in social studies and wrote a comprehensive thesis in 2006 on the social factors behind a type of terrorism that manipulates religion for its cause and examined al-Qaeda as part of the thesis. He has lectured at National Police Academy and went abroad to present his views on radical terrorism.
The Erdoğan government was not comfortable with Yılmazer’s track record since it bothered some of the extremist groups that had supported Erdoğan in the elections. He 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 being involved 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. The İstanbul 11th High Criminal Court arrested Doğan and other members of Tahşiyeciler on January 26, 2010. They were later indicted, but 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 the other police officers, 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.
In March 2017 the Erdoğan government also jailed Yılmazer’s wife Mualla and his two daughters, Fatma Saadet Yılmazer, an attorney, and Rabia Fitnat Yılmazer, a law faculty student, on trumped up criminal charges in order to get them to stop talking to the press about the wrongful imprisonment of Ali Fuat. Fatma has also defended her father as his attorney in court proceedings since 2014.
His revelations on Degauque were made during a hearing held at the Istanbul 14th High Criminal Court on January 16, 2017 during which the veteran police chief accused the Erdoğan government of turning a blind eye to the operations of jihadist networks including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).