Hamza Yerlikaya, a chief advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who sits on the board of Vakıfbank, the country’s third largest state-owned bank, was involved with Islamist terrorist group the Islamic Great East Raiders Front (İslami Büyük Doğu Akıncıları Cephesi, IBDA/C or IBDA-C).
According to an investigation conducted by Nordic Monitor, Yerlikaya, a former Olympic wrestler, was photographed in October 1995 making a gun hand gesture in IBDA-C style, a typical symbolic display adopted by the terrorist group to send a message, after winning the 1995 World Wrestling Championship in Prague.
In this gesture one raises one’s hand in the air to mimic a handgun, using the thumb as the hammer, the index finger as the barrel and the rest of the fingers folded. In the group’s ideology, this represents martyrdom, armed struggle and allegiance to the radical IBDA-C ideology. The militants also chant religious slogans while making this gesture.
His picture was featured by IBDA-C magazine Akıncı Yolu (Raider’s Path) in its November 1, 1995 issue. The short article, titled “The entire world would recognize this hand,” stated that with the IBDA-C salute, Yerlikaya was sending a message that the real championship would be about the group’s ideology. The photo caption read, ‘The century’s salute from the century’s wrestler.”
After Yerlikaya was featured in the terrorist group’s publication, his employer, the Turkish State Railway (TCDD), fired him.
The picture of Yerlikaya was frequently used by IBDA-C militants to explain how sports would look under the Islamic state that would be established with an armed struggle. For example, Osman Temiz Öksüzoğlu, a gym teacher at a religious imam-hatip high school who was jailed on terrorism charges, wrote an article in August 1999 from his prison cell for Akademya, another publication of the IBDA-C, featuring Yerlikaya’s picture at the wrestling championship.
The group is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
The IBDA-C claimed responsibility for a range of terrorist acts in Turkey including what authorities said was a joint plot with al-Qaeda in carrying out the 2003 İstanbul bombings of two synagogues, an HSBC bank branch and the British Consulate General, and the 2008 attack on the US Consulate General in İstanbul as well as the killings of dozens of people in the 1990s. The group’s leader, Salih İzzet Erdiş, popularly known by his followers as Commandant Salih Mirzabeyoğlu, was arrested in December 1998 for leading an armed terrorist group and sentenced to aggravated life.
President Erdoğan brought Yerlikaya to parliament in 2007 on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ticket and later made him deputy minister of the Youth and Sports Ministry, where he had previously worked as an advisor. In 2015, he became a chief advisor to the president. The 44-year-old former wrestler was appointed as a board member at the state-run Vakıfbank in June 2020, which drew criticism from the opposition parties due to his credentials.
Erdoğan, whose past is rooted in the Islamist Akıncılar (Raiders) movement of the late 1970s, a separate but similar group to the IBDA-C and with same goals, not only helped Yerlikaya obtain an important position in the government but also secured the release of the IBDA-C leader from prison. Then-Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ even petitioned the Supreme Court of Appeals on behalf of the government to overturn his conviction, and Erdoğan publicly commented on the urgency of his release on several occasions.
When he was finally released on July 23, 2014 under immense pressure from the government — which had already taken control of the judiciary in the aftermath of corruption scandals in December 2013 that implicated Erdoğan and some members of his family — Mirzabeyoğlu was personally collected from the prison gate of the Bolu high security prison by İhsan Ağcan, the deputy mayor of the city from the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), accompanied by dozens of people chanting “God is the greatest” with fireworks in the background.
In his first public comments to reporters at a restaurant immediately after he was released from prison, Mirzabeyoğlu expressed surprise over his release and thanked Erdoğan and Bozdağ for their interest in his case. Erdoğan personally called to congratulate him on the day he was freed and later received him in his İstanbul office for a one-on-one meeting, on Nov. 29, 2014. Describing him as his brother, then-Deputy Prime Minister Emrullah İşler, the government’s point man on the clandestine task of driving an Islamist agenda in the Middle East and North Africa, also hailed his release. In his first public event after his release, Mirzabeyoğlu appeared at a conference at the Haliç Congress Center, a major conference venue owned by the government.
Mirzabeyoğlu passed away in May 2018, but his network is very much alive and is in fact expanding. The IBDA-C runs the recruitment of Turkish jihadists who end up in Syria to fight for al-Qaeda as well as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, the former chief of general staff, visited Mirzabeyoğlu’s grave on July 24, 2020 right after he attended the first Friday prayer held at Hagia Sophia, formerly a church, mosque and museum which was again converted into a mosque by President Erdoğan. Taner Yıldız, a former energy minister and Islamist politician, accompanied him.
Mirzabeyoğlu first started out as a publisher in the mid-1970s and later organized the IBDA-C in 1984, using a cell-based approach. The group has brought a radical interpretation to the literature and teachings of Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, the late renowned Turkish poet and writer, and introduced the element of violence and armed struggle as legitimate tools for the Islamist ideology. The group is organized based on independent cells composed of several people who boast the individual belief of “self-induced manifestation,” which does not require a hierarchy or central orders to move against a target. IBDA-C members are led to believe in an eventual mass uprising disrupting the established order in Turkey and the world. Each and every member is tasked with waging a militia-type war on every platform to foment chaos, stir up rebellion and destroy institutions.
The group operates on two fronts. One is composed of legal activities such as publications, websites, conferences, gatherings and exhibitions that serve as a conduit to propagate ideas and guide the members on IBDA-C ideology. Osama bin Laden, the late leader of al-Qaeda, is glorified and his death is considered to be martyrdom. The US, the UK and Israel are considered the greatest terrorists.
On the illegal front, IBDA-C cells are usually composed of three to five people and operate independently of each other. They decide on the target, timing and tactics and later inform the publication of their plans, performance and results. Since their capacity, resources and manpower are limited, cell members search for sensational attacks that will generate more news bytes. Media outlets, minority groups and mosques that belong to hostile groups and foreign embassies are natural targets. For example, the 1997 attack on a bookstand that sold Christian books in Gaziantep was claimed by the IBDA-C. It claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Free and Accepted Masons Grand Lodge Association’s building in Yakacık near Kartal in İstanbul. Turkish police had to round up close to a dozen suspects during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey in 2006 after learning of an alleged plot by the IBDA-C.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) then-parliamentary group deputy chairman Ali Topuz claimed in 2003 that Erdoğan was one of the original leaders of the İBDA-C. He also alleged that convicted felons from the group were employed by the İstanbul Municipality when Erdoğan was mayor of the city. Erdoğan denied the allegations.