A Turkish jihadist who was trained by Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan joined al-Qaeda in Syria and tried to raise an Ottoman caliphate army composed of Turkish fighters. Despite multiple arrests, he consistently managed to get out of jail in Turkey.
According to intelligence documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, Halil Kurtuluş (aka Abu Muhammed Ali), a 45-year-old resident of Turkey’s northwestern city of Bursa, had gone back and forth between Turkey and Syria since 2012 in order to fight alongside jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
The documents reported him telling his friends about his talks with al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan and how he aspired to create a new jihadist Ottoman caliphate army in Syria while fighting with known jihadist groups. His record shows that he was arrested several times, caught at the border, wounded in clashes and jailed three times only to be released every time so that he could resume his jihadist activities.
Secret Turkish gendarmerie intelligence document identified Halil Kurtuluş as a long-time jihadist:Halil_Kurtulus_background_note
Kurtuluş is one of many Turkish jihadists who were allowed to operate in Syrian territory close to the Turkish border while authorities pretended to be cracking down on such networks that send fighters, funds and supplies to armed groups. His case is a classic example of how the criminal justice system in Turkey functions as a revolving door for violent jihadists who were briefly rounded up when the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feels the heat from the international community or when Turkey gets hit by a major terrorist attack.
His statement taken on March 12, 2018 at a border gendarmerie garrison also reveals how jihadist groups actually work with the Erdoğan government and its proxies in Syria as part of an implicit agreement. He assured border guards that al-Nusra and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham harbored no ill will against Turkey when asked if these jihadist groups deploy fighters, ammunition and explosives on the Turkish border.
The gendarmerie ran a background check on him when he was captured during an attempt to go to Syria illegally and found red flags in the database kept by the gendarmerie intelligence unit. However in the records obtained from the database of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Turkey’s main intelligence service, Kurtuluş came out clean, which was strange given how he had been in and out of jail multiple times on al-Qaeda charges.
Kurtuluş had worked as a recruiter for jihadist group Ketibet ul-Taliban, led by Turkish national İsmet Altın (aka Abu Yasir), who had been operating in the Syrian border regions of Latakia, Idlib (especially the town of Atme) and Harem, close to Turkey, since 2012. He set up a special unit called Fedai, a Turkish word of Arabic origin to refer to fighters willing to sacrifice themselves.
Ketibet ul-Taliban worked closely with the al-Nusra Front, and many Turkish fighters who were trained in Ketibet ul-Taliban later moved to al-Nusra. The intelligence documents show that Kurtuluş later tried to form a new jihadist group under the name of Cund Hilafiye Osmaniye (Ottoman Caliphate Army) and enlisted the help of two Turkish nationals identified as Selim Akkuş and Erdoğan Tozduman, both residents of Bursa.
The background profile of Kurtuluş provides some clues as to how he became radicalized. Growing up in a poor family with two sisters, he immediately began to work in the fields after he completed elementary school and spent his teenage years in an auto mechanic’s shop. He was not a particularly religious figure. In fact, he even attempted to take his own life, which is prohibited in Islam, while doing his compulsory military service in Ezincan province.
A search and seizure warrant revealed that Turkish intelligence agency MIT had no record of Halil Kurtuluş, who had been jailed multiple times over al-Qaeda and other jihadist activities. He also faced no outstanding warrant when he was detained in 2018 as he tried to cross into Syria illegally:Halil_kurtulus_MIT_intel
Upon discharge from the military, he started working in a paint shop and was introduced to the teachings of Tablighi Jamaat in Bursa and started attending their preaching circles in 1999. He got married in 2003 and had a child from the marriage, which fell apart in later years. He was sent to Pakistan to get four months of training in proselytizing delivered by clerics of Tablighi Jamaat. He said he left the group in 2007 when he was prosecuted on al-Qaeda charges and spent eight-and-a-half months in pre-trial detention.
When the conflict started in Syria in 2011, he decided to go there to fight. The intelligence document noted that Kurtuluş took a bus on July 4, 2012 from Bursa to the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı in Hatay province in order to cross into Syria illegally. He eventually settled in Aleppo, fought alongside Ahrar al-Sham, the Sultan Murad Brigade, Liva al-Tawheed (the al-Tawhid Brigade) and the Suqour al-Sham Brigades. He joined in the battles against Syrian regime forces and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)/ Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to the documents.
In the fall 2012 he sustained an injury to his left shoulder during clashes with Syrian government forces in Aleppo and returned to Turkey. In 2013 he went back to Syria through the Turkish border province of Kilis and joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He got into a traffic accident, broke his leg and had to come back to Turkey for treatment. He was rounded up in an al-Qaeda sweep by the police in Bursa and spent four months in jail but in the end was acquitted of charges.
On November 27, 2014 Kurtuluş attempted to cross into Syria but failed and had to return to Bursa, where he was arrested again, this time on charges of membership in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He was released again after four months of pretrial detention. Upon his release he tried several ways to get into Syria, but his efforts were unsuccessful.
Halil Kurtuluş’s statement to the gendarmerie in Hatay province when he was detained as he tried to cross into Syria illegally:Halil_Kurtulus_gendarme_statement
In June 2017, he was arrested by the police on alleged links to the al-Nusra Front and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Again, he spent four months in jail and was released. On March 10, 2018 he took a plane to Hatay from Istanbul to make the trip to Syria but was apprehended by border guards as he and others were trying to cross into Syria from the town of Altınözü in Hatay province.
Some of his family members and friends were the subject of charges stemming from their affiliation with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. His son-in-law Muart Ergüder was jailed on al-Qaeda terrorism charges and spent seven-and-a-half months in jail. Ergüder went to Syria to join Ahrar al-Sham and later returned to Turkey. His stepson Hasan Huseyin Ekti also went to Syria to fight on November 10, 2015. Ekti was detained twice in 2016 as he tried to cross the Turkish Syrian border illegally but was let go.