A Turkish arms trafficker and former special ops officer who was indicted for smuggling weapons and ammunition to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) said he had a sizable setup for procuring arms from the Ukrainian army, which he claims made $67 million in profits annually from the sales.
According to court documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, Nuri Gökhan Bozkır told the judges at the Ankara 28th High Criminal Court in February 2023 about how he set up an arms trafficking ring in Ukraine. He said he purchased redundant arms from the Ukrainian military and refurbished them before sending them to fighters in Syria through Turkey.
The Ukrainian army was making $67 million in profits a year from the sales, he claimed.
Bozkır and his associates were indicted by a prosecutor in 2015 when a truck full of explosives was intercepted in a border town in Hatay province. He was working with Turkish intelligence agency MIT to procure arms and explosives for jihadists. He fled to Ukraine before the trial started.
Bozkır enriched himself in Ukraine by setting up an arms trafficking network, establishing various front companies with the money he earned there. According to the details he provided during a court hearing, his main business was set up in the city of Korosten, a two-hour drive from the capital city of Kiev.
Court records that show the testimony of a Turkish arms trafficker who purchased arms and ammunition from the Ukrainian army to deliver to jihadists in Syria:
“Your honor, I had a place where I bought old arms from the Ukrainian army, refurbished them and officially exported them to various parts of the world,” Bozkır said, suggesting that the arms were not only destined for Syria but also other countries such as Libya, where Turkey was involved in supporting armed groups as well.
Turkey also used him to procure arms and ammunition during military interventions in Syria according to his testimony. Arms used by rebel groups during the Turkish army’s invasions apparently came from the Ukrainian army’s stockpile.
“I risked everything. … My country was under embargo, they didn’t have bullets to shoot, so I exported [arms] using my own company [in Ukraine] [to help the offensive] in Afrin by assuming all the risks myself,” he said. “I can document all of this, Your Honor,” Bozkır added.
When asked how a man whose name was associated with all sorts of illegal activities was able to compete for a Turkish government tender to procure arms, Bozkır said other companies discreetly invited by the government to participate could not secure deliveries and gave the example of 23×152mm high explosive bullets used in artillery cannons as one of the items he shipped to Turkey from Ukraine.
In order to not raise red flags, Bozkır said he was acting as a subcontractor to companies that had obtained contracts from the Presidency of the Defense Industry (Savunma Sanayii Baskanligi, SSB), Turkey’s top defense procurement agency. “In 2019, there was a secret embargo [on Turkey] during operations in Afrin, and Turkey was having difficulty purchasing critical ammunition. The Free Syrian Army [FSA] was not getting supplies. … I had supplies in my warehouses in Ukraine. … I was a subcontractor to companies that had contracts [with the SSB],” he told the court.
Bozkır said he set up this arms trafficking scheme out of loyalty and love for Turkey. He also claimed that he had secured camera parts for Turkey’s Bayraktar drones, which are manufactured by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law. Bayraktar has been subject to restrictions by Canada over the company’s involvement in foreign conflicts and had difficulty finding replacements for camera parts.
When Turkey ran into obstacles and faced sanctions and restrictions as it tried to develop the Altay, Turkey’s first main battle tank program, especially in securing engines, it again turned to arms smugglers, one of whom was Bozkır. He admitted in court how he had illegally and secretly shipped a tank engine to be used in the Altay project. He said he paid $100,000 of his own funds and used his connections in Ukraine to purchase and send the engine to Turkey’s Motor and Tractor Industry Company (TÜMOSAN), which has been working to develop domestically produced engines for the defense industry. “I did this so they could steal the technology,” Bozkır said.
His office in Ukraine was frequented by Turkish intelligence agents including Abdurrahman Simsek, who works under the cover of journalism at Turkey’s Sabah daily, a media outlet owned by Erdogan’s family. In 2018, when Erdogan visited Ukraine and met with Turkish businesspeople at the Turkish embassy, Bozkır was one of the specially invited guests. Erdogan personally expressed his appreciation for the work done by Bozkır in Ukraine.
Bozkır’s luck ran out in 2020 when Erdogan wanted to create leverage to use against the neo-nationalists, with whom he had forged an alliance in 2014. An arrest warrant was issued for him for his alleged involvement in the murder of academic Necip Hablemitoğlu in 2002, which is believed to have been perpetrated by anti-Western neo-nationalists who were linked to İnan Kıraç, a billionaire businessman dubbed the “Lord of Darkness” in organized crime circles. After intense lobbying by Erdogan, Ukraine eventually turned him over to Turkey in January 2022.
Nine suitcases full of cash were transported by Bozkır to pay arms suppliers:
The murder was contracted to a unit of the Combat Search and Rescue (MAK), an elite force attached to the military’s Special Forces Command (ÖKK), of which Bozkır was a member. The goal was to punish Hablemitoğlu for leaking the neo-nationalists’ secret plans.
During the trial Bozkır said he was tortured and questioned at a black site run by the intelligence agency near the airport in Ankara for 25 days and that his interrogators wanted to details about his trafficking network and were not interested in the murder case. He claimed MIT wanted to take over his arms network.
While extradition proceedings were still pending in Ukraine, Bozkır turned to the Ukrainian media to reveal how he shipped arms to jihadists in Syria on behalf of the Erdogan government and shared video footage of suitcases of cash sent by Qatar to finance the arms purchases.
According to the interview published by Strana, a Ukrainian online newspaper, he said he was introduced to MIT by his Syrian partner, Khalil Kharmid, in 2012. The arms were procured by MIT, with Bozkır functioning as a buyer who scouted arms suppliers from Central Asia to Eastern Europe. The money was provided by Qatar and delivered to Turkey in containers on Qatari planes.
“If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed that this was possible. Seven containers full of US dollars arrived from Qatar. They were unloaded in front of me in secrecy — it was all controlled by MIT,” he told Strana, adding that he got as much money as he needed to start bidding for the next batch of arms deliveries. He continued to purchase and deliver weapons to Syria between 2012 and 2015. The purchases were procured by the Turkish army on paper when in fact they were destined for jihadist groups.
Bozkır provided this video that shows fighters receiving arms in Syria in 2015:
A single shipment cost around $2-$4 million depending on the type of arms contracted, and Bozkır transported suitcases full of cash abroad under the control of MIT in order to pay the contractors. The arms were hidden under food and grocery items as was exposed in a 2015 arms trafficking case where high-grade explosive detonation cords destined for jihadists were found stashed under sacks of onions in the back of a truck.
The former military officer also revealed that the price of the arms was inflated in order to take some cuts from the cash delivered by Qatar. “During the purchase and transportation of the weapons, the cost of each batch increased by an average of $2 to $3 million,” he said. The money gained from the bloated figures was taken by MIT.
Considering that Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan had admitted in a leaked audio in March 2014 that Turkey had sent 2,000 trucks loaded with arms to groups in Syria, MIT possibly generated around $4 billion in revenue from the cut it obtained by inflating the figures. This is a huge amount of money that many believe President Erdogan and his family have personally benefited from, thanks to the lucrative arms smuggling to jihadists.
No wonder Erdogan personally raised the extradition of Bozkır during a visit to Ukraine, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He even threatened Ukraine with repercussions in bilateral relations if Bozkır was not handed over. Speaking to reporters on his return flight on February 4, 2020, Erdogan said: “I specifically asked him [the Ukrainian president] to do this [extradite Bozkır]. I said: ‘It’s very, very important to us. He is attempting to get asylum right now. Therefore, if you make a mistake here and open the door to that, it could mean trouble for our relations.’”
After he was handed over to Turkey and subjected to torture in detention for nearly a month, Bozkır retracted what he said during the interview with the Ukrainian newspaper and claimed the journalist misrepresented his words. Instead he offered a new version, saying that arms were destined for the Free Syrian Army as part of a joint train-and-equip program run by Turkey, the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.