Although he later pursued a more critical line with regard to ISIS, Hanzala’s preaching prompted many to join jihadist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda. Although he remains behind bars, he runs his network from his prison cell, sending his regular writings to be published in the group’s magazine. Writes Abdullah Bozkurt
The network of jailed jihadist preacher Abu Hanzala (real name Halis Bayancuk), who encouraged many young men to join al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is up and running in Turkey with the full knowledge of the Turkish authorities.
The group has in fact expanded its operations with a new entity called Ecir Kapısı Hizmet Eğitim ve Kültür Derneği, a front charity that helps raise funds for the group, established in April 2019.
The association’s records, reviewed by Nordic Monitor, show that its licensing was approved by the Interior Ministry under registration number 34-251-178 and that it is currently listed as an active organization.
The association raises funds in foreign denominations and Turkish lira using Kuveyt Türk, an Islamic lender run by the close associates of the Turkish president, or the money transfer network of Wise, formerly known as TransferWise, a London-based financial technology company.
It has branches in several provinces including Diyarbakır, Bursa, Konya and Van.
The Hanzala group’s publishing house, Tevhid Kitabevi, based in Konya, also remains active selling books, while its online version disseminates Abu Hanzala’s articles and sermons.
Abu Hanzala, now 37 years old, has been under the monitoring of Turkish police since 2007, when he started preaching radical views in line with al-Qaeda ideology.
His father Hacı Bayancuk was involved in the murder of Diyarbakır Police Chief Ali Gaffar Okkan, who was killed on January 24, 2001 along with five other police officers. He was convicted of membership in Turkish Hizbullah, an Iran-backed terrorist group that draws its recruits from radical Kurdish groups. Hizbullah’s political arm, Huda-Par, is currently allied with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Abu Hanzala spent four years in Egypt but had to flee to Turkey when Egyptian authorities started a crackdown on his group there. He was involved in the Turkish al-Qaeda network after Habip Akdaş, a chief al-Qaeda figure in Turkey who carried out the deadly 2003 attacks on the British Consulate General, the local HSBC headquarters and two synagogues in İstanbul, was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq.
In 2008 Abu Hanzala and 35 other suspects were detained in connection with a new terrorist plot targeting a synagogue in Istanbul. He was indicted, with prosecutors demanding a sentence of 15 to 22.5 years’ imprisonment for leading a terrorist organization. According to a court brief filed by trial prosecutor Celal Kara in September 2009, Abu Hanzala was the number one suspect in the prosecution of al-Qaeda along with 31 co-conspirators.
The indictment, reviewed by Nordic Monitor, revealed that the police investigation into the group concluded that Abu Hanzala was leading a group at the time in line with al-Qaeda ideology and was poised to carry out terrorist acts in Turkey. The investigators found that Abu Hanzala was meeting with known jihadists who were convicted and served time in prison and talking with them on the phone.
Abu Hanzala frequently made trips to Gaziantep, a province on the Turkish-Syrian border, and met with jihadist militants who were later killed in a shootout with the police. The police wiretap and surveillance of the group and its illegal madrasas revealed that Bayancuk was in close contact with jihadist Mehmet Yılmaz, who was killed when he opened fire on police during a raid.
The group rejects Turkey’s constitutional order, which is considered to be blasphemy, and aims to establish a religious state based on the principles of shariah. It approved the use of arms and violence to topple the regime and promote the group’s agenda.
The police discovered some bomb making materials and notes on how to build improvised explosive devices during the execution of search warrants on the premises of suspects.
Since then, Abu Hanzala has been in and out of prison, faced criminal prosecution and stood trial. The Erdoğan government lent a hand to him when he was detained in a January 2014 al-Qaeda nationwide sweep. The investigation revealed that the network was involved in the transfer of foreign and Turkish fighters into Syria and facilitating the entry of al-Qaeda fighters from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan into Syrian territory.
The suspects were also collecting donations from locals in Turkey and transferring them to al-Qaeda fighters in Syria in cooperation with Turkish intelligence agency MIT.
However, the prosecution was thwarted when the government killed the investigation by removing police chiefs and prosecutors who were looking into Hanzala and other al-Qaeda militants. Hanzala was released in October 2014 after the government set up a special partisan court system known as the penal courts of peace.
Erdoğan later enlisted him as an ally against his chief critic Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim scholar resident in the US who opposed Erdoğan’s policies in arming radical jihadist groups and criticized pervasive corruption in the administration.
Hanzala was even portrayed in the pro-government Star daily in December 2014 as a victimized man. In an interview with the daily, Hanzala accused Gülen of being behind investigations into his group. He had been allowed to freely preach in various provinces and expand his platform.
In July 2015 an emboldened Hanzala led hundreds of his supporters in Eid prayers in Istanbul after which they criticized the Turkish government and made a call for war. The meeting was branded by the opposition as an assembly of ISIS militants.
The group gathered at picnic grounds in Istanbul’s Ömerli neighborhood to perform the prayers. Hanzala called on his supporters after the prayers to engage in war. As part of his 14-minute speech, he criticized democracy and called for the formation of a state governed by religious law.
Hanzala apparently crossed the line when he criticized government officials in 2017 after a planned speaking engagement was cancelled by the Ankara governor amid criticism from opposition parties. He was arrested in June 2017 and sent to jail. In his first hearing on April 9, 2020 the court ruled to release him, but he was quickly rearrested when opposition parties questioned the release in parliament.
He was also one of the preachers who inspired the killer of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in December 2016. According to the forensic report, the computer used by assassin Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a police officer, there was a record of a search on YouTube of Hanzala’s videos on August 25, 2016. Immediately after shooting the envoy, Altıntaş declared he acted because of Russian intervention in Syria and made a jihadist hand gesture.
Hanzala was on the record when he started praising ISIS and criticizing the offensive launched against it. “When Muslims had made some very important conquests and were almost about to start leading the people in Iraq, the US and the Saudis — with the support of al-Saud scholars — organized groups called ‘Sahwa’ and started to fight against ISIS. Today, they use the exact same name in Syria for those who are fighting against ISIS, who call themselves ‘Sahwa,’ or ‘awakening unit’,” he said.
“The main issue is with whom a solution for the Syrian problem will be discussed. These people claim that without the help of the West a solution for the Syrian conflict is not possible. ISIS leaders say, however, that the Syrian problem is not a problem to be discussed with the West. They further say that the thing you call politics is of two types: Either you rely on Wahy (Revelation) or you rely on Aql (Reason). If you rely on revelation, God forbids Muslims to work with Westerners. If you rely on reason, history proves that those who ally with the West become losers. ISIS doesn’t want to sit with the West at the same table to negotiate the future of Syria; however, the others do.”
“The West knows that ISIS doesn’t want two things: 1) Sitting down with the West to discuss the issues of the Muslims; and 2) accepting democracy for a transitional government. The war against ISIS that is taking place at the moment is an operation in which the target is a certain Aqidah [Salafisim] and expelling the Muhajireen (“immigrants,” referring to the foreign fighters and their families who went to and reside in Syria) from Syria. Whoever supports this is without the slightest doubt a Kaffir, an infidel,” he added.
In 2015 Hanzala warned the Erdoğan government against taking a more active role in the US-led fight against ISIS. “I believe Turkey could be harmed because of it,” he said, adding: “I wouldn’t know what kind of harm. But if you team up with the West in their war … you’d lose all legitimacy in the eyes of the people of the Middle East.”
Although he later pursued a more critical line with regard to ISIS, Hanzala’s preaching prompted many to join jihadist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda. Although he remains behind bars, he runs his network from his prison cell, sending his regular writings to be published in the group’s magazine.
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