An Al Qaeda outfit operating under a charity cover continues to raise funds in Turkey for jihadist groups in Syria, Africa and Southeast Asia with the help of the Turkish banking system, while authorities simply look the other way.
An association called Ahsen İlim Kültür Eğitim ve Yardımlaşma Derneği (Ahsen Wisdom Culture, Education and Aid Association, or Ahsen-Der), a front charity that sent fighters and supplies to al-Qaeda groups in other countries, has been active in provinces close to the Turkish-Syrian border.
The outfit is run by a high-profile Turkish al-Qaeda operative identified as Aytaç Polat, who fought in Afghanistan in response to a call to jihad by Osama bin Laden after 9/11 and went to Afghanistan in 2001 to enlist in the war. Indicted and jailed in Turkey after his return a year later, he managed to get out of jail thanks to an amnesty bill pushed through parliament when Islamist politician Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in the November 2002 election.
Polat and his cronies found a new battleground in Iraq after the US occupation and later turned their attention to Syria, when the civil war started in 2011. The Erdoğan government enlisted all sorts of fanatics and jihadists to fuel the war in Syria with a view to toppling the Bashar al-Assad regime and replacing it with an Islamist government that would share a similar ideology to Erdoğan’s party. With political cover, Polat and other jihadists have evaded the long arm of the law in Turkey and been released after brief detentions when they run into trouble with the law.
Ahsen has been branching out in various provinces even though it was flagged as a jihadist outfit and its members and associated organizations were named in Turkish criminal investigations into al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) networks in Turkey. It also active in a number of countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.
In many areas Ahsen works with a Turkish group called the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH), a government-backed aid and charity group that has been working closely with the Turkish spy agency, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), to enable jihadist terrorist groups. The IHH was named by Russia at the United Nation Security Council as an outfit that runs arms to Syrian jihadist groups.
Nordic Monitor uncovered photos of Ahsen operatives while they were using the logistical hub of the IHH in Gaziantep province, and some banners carried logos of both the IHH and Ahsen on fundraising and aid banners.
The phone records of indicted al-Qaeda suspect Abdulkadir Şen, obtained by Nordic Monitor, show that Ahsen point man Polat had called Şen 80 times on various occasions to coordinate traffic between Turkey and Syria. Şen and his elder brother, İbrahim Şen, targeted in a 2014 al-Qaeda investigation in Turkey’s eastern province of Van, wee revealed to have worked as operatives for MIT. The Şen brothers, IHH employees and other suspects in the case were saved from criminal prosecution by the Erdoğan government, which sacked the police chiefs and prosecutors who launched the probe into al-Qaeda.
Ibrahim Şen, a convicted terrorist, was detained in Pakistan over al-Qaeda links and transferred to Guantanamo, where he was kept until 2005, before US officials decided to turn him over to Turkey. He was indicted in 2008 on al-Qaeda charges and convicted but got out with the help of the Erdoğan government. In 2011, when the Syrian crisis started, the Turkish intelligence agency recruited him as an operative to mobilize jihadists in Syria.
The Şen brothers raised a red flag at the US Treasury in March 2013 when its Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, led by Under Secretary David S. Cohen at the time, asked Turkish authorities to investigate the transfer of $600,000 to al-Shabab in Somalia between September and December 2012. The investigation was hushed up by the Turkish government.
The now-defunct web page of Ahsen and its active social media accounts show that Ahsen has been promoting al-Qaeda ideology and actively campaigning for armed jihad, saying it is obligatory for Muslims to take up in arms against what they call infidels. The video recordings of a number of al-Qaeda-affiliated clerics were posted on the website.
Although Ahsen is known to be associated with armed jihadist groups, Turkish Islamic lender Kuveyt Türk sees no problem in facilitating the group’s fundraising activities. According to aid posters distributed by the organization, an account number at the bank under the name of Ahsen was used for donations. The group also uses cash and in-kind donations to run logistics for jihadist groups.
Interior Ministry records, reviewed on June 29, 2021, shows Ahsen is still active and operating under government license number 27-013-145.
Ahsen’s predecessor, Genç Muvahhidler Egitim, Kültür, Sosyal Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Derneği (Young Muvahhids Association for Education, Culture, Social Charity and Solidarity), an outfit that indoctrinated Turkish youth with radical views, was also run by Polat. Muvahhidler was sidelined after the group was implicated as a hub for ISIS during the trial of suspects who were accused of involvement in the deadliest terrorist attack ever to have taken place in Turkey, killing 107 people when two suicide bombers targeted NGOs and supporters of left-wing and pro-Kurdish parties holding a peace rally outside the Turkish capital’s main train station on October 10, 2015.
In his testimony to the court, Yakup Şahin, an ISIS suspect who purchased and stockpiled explosive materials in a storage unit he rented in Gaziantep and provided an escort to ensure the safe arrival in Ankara of the suicide bombers, said he was attending the lectures of the Young Muvahhids.
Şahin, a baker by profession, purchased fertilizer, the sale of which is controlled by the government, and put it in storage for use in explosives. When he was detained, he said he was told by the police chief to not worry because “both the prosecutors and the judges are with us.”
In addition to Şahin’s testimony in the ISIS case, three other suspects who played various roles in the bombing attack also named Genç Muvahhidler as the place they had frequented. Suspect Hüseyin Tunç, a courier who was responsible for procuring and transporting explosive materials, told the prosecutor that he started attending lectures there after he stopped using drugs.
Another ISIS suspect, Resul Demir, who was known as the accountant of the terrorist organization and helped purchase the cars that were used in a vehicle suicide bombing, also admitted that he was spending time at Genç Muvahhidler. Halil Durgun and Halil Alçay, both named in the indictment against the ISIS network, also testified that they were part of a group taking religious courses at Genç Muvahhidler. Alçay stated that he knew ISIS militants were being groomed by the association when he started going there.
Turkish government records show that Genç Muvahhidler is still active under Interior Ministry’s association license number 27-015-076.
It is not clear where Polat lives today, but his name has been mentioned multiple criminal case files across Turkey. In an ISIS indictment filed with the Gazianetp 2nd High Criminal Court, Polat’s name was listed along with many ISIS suspects. The indictment provides details about Polat and his buddies’ arms training in a wooded area of the province.
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