Iran’s IRGC Quds Force assets in Turkish defense industry

A 58-year-old academic who runs the well-funded research and development arm of the Turkish government agency that is tasked with boosting the country’s defense industry has worked with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force cells in Turkey, a Nordic Monitor investigation has found.

Ata Şenlikci, the head of the research, development and technology department at the Turkish Presidency of the Defense Industry (SSB) — a top government body that decides on the procurement of military equipment and helps develop defense industry infrastructure — was believed to be operating within a Quds Force network according to investigators who named him as a suspect in a counterterrorism investigation.

The evidence collected through court-authorized surveillance and wiretaps from 2011 to 2014 led the investigators to conclude that Şenlikci was part of a Quds Force operation in Turkey and was working closely with the Iranian Consulate General’s cultural attaché, Hassan Shabani, also a suspect in the Quds Force probe. The two had been trying to establish an Iran chair at Istanbul University, where Şenlikci was working as an academic at the time, and were making efforts to recruit dozens of students as assets under the guise of various educational and cultural programs financed by Iran.

The investigation uncovered that Şenlikci had been associated with known Quds operatives who had served time in the past on terrorism convictions. According to a wiretap record dated April 2, 2012, Şenlikci spoke to a man named Abdülhamit Çelik, who was convicted of killing two opponents of the Iran regime in Turkey in 1996 on behalf of the Quds Force and sentenced to 12 years, six months in prison. Çelik was released in 2004 following the passage of an amnesty bill pushed by the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He had laid low for a while until he was reactivated by the Quds Force to run a new set of schemes. The two men were discussing a pricing issue involving an unspecified business deal. Çelik was also a suspect in the Quds Force investigation.

The content of dozens of wiretap records reviewed by Nordic Monitor portray Şenlikci as a religious man who idolizes Iranian Shiite clerics and made visits to Shiite holy places in Iraq and Iran. He traveled twice to Iran in 2012 and 2013 as part of a project run by the Quds Force, according to the investigation file.

The wiretaps also revealed how the trips were organized by Quds Force operatives. The border entry and exit records kept by the airport police showed that Şenlikci was in Iran for about a week on June 1-7, 2012 and on May 14-20, 2013.

The trips to Iran were not just for sightseeing, the investigators concluded. For example, while he was in Tehran, Şenlikci met with Ali Akbulut, who fled to Iran to escape prison time on terror charges in the late 1990s and kept in contact with him afterwards. The indictment prepared by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in 2002 concluded that the Quds Force operatives identified Turks who had positive views of the Iranian regime, organized conferences and then sent them to Iran in small groups under the pretext of the conferences, all courtesy of the Iranian regime. “Small groups that participated in these trips started to spread propaganda on behalf of [Ayatollah] Khomeini when they returned,” the indictment stated.

In a wiretap dated March 19, 2012 Şenlikci said how he admired Khomeini and Sistani when talking about his trip to the Iraqi city Najaf, which he called the capital of the entire Islamic world. “I saw [Shia Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani and his house. Like Khomeini, they [Sistani and his associates] shine. I prayed a lot, for you, your wife and your children as well,” he told Nurkan Yağız, deputy rector of Istanbul University and also a suspect in the case. He said he was very happy with the trip after seeing all the Shiite imams and making donations while there March 13-17, 2012.

The two talked about making a trip to Iran’s Isfahan and Shiraz in June. Şenlikci revealed he had been working as a coordinator for an ongoing greenhouse project on 100 acres of land in Shiraz.

Turkish investigators also discovered that Şenlikci had been organizing private meetings with a select group of people, some of whom were Quds Force operatives and assets, to promote the Iranian agenda within the Turkish governmental and non-government sectors. The meetings were held at a teahouse called Somuncubaba Çayocağı, located in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district. The meetings were attended by Hüseyin Avni Yazıcıoğlu — a convicted felon who served time on a terrorism conviction and a top Turkish asset trained in Iran by the IRGC — as well as other Quds Force-linked Turkish operatives such as Cemalettin Yılmaz Alban, Ali Akbulut, Ali Gümüş and Hayrettin Demircan.

The group developed a scheme called Teknoloji Geliştirme Platformu (Technology Development Platform, TGP) as window dressing to hide their their clandestine activities. Some of the people who frequented these meetings were Temel Kotil, then the CEO of Turkey’s national flag carrier, Turkish Airlines (THY) and currently CEO of Turkish Aerospace Industries; İsmail Demir, the SSB president who was sanctioned by the US State Department in April 2021 in response to Ankara’s refusal to abandon the acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system.

The prosecutor’s office obtained a wiretap warrant from the court to monitor Şenlikci’s phone communications starting on January 19, 2012. His Gmail and Hotmail accounts were also included in the surveillance in another warrant filed with the court on March 2, 2012. The investigation file has 27 wiretap transcripts that indicate Şenlikci’s activity within Quds Force operations in Turkey. The police also physically followed Şenlikci’s movements to learn about his contacts and meeting locations.

A wiretap dated February 24, 2012 showed him talking to a man named Volkan Çelik (aka Sadik) as a followup conversation on establishing an Iranian history and culture room at Istanbul University. Prior to the phone call, Çelik and Iranian cultural attaché Hasan Shabani met with Şenlikci to talk about the proposal. The phone call concerned its technical details.

The Iranian Consulate General wanted to expand its activities to other universities in the western part of Turkey as well, according to the conversations in the wiretaps. Şenlikci was also in touch with Esmail Sabeghi, another Iranian Consulate employee, and coordinated with Mikail Gürel, the point man in Turkey for Iran’s religious al-Mustafa International University.

Relying on his network of acquaintances, Şenlikci used his influence for purposes of nepotism and helped people get access to government jobs, especially with Turkish Airlines, with which he had a special contract. In one wiretap dated Match 1, 2012 he promised a flight attendant job to a woman named Fatmanur Erdal and the same for her husband, Özgur Erdal, who was doing his compulsory military service at the time. He claimed he and his associates had recently managed to get Nevin Çolak appointed as the head of cabin services at THY and said he would talk to her to secure the position.

The wiretaps show that Şenlikci had run multiple business schemes on the side while working for Istanbul University. He helped set up front firms for transactions with Turkish Airlines and earned commissions using his influence with THY executives, sold industrial oil and partnered with another investor to operate a gym.

Şenlikci’s brother-in-law is Hüseyin Karanlık, deputy secretary-general of the Vatan (Homeland, formerly Workers) Party, an openly pro-Iranian political party that is aligned with Turkish President Erdoğan.

The IRGC Quds Force case in Turkey never went to trial because the Erdoğan government hushed it up in February 2014 after learning about the probe, which incriminated senior government officials. The investigating prosecutor was sacked before he had a chance to secure detention warrants for the suspects and file an indictment. Şenlikci escaped the long arm of the law thanks to the intervention of Erdoğan, who apparently protected pro-Iranian assets and helped their Quds Force handlers escape from Turkey.

This article is republished from Nordic Monitor

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