Turkish assassin of Russian ambassador has links to jihadists


The Turkish assassin of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov wanted to quit his job as a police officer and go to Syria for a jihadist campaign. He was even offered a spot in an anti-Russian protest rally organized by an al-Qaeda-linked Turkish charity that was named at the United Nations Security Council by Russia as a sender of arms to jihadist groups in Syria.

According to Durmuş Kutlu, a close friend of hitman Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the 22-year-old riot police officer who gunned down Ambassador Karlov in December 2016, said he asked the killer to join a trip to Syria on behalf of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH).  

In a statement to the counterterrorism police in Ankara on December 26, 2016, Kutlu said he had known the assassin for the last two years, met him regularly at prayer circles and talked about jihad in their private conversations.

“Five days before the [murder] incident, I told him I would join the IHH’s ‘Make Way for Aleppo’ convoy and that he could join if he wanted to. But he said leaves of absence [in the police department] were planned monthly and that he couldn’t take part for that reason,” Kutlus said.

The IHH launched a huge convoy of vehicles from Istanbul on December 14, 2016 to protest Russian and Syrian government force attacks on jihadist and dissident groups in Aleppo. The convoy disbanded in the Turkish border province of Hatay.

On December 19, five days after the IHH’s protest rally, Altıntaş called in sick and received a medical report to justify his absence from work while preparing all day long to assassinate the Russian ambassador during a public event at an art exhibit in one of the most secure districts in the Turkish capital.

His friend Kutlu also told the police that the killer was eager to go to Syria to join the jihadist campaign, wanted to quit his job and said more could be done for Syria.

According to investigation reports prepared by the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK), Altıntaş transferred money to IHH accounts in 11 separate transactions between January 2015 and July 2016.

The MASAK reports of Feb. 16, 2017 and Dec. 23, 2016 examined accounts owned by the killer with Islamic lenders Kuveyt Türk and Albaraka Türk. The reports were later incorporated in an indictment concerning the murder of Karlov filed with the court by Turkish prosecutor Adem Akıncı.

Another reference to the IHH in the Karlov indictment was made by witness Mikail Bora, who had been attending religious sermons in Ankara along with the killer. Bora told the counterterrorism police in a statement on Jan. 6, 2017 that he worked for the IHH. Bora also admitted that he saw the killer at sermons given by radical cleric Nurettin (Nureddin) Yıldız in Ankara. Yıldız’s own NGO, the Social Fabric Foundation (Sosyal Doku Vakfı), set up a volunteer group in Ankara under the name of Sosyal Doku Ankara Gönüllüleri Grubu (Social Fabric Ankara Volunteers Group), and Altıntaş was in contact with this group starting in 2014, attending study circles.

This extremist preacher is often described as the family cleric of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and was paraded as a keynote speaker at youth events organized by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and conferences and lectures organized by the Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), which is run by Erdoğan’s family. He even travelled to Syria to meet with militant groups and often preached in support of violent jihadist campaigns around the world.

However, the prosecutor did not question these wire transfers nor did he summon anybody from the IHH to inquire about the transactions or the purpose of the funds. Furthermore, the indictment revealed that the prosecutor did not list any administrator or member of the IHH, either, as a suspect or as a witness, meaning he did not pursue the IHH avenue further, although both the wire transfers and witness testimony pointed to the IHH.

This was not the first time the IHH had escaped the scrutiny of criminal investigations in Turkey. The network of this highly controversial charity was accused of smuggling arms to al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Syria in January 2014 in an investigation conducted by a prosecutor in Turkey’s eastern province of Van.

The investigation into a Turkish al-Qaeda cell found that İbrahim Şen, a top al-Qaeda operative who was detained in Pakistan and jailed at Guantanamo until 2005 before he was turned over to Turkey, his brother Abdurrahman Şen and others were sending arms, supplies and funds to al-Qaeda groups in Syria with the help of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), which is run by Erdoğan’s close confidant Hakan Fidan, another Islamist.

The investigation led to the IHH when wiretaps and surveillance revealed that the Kayseri and Kilis branches of the IHH were sending funds and medical and household supplies to jihadists in Syria. Investigators discovered that Şen enlisted the help of the IHH when he wanted to conceal illegal shipments to jihadists. The prosecutor’s conclusion was that this NGO took part in the scheme knowing full well what it was involved in. It was not random or individual participation but rather a deliberate scheme with the knowledge of IHH management.

Three people identified by the police as partners with Şen in smuggling goods to Syria were Ömer Faruk Aksebzeci (working out of the IHH Kayseri branch), Recep Çamdalı (member of the IHH’s Kayseri branch) and İbrahim Halil İlgi (working from the IHH Kilis branch). Fearing that the expansion of the probe could lead to senior figures in the IHH and expose the links to his government, Erdoğan quickly moved to quash it. The government dismissed and later arrested all police chiefs and prosecutors who uncovered the IHH’s clandestine dealings with jihadist groups.

The irony in the case of the murder of the Russian ambassador is that the IHH had long been flagged by Russia as an organization that smuggled arms to jihadist groups in Syria, according to intelligence documents submitted to the UN Security Council on Feb. 10, 2016. In other words, while the envoy’s killer was transferring funds to the IHH, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, permanent representative to the UN, was lobbying against the IHH and submitting documents that showed how dangerous the group was. Russian intelligence documents even furnished the license plate numbers of trucks dispatched by the IHH loaded with arms and supplies bound for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups including the Nusra Front.

What is more, the leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of President Erdoğan, also implicated the IHH in arming Libyan factions. The secret document tells the tale of how the owner of a bankrupt shipping and container company asked for compensation from the Turkish government for damage his ship sustained while transporting arms between Libyan ports at the order of Turkish authorities in 2011. The document revealed all the details of a Turkish government-approved arms shipment to rebels in a ship contracted by the IHH.

The secret documents obtained by Nordic Monitor clearly show that the head of the IHH, Bülent Yıldırım, has been in bed with the Turkish spy agency in running jihadist networks from Syria to Turkey. They also reveal the extent of his network with the Turkish government at the Cabinet level and expose how the grass roots of the IHH were mobilized by the government of Erdoğan when the Turkish president needed political cover in the face of public pressure and criticism.

The secret investigation included the transcripts of 142 wiretaps that were duly authorized by the courts between January 6, 2013 and December 17, 2013 as part of an investigation into radical Islamist groups. They identify a man named Veli Çayır, an intelligence officer who worked as the right-hand man of Fidan, the head of the Turkish spy agency. It seems the IHH head had a special hotline to Çayır and called him whenever he felt he needed to share information on developments in Turkey and abroad where the IHH had operations under the cover of charitable work. In wiretapped evidence dated February 25, 2013, Çayır made clear to Yıldırım that he was assigned to work with him under specific orders from MIT Undersecretary Fidan and could call him day or night if needed.

The records show they tried to avoid divulging secret information on the phone and preferred to use couriers to send sensitive messages or meet in person in secure locations. At times Yıldırım appears to have visited MIT headquarters in Ankara’s Yenimahalle district. Nevertheless, they inadvertently released much information as they spoke on the phone. The information gleaned from the wiretaps was enough to tie the IHH to Turkey’s notorious intelligence agency. Given the fact that the IHH has penetrated many countries abroad including in Europe under the guise of charitable and humanitarian work, there are enough reasons to be concerned about Erdoğan’s long arm stretching to Turkish and Muslim diaspora communities.

On May 4, 2013 Yıldırım talked to Adem Özköse, a journalist known to be close to jihadist groups, and said they should go and fight in Syria. When Özköse asked what exactly they should be doing in Syria, Yıldırım said arms should be sent to Syria or funds provided so that jihadists can purchase arms. He said he got fed up with protest meetings as they were futile for getting results. In a wiretap on November 23, 2013, the IHH president brags about how he chided Muslim scholars who criticized the IHH for transporting arms under the guise of humanitarian aid. He said he told them the IHH can only send small arms in aid packages, while others are sending missiles.

The new confidential documents expose how IHH President Yıldırım was intimately involved with rebels in Syria. For example, on May 28, 2013 Yıldırım called his contact at MIT, informing him that the IHH was hosting Zahran Alloush, head of Liwa al-Islam (which later changed its name to Jaysh al-Islam), a Salafist jihadist group active around Damascus, in Turkey and wanted to arrange a meeting between him, his deputy Abu Nour and MIT officials. Alloush was later killed by a Syrian Air Force airstrike, on December 25, 2015.

In another call on June 12, 2013, Fidan’s aide Çayır phoned the IHH chairman, asking him to provide support for the Al-Rahman Legion (Faylaq Al-Rahman), an armed opposition group that had a base near the Turkish-Syrian border crossing at Cilvegözü (Bab al-Hawa). He said the group was running low on supplies and asked the IHH to replenish his stocks. On August 16, 2013 Yıldırım let his handler at MIT know that a man was caught in Syria and had important information. His man recorded everything in a video and wanted to send the footage to the intelligence service in Ankara. In a phone conversation that took place on May 13, 2013, Yıldırım told Çayır about a militant who would come to Turkey to stage an attack on members of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Council (al-Majlis al-Watani), which is based in Istanbul. He said he picked up the intel from a reliable source.

In a phone call on July 11, 2013 Yıldırım talks about an operation that involves a border crossing by a group in Syria and tells Çayır he has misgivings about the people selected for the operation and underlines that they could fail in their task. He says he will coordinate the action with intelligence officers on the ground. He also shares that IHH teams identified villagers who possess a highly dangerous chemical substance that is used in refining oil.

In a wiretap dated March 23, 2013 IHH head Yıldırım and MIT official Çayır talk about how to finalize a prisoner swap in Syria where an Iranian officer assigned to the Syrian army was caught by rebels and handed over to the IHH in exchange for the release by the Bashar al-Assad government of a captive opposition fighter. According to the plan, the woman was supposed to be picked up in Aleppo by the IHH and handed over to MIT for transfer to Iran.

The IHH continues to operate freely today with the support of the Erdoğan government and even acquired United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) membership with the help of Turkey and its Islamist allies.

This article is republished from Nordic Monitor

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