The mindset of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not so different from that of al-Qaeda when it comes to defending distorted Islamic views to advance his political goals. This is perhaps best illustrated by the case of radical imam Mehmet Doğan (aka Mullah Muhammed), who openly declared his admiration for Osama bin Laden and called for armed jihad in Turkey. Erdoğan vigorously defended this indicted cleric, helped him get acquitted with his loyalist judges and prosecutors when he was arrested and tried, jailed journalists who criticized his radical group and even launched a civil suit in the US against Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen for defaming this fanatic.
The question is why Erdoğan, the top Islamist politician in Turkey, has gone to such extreme lengths to defend this radical hate preacher and his thuggish group, Tahşiyeciler. The answer lies in the shared values and common apocalyptic worldview Erdoğan holds along with these fanatics when it comes to hating non-Muslims and despising Muslims who try to reach out to other faiths as part of attempts at interfaith dialogue around the globe. Another reason would be that Erdoğan tapped this group as a recruitment ground for sending militants to fight his proxy battles in Syria, Iraq and other places. Judging from the group’s active cells in Germany and France, perhaps Erdoğan also hopes to use them as leverage in his spoiler card game against EU member states.
Although intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies flagged the group in early 2000 as a dangerous group supportive of al-Qaeda, Turkey learned about Doğan and Tahşiyeciler for the first time on Jan. 22, 2010, when police raided the homes and offices of dozens of people across Turkey as part of an anti-al-Qaeda sweep. The police discovered three hand grenades, one smoke bomb, seven handguns, 18 hunting rifles, electronic parts for explosives, knives and a large cache of ammunition in the homes of the suspects.
The probe revealed that the terrorist group had sent close to 100 people to Afghanistan for arms training. In seized taped recordings, Doğan was heard calling for violent jihad: “I’m telling you to take up your guns and kill them.” He also asked his followers to build bombs and mortars in their homes, urged the decapitating of Americans, claiming that the religion allows such practices. “If the sword is not used, then this is not Islam,” he stated. According to Doğan, all Muslims were obligated to respond to then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s armed fight.
The Erdoğan government helped Doğan and his men avoid punishment under the law when they were indicted, turned the case upside down, prevented original trials from proceeding on appeal and eventually succeeded in acquitting them all in 2015. That was not the end of the story, however. To take revenge on al-Qaeda watchers and punish investigators as part of a vendetta, the Erdoğan government invited Doğan and his men in 2014 to file criminal complaints against the police officers, prosecutors and judges who investigated the group as well as journalists and Muslim scholars like Gülen who criticized this al-Qaeda-linked group. Erdoğan orchestrated the building of a frivolous case on the basis of these complaints and arrested prosecutors, judges and police chiefs who had investigated Tahşiyeciler as part of their jobs. The Turkish president even hired controversial lawyer and shadowy figure Robert Amsterdam to file a civil suit against Gülen in a US court based on complaints from Doğan and his fanatics. The case was dismissed by a US judge.
Portraying Tahşiyeciler as a victimized group, Erdoğan launched a public campaign on behalf of Mullah Muhammed, saying in a speech delivered on Dec. 15, 2014 that Mullah Muhammed was arrested unjustly, served 17 years in jail and lost 90 percent of his sight in both eyes. Well, Doğan served only 17 months, and his eyes had perfect vision. He was reading from the document just fine when he declared his love affair with Osama bin Laden during a live TV interview on CNN Türk with Akif Beki, a former spokesman for Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s remarks came a day after police raided Turkey’s largest-circulating paper, Zaman, detained its editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanlı and arrested top manager of the Samanyolu TV network Hidayet Karaca. Erdoğan declared that those who target Mullah Muhammed would pay a price as the government would act upon complaints from the Tahşiyeciler group. Dumanlı fled Turkey to live in self-exile in the US to avoid jail on trumped-up charges, while Karaca has been locked up in a Turkish prison since then without even a conviction.
What is more, Erdoğan ordered his media machine to run a favorable campaign for the group to win the hearts and minds of the Turkish people for the al-Qaeda-affiliated fanatics. Daily Sabah, an English-language daily that is owned by the Erdoğan family, ran stories to present Mullah Muhammed as a saint. Others like journalist Ruşen Çakır scrambled to defend Tahşiyeciler in a frantic effort to prove that the group had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Mustafa Kaplan (born in 1947), a senior figure believed to be the successor to Mullah Muhammed in the Tahşiyeciler group and in charge of foreign operations, has been parading on networks including AHaber, a news channel also owned by the Erdoğan family, and he was provided a platform to freely promote his radical views.
Ibrahim Kalın, Erdoğan’s spokesperson, prepared an information file in English exonerating Tahşiyeciler as a “religious community,” and Turkish embassies are instructed to defend the group with the talking points Kalın helped craft in the document. In a leaked email sent to Erdoğan’s son Bilal, daughters Esra and Sümeyye and son-in-law Berat Albayrak on Jan. 7, 2017, Kalın stated that Erdoğan personally handed over the document to Thorbjørn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe during a meeting. The EU minister sent the file to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk. US congressmen and EU parliamentarians were also provided a copy.
Let’s look at where Kaplan stands from his own words and how dangerous Turkey has become under Erdoğan, who rushed to defend the group in Turkey and abroad. According to digital evidence seized in suspect Mehmet Sururi Kale’s home, several DVDs that had Kaplan’s recorded sermons from 2008 were found and logged in the evidentiary case file. In a DVD tagged No.1 that contains some of the speeches he delivered including ones in Germany, Kaplan was heard hailing fighters who leave their parents to fight in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bosnia. He describes them as the real men who are fighting in these places and encourages Turks to go and join the fight rather than stay behind like a woman.
He claims jihadists who emerged in Chechnya, China’s Xinxiang region and Afghanistan are the harbingers of Mahdi, a messianic deliverer prophesied by the Islamic Prophet. He anticipates that those fighters will one day come to Turkey to turn it into an Islamic state. Mahdi’s army will crush India and China first before setting its sights on Europe, according to Kaplan, who believed that a Muslim army with a black flag would emerge in Central Asia and establish an Islamic state. He lamented that Muslims established an Islamic state in Afghanistan but that the Americans destroyed it. “Not to worry,” he quickly added, stressing that now fighters will take over the whole world, not just Afghanistan, kill Jews and liberate Palestinian lands including Jerusalem.
Kaplan does not hide his passion for al-Qaeda, saying that the whole world is terrified of al-Qaeda even though the terrorist group has limited resources and capabilities. According to transcripts of his taped speeches, he stated that the whole world heard their voices when the call to prayer was sounded from the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He ridicules US troops for being afraid of teenagers in Iraq and says how the US troops are panicked by Muslim boys, stressing that only death would scare US soldiers. He brands the US as Dajjal, an evil figure in Islamic literature who is also called the anti-Christ. Kaplan makes a point that Muslims can neither have respect for Christians and Jews nor be befriended by them as they are infidels and should be killed wherever they are found.
According to the records, Kaplan was heard saying how drug, tobacco and alcohol-addicted Muslim boys would become heroes by leading the jihadist fight. He tells the tale of a drug-addicted Turkish boy from Istanbul’s Sefaköy district who went to Afghanistan, was trained in arms and engaged in heroic efforts afterwards. He often quotes his master Doğan as saying that the number one job for Muslims is to establish an Islamic state based on theology. He went as far as claiming that Muslims can only save themselves by following the lead of Mullah Muhammed.
Some of the conversations of Kaplan in the seized DVDs apparently took place in Germany. As Kaplan talks to his comrades, he receives a phone call during which he tells the person on the other end that he is still in Germany. He says he would be in Bonn soon to give some talks. Ahlen, Dortmund and Anderten were mentioned in the phone conversation. He spews his hatred for Germany in these sermons, which he gave during a tour of German cities. For example, Kaplan said Germany would face the wrath of Muslims when it starts putting pressure on Turks and Muslims living in Germany. He promised that the Germans would soon regret sending troops to Afghanistan since fighters would come to Germany to punish them.
Apparently aimed at radicalizing Turks in Germany, Kaplan mentions that Turks are hostages and prisoners in Germany because they abandoned Islamic teachings. In the same speech he also says American soldiers have panic attacks when they see a 15-year-old Muslim boy in the streets of Iraq because young boys strap bombs to their bodies and blow themselves up, instilling fear in the hearts of infidels. He says a believer is not afraid of anybody and that killing oneself in a suicide bombing is better than living as a prisoner. He promises that heaven is waiting for those who martyr themselves, just like al-Qaeda’s twisted ideology. He makes a prediction that Muslims who are loathed today will soon take over Germany and France if they are really committed to their faith and act in line with God’s wishes. He says Berlin and New York will be battleground cities for violent clashes. At the end of this speech, he says he will be in Bonn to give further lectures.
Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization’s (MİT) intel note on Tahşiyeciler dated March 5, 2009 profiled Mullah Muhammed as a man who is fully supportive of al-Qaeda, trying to combine all madrasah schools in Turkey to serve al-Qaeda ideology. It pointed out that Mullah Muhammed believes Turkey will be saved by an Islamic army led by al-Qaeda. The note also reveals Doğan’s activities abroad, listing Munich, Berlin and Cologne as cities where Tahşiyeciler has been active. In France, the al-Qaeda-linked group has limited activities according to MİT. It has also cells in the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina. It confirmed other intelligence gathered by the police in Erzincan on Dec. 19, 2008 and the National Police Intelligence Bureau on April 29, 2009.
Interestingly enough MİT, which had profiled the group as a dangerous, al-Qaeda-supporting jihadist group in 2009, suddenly appeared to have a change of heart after May 2010, when Erdoğan appointed Hakan Fidan, an Islamist figure, to lead the intelligence agency. It was at exactly this time that Doğan and other figures in Tahşiyeciler were released while the trial was still ongoing. When the Syrian crisis started in 2011, jihadists had become useful pawns in Erdoğan’s game of proxy battles to replace Bashar al-Assad with an Islamist ruler. MİT started trafficking Turkish and foreign fighters to Syria, providing them arms and logistical supplies and facilitating their travel with passports and ID documents. Mullah Muhammed, of Kurdish descent, came in handy in raising new recruits for jihadist groups. Fidan is now using radical networks including Tahşiyeciler abroad to stir up trouble for Turkey’s allies and partners, especially in Germany, where Tahşiyeciler and other radical Turkish groups have active cells.
The case of Mullah Muhammed illustrates perfectly the dangerous mindset that rules today’s Turkey, an 80-million-strong, predominantly Sunni nation with some 5 million expatriates in other countries, mainly in Europe. Turkish intelligence organization MİT under Fidan is a hostile agency, and Erdoğan-led Turkey has become a destabilizing factor for allies and partners. The remarks on July 27, 2017 by Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the global coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who alluded to Turkey’s role in facilitating the transfer of fighters and arms for al-Qaeda in Syria’s Idlib province, show Turkey’s allies have grown uneasy about the Erdoğan regime’s clandestine business with radical groups.