Confidential documents obtained by Nordic Monitor show that Turkey’s intelligence agency secretly transported jihadist fighters across the Turkish-Syrian border to influence the fate of the conflict in the neighboring country.
The secret operation that took place exactly four years ago today was exposed when local police units were called in to search for two busses used to shuttle armed jihadist fighters from one point on the Syrian border to another in order to change the dynamics on the ground on the Syrian side.
The fighters were transported across the border on the night of Jan. 9, 2014 in busses contracted by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which thought everything had gone smoothly with no red flags raised in the illegal operation. They arrived at the border gate in the Turkish town of Akçakale in Şanlıurfa province and passed through the gate without any screening with the help of MIT agents in an escort car. The unloading of the fighters, arms and ammunition was completed at around 5 a.m. The drivers were ordered to take the busses back to Turkey.
The next day, police received a tip claiming that two busses parked in a rest area on a highway were involved in drug trafficking, prompting a raid and search of the busses. No drugs were found during the search, which took place in on a highway in Incirlik, Adana province, but police found 40 boxes of ammunition for PKM heavy caliber machine guns in the cargo holds of the busses.
The drivers, Şahin Güvenmez (37) and Esat Lütfi Er (48), were detained along with the owner of the bus company, Mihraç Sarı (42), as part of investigation case file No.2014/53. In their statements the company owner and drivers testified that the busses were leased by MIT. In fact, an escort car driven by MIT agents tagged along on their way to Syria, and two MIT escort cars accompanied to the busses on their return.
In his statement Sarı said a government employee named Erdem (most likely the name used by a MIT agent) called him on Jan. 9, 2014 at 5 p.m. and asked him to transport refugees from Reyhanli to Akçakale. He then called the drivers and arranged the transfer. Er also confirmed what his boss said in separate testimony, saying that after receiving his boss’s directions, a MIT intelligence officer named Salim called him and told him to go to Reyhanli. The other driver also gave a similar statement.
The drivers admitted that they had made similar runs before, delivering both ammunition and jihadist fighters to a camp on the Syrian side that is run by jihadist groups. The drivers said they “were not in the wrong” and justified their involvement in the transportation of the militants by claiming that they were “doing [their] duty to the state.”
According to the statements provided by the suspects, MIT transported 72 jihadists from a border point near the village of Bükülmez directly across from the Atmeh refugee camp on the Syrian side of the border to the Turkish town of Akçakale. After traveling through Turkish territory, the militants re-entered Syria to help jihadist groups take over Tel Abad.
The fighters could not be transferred through Syrian territory because jihadists did not have control of a large area between Atmeh and Tel Abad. At the time the Syrian territory near Kobani — a predominantly Kurdish town close to Syria’s border with Turkey — was held and defended by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Public prosecutor Mustafa Sırlı, who ran the probe and ordered a field examination of the places where the jihadists were picked up and where they were dropped off, was quickly removed from the case. The Erdogan government apparently did not want the prosecutor to dig further and document all the evidence for a trial that would reveal how the intelligence agency was running a secret operation to empower jihadist groups.
Cumali Tülü, the new prosecutor in the case, hushed up the investigation and dropped it despite incriminating evidence in the case file against the Turkish intelligence service. In decision No.2014/28, Tülü dropped the investigation, preventing the case from moving forward with an indictment, trial and conviction. He said there was no reason to pursue it further.
However, the testimony from the drivers helped document how the Erdogan government aided and abetted the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda groups. Sırlı managed to include videotaped statements by all three suspects in the case file. According to the statements, the building in Syria that the drivers testified was the dropping off point for ammunition and fighters had an ISIL flag hoisted on top and Jabhat Nusra messages written on its outer walls.
One driver noted that before the journey took place, a Turkish man with an Arabic translator (most likely a MIT agent) boarded the bus and told the passengers that the trip would be long and that they wouldn’t stop unless absolutely necessary. “We have to wrap this up before sunrise,” he said. The busses took off from Reyhanli at around 1 a.m. and arrived in Akçakale at around 5 a.m. The distance between the two points on the Adana-Gaziantep highway is approximately 400 kilometers.
One of the drivers explains in the video: “That is where we crossed the border, following the escorts. We waited in the cabin. We had already shut off all the lights in the vehicles. The people came from over there, from the darkness. They opened the trunks of the vehicles and starting unloading the weapons and ammunition.” The driver continued: “They didn’t allow us to leave the vehicles [once we had arrived in Akçakale]. One of them [the militants] stayed by our side. Another vehicle came and parked behind my coach, and they started moving the cargo from my vehicle [into the other one]. There were 46 [militants] in my bus, and I learned later on that there were 27 in the other bus. They were bearded men, scruffy looking.”
Also stating that all the passengers were of Arab ethnicity, one of the drivers said the militants had nothing in their hands when they got on the busses. “They put all their belongings in the hold. They were all bearded. They didn’t allow us to leave the vehicles or turn on the lights. We weren’t even allowed to go out for a cigarette. They said, ‘Smoke in the vehicle.’ We then took the individuals to Akçakale.”
One of the drivers told investigators that they had entered Syria from the left border gate in Akçakale and after passing into Syria drove only 15 to 20 meters before MİT operatives came and oversaw the unloading of the coaches by the militants they had transported. “Twenty or so civilians came. I don’t know who they were. MİT or the military came and unloaded the cargo. Then they [the civilians] said, ‘Our job is done’,” the driver explained.
As if the hush-up of this criminal case were not enough, the Erdogan government secured a gag order to ban all press coverage of the incident and went after the prosecutors and police who had investigated it. A fresh investigation was launched to ascertain who the whistleblower was that tipped the police off in Adana. On Feb. 4, 2014, another public prosecutor, Ali Dogan, wrote to MIT, asking the intelligence agency to identify the deep throat who spilled the beans on the Jan. 10 bus incident. The probe to identify the whistleblower had case file No. 2014/117. In response to the letter MIT said it had investigated but could not identify the person who had tipped off the police about the busses.