A jihadist militant who killed two priests and beheaded many innocent people in Syria has long worked with Turkey’s intelligence agency MIT, which helped him get away with lesser charges when he was caught in an al-Qaeda sweep by Turkish police.
His name is Maghomed Maghomedzakirovich Abdurkhmanov (aka Abu Banat), a Russian national who travelled to Syria through Turkey in 2012 to join jihadists and had led the Jamaat Abu Banat terrorist group, later part of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He testified in court how he worked with Turkish intelligence in Syria, receiving funds, arms and vehicles. He is believed to have murdered two Orthodox clerics in Syria on April 22, 2013.
Abu Banat, designated by the US State Department on Oct. 29, 2015 as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” and listed on the sanctions list by the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on Oct. 2, 2015, was not tried on murder charges despite credible evidence that showed his complicity in the terrible murders. Instead, he was tried only on a charge of membership in a terrorist group and received seven years, six months in prison pending appeal.
Abu Banat was detained on June 20, 2013 when local police in the town of Cihanbeyli in Turkey’s central province of Konya ran a routine traffic check on a vehicle with license plate 06 BF 9649. The passengers in the car were identified as Abu Banat, Ahmad Ramazanov (born in Grozny on March 12, 1986) and Fatim Madan (born in Azadiye, Syria, on Jan. 1, 1993). They were picked up in the town of Başpınar in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border by Mevlüt Kuşman, a Turkish national and al-Qaeda militant. Another Turkish national, Sait Alp, was also in the car.
The police referred the foreign nationals to the foreigners department of the Konya provincial police and let the Turkish nationals go after questioning. Abu Manat and Ramazanov, both listed on the entry ban that was maintained Turkey, filed an an asylum application under international protection for refugees. After that, they were released, and both went to Istanbul. The police did not know at the time that Abu Manat was involved in the murder of Antioch Orthodox Patriarchate Metropolitan of Aleppo Pavlus Yazici and Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo Yohanna Ibrahim, who were kidnapped on April 22, 2013 in Syria.
When a gruesome video was broadcast by Al-Jazeera on June 28, 2013 suggesting that the metropolitans were most likely beheaded, Turkish police investigators who were looking into the al-Qaeda network realized that the man in the video resembled Abu Manat, who had been detained but let go in the Konya traffic check. The investigators concluded that the man in the video was in fact Abu Manat and informed Istanbul police that he had moved there. The Istanbul police launched an operation on July 4, 2013 and detained Abu Banat, who was staying at the home of Kuşman, along with Madan and Ramazanov. All of them were taken into custody.
During the search of Kuşman’s home and tire repair shop, police found two hand grenades, eight AK-47 clips, 186 bullets, a cartridge belt, gun belt, military fatigues, wireless radios, video recorder and three black robes that were believed to have been used during the decapitations. A woman named Soslan Fiapsiev, a 39-year-old Russian national who was living in Istanbul’s conservative district of Başakşehir, was also questioned in connection with Abu Banat. According to investigation case file No. 2013/1204, the Istanbul 2nd Criminal Court formally arrested Abu Banat, Ramazanov and Kuşman but released Alp and Kuşman’s brother Abdullah Kuşman under judicial supervision.
During the questioning by the police, Abu Banat admitted that he was the man in the video that showed him beheading two men. This was routinely done every Friday, he added. Abu Banat described himself as the commander of his unit in Syria and said the wireless radio communication units were provided by a man he knew as Ebu Cafer (Abu Ja’far), who worked for Turkish intelligence. He also claimed that Abu Ja’far was embedded in his unit. Ramazanov testified that he met Abu Banat in Syria, adding that Banat was providing military training for others. He identified Abu Banat as the man who was beheading a person in the video and helping in the decapitation of another.
The original charges in the case against Abu Banat were based on membership in a terrorist group, but the police lab examination of the evidence including a knife that was seized during the search concluded that he was the man shown in the gruesome video of the decapitation and that the knife matched the one seen in the clip. The prosecutor wanted to include additional charges of crimes against humanity, which required approval in advance from the Erdogan government.
On August 6, 2013 Turkey’s foreign ministry issued an opinion stating that the crime was an internal matter for Syria. The foreign ministry’s position was in contrast to what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told İstanbul Syriac Metropolitan Yusuf Çetin, who visited him on July 19, 2013. Commenting on the abduction of the clerics, Davutoglu said these kinds of actions against clergymen were crimes against humanity in nature and pledged that Turkey would continue to make every effort for their safe return. However, two weeks later his own ministry rejected the investigation of Abu Banat on charges of the commission of crimes against humanity. Davutoglu also told his guests that Abu Banat (arrested by Istanbul police two weeks before the visit) had nothing to do with the kidnapping of the metropolitans. For some reason, he was protecting a bloody murderer whose videos showed he had beheaded many people in Syria.
On August 26, 2013 the Justice Ministry argued that Turkey had incurred no damages from the murders of the metropolitans in Syria and denied the prosecution’s request to proceed with additional charges. Why? Because the Turkish government was afraid that Abu Banat would spill the beans on Erdogan and his intelligence agency, which had worked with unsavory characters like him for years. It was part of the hush-up and damage control by the government. In fact, Abu Banat played his cards well during the hearing, claiming that he and Turkish intelligence had cooperated very closely before and did not understand why he was being charged and tried now. The government and MIT got the message and rushed to cut a deal with him. He recanted his earlier statements and denied that he was the man in the video beheading innocent people. He said he was fighting against Assad and that Turkish intelligence would not have helped him if he had killed the clergymen.
For over a year, the government did not even acknowledge that Abu Banat was in custody. After an opposition lawmaker filed a parliamentary question for Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ asking for information on Abu Banat’s whereabouts, Bozdağ responded on August 21, 2014 that he was jailed in Istanbul’s Maltepe Prison, where mainly foreign detainees and convicts were held, and that a trial was ongoing at the Istanbul 22nd High Criminal Court. Remember that Bozdağ was also a suspect in a January 2014 investigation for aiding and abetting al-Qaeda, a case that was hushed up by the Erdogan government.
The indictment was finally filed with the Istanbul 22nd High Criminal Court on charges of terrorist organization membership and possession of unlicensed firearms and ammunition for the suspects including Abu Banat, but the case was turned over to the Bakırköy 11th High Criminal Court, where MIT could secure a more favorable result. On June 16, 2015 Abu Banat was found guilty only on the charge of membership in a terrorist group and was sentenced to seven years, six months in prison. He was never tried for the murder of the metropolitans. His sentence was even reduced due to good behavior. He was acquitted of the charge of possession of illegal ammunition. His accomplices, Ramazanov and Mevlüt Kuşman, received similar sentences, while the other defendants were acquitted.
Although both the Russians and the Americans have taken an interest in Abu Banat’s case and in fact Moscow sought his extradition based on a criminal case against him back in Chechnya, Turkish authorities have always balked at these requests and decided to keep him in jail, away from the scrutiny of Russian and US investigators. The Justice Ministry reportedly turned down a request by a US prosecutor who wanted to interrogate Abu Banat as part of an investigation launched in the US. In the meantime, his appeal was continuously reshuffled, perhaps deliberately.
For example, the 16th Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals, which deals with terrorism cases, received the appeal from a lower court on July 31, 2015 but decided on Jan. 1, 2018 that his case file was incomplete. It closed the appeal and sent it back to the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals for review. The prosecutor resent the file to the 16th chamber on March 19, 2018. As of today, the Supreme Court of Appeals has not even assigned a judge to review the case file and put it on ice along with tens of thousands of cases waiting their turn.
This is the time-buying tactic the Erdogan government has been using to weather the international pressure arising from the Abu Banat case for fear of being implicated and even incriminated for the role of Turkish intelligence agency MIT. The government did not respond to a parliamentary question submitted by opposition lawmaker Tuma Celik on October 28, 2018 that asked why the authorities did not file charges against Abu Banat for the murder of the metropolitans. He also asked if there were any formal requests for information about or the extradition of Abu Banat by foreign countries or the UN. Although the government is obligated to respond to such inquiries within two weeks under Turkish law, the Erdogan government simply ignored the question.
The metropolitans were accompanied by Fouad Eliya and driver Diyakos Fathallah Kabud. When they passed through a checkpoint in the Mansoura region, which was controlled by Free Syrian Army (FSA), they were trailed by a jeep and stopped some 700 meters later by eight gunmen who appeared to be Caucasians or Chechens. The kidnapping took place in a no-man’s land between territories that were controlled by the FSA and Syrian regime forces. Kabud was forced to get out of the car and was left behind, only to be killed later, possibly by a regime force sniper. The gunmen took the clerics and Eliya away from the scene of the ambush.
The gunmen are believed to have been part of a group called Jund al-Khilafa, led by Abu Omar al-Kuwaiti (also known as Hussein Laari), who was tapped by Turkish intelligence agency MIT to coordinate attacks on regime forces in rural areas of Aleppo. Abu Banat had served as the deputy of Abu Omar and set up a command post in Turkey for screening foreign jihadists who arrived in Syria through Turkish territory. The group operated under Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar (formerly Katibat al-Muhajireen), led by Omar Shishani. The group was affiliated with ISIL for a while before he pledged allegiance to the Turkish-backed al-Nusra Front.
Most of the information about Abu Banat was confirmed in secret Turkish government documents. For example, a secret document sent to the Istanbul Police Department by the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Directorate of Intelligence on July 2, 2013 stated that the metropolitans were believed to have been kidnapped by a group known as Katibat al-Muhajireen, led by Abu Banat. The foreign ministry said the clerics were first taken to the village of Ancura in Aleppo and later transported to Sermade Deridize in Idlib for an exchange with Assad regime forces. The foreign ministry shared basically the same intelligence with the police on April 26, 2013, four days after metropolitans were abducted by Abu Banat.
Turkish lawyer Erkan Metin, who has extensively investigated the abduction of the clergymen, believe they were killed right after the kidnapping, not by beheading but by bombs strapped to their bodies by Abu Banat and his men. This claim was originally raised in an article posted on dissident Chechen website the Kavkaz Center. Metin in addition claimed that based on his own research Abu Banat’s group was also responsible for the first chemical attack, which took place in the Khan al-Assal district of Aleppo on March 19, 2013. Eliya, the Syrian national who accompanied the metropolitans, was the only witness from the group who was left alive. His whereabouts are unknown, although he gave an interview to a Lebanese newspaper about his kidnappers after the incident.
The case is yet another example of how Turkish intelligence agency MIT has conducted shady business with jihadists including those who beheaded people and terrified innocent civilians in Syria. When the operative was caught, he was protected from the full reach of the criminal justice system and was assisted in receiving a lenient sentence on lesser charges. If no new charges are brought against him and if nothing untoward happens during the appeal, Abu Banat will be set free into society. In the meantime, police investigators who identified him as the kidnapper and linked him to al-Qaeda as well as the prosecutors who pressed criminal charges were all removed by the Erdogan government, with some jailed on false charges.
Welcome to the parallel universe of Erdogan’s Turkey.