The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suspended all investigations into al-Qaeda cells in Turkey starting in early 2014 after police investigators stumbled onto secret links between Turkish cells and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Nordic Monitor has learned.
A senior security official who was overseeing the police intelligence unit in one of Turkey’s major cities said the Interior Ministry ordered a halt to all al-Qaeda probes, a suspension of surveillance and wiretaps on suspects and the destruction of evidence that had been collected. Speaking on condition of anonymity for reasons of safety, the source said Erdoğan was panicked over a possible exposé involving some factions within MIT, which he had illegally tasked to work with al-Qaeda in order to topple the Bashar al-Assad government.
The immediate administrative suspension, which contravened the laws of the time, was followed by a bill rushed through Parliament that would make wiretapping difficult for investigations. The bill submitted to Parliament on February 2, 2014 not only abolished courts that were specialized in terrorism cases but also made it near impossible to obtain wiretap authorization. Even when the authorization was granted, the bill limited the duration of the wiretap, making it difficult for police to monitor independent cells that needs a longer time to decode the network. The bill was approved in the general assembly on February 21 and signed into Law No. 6526 by then-President Abdullah Gül on March 6, 2014.
The source says the suspension and destruction of wiretaps for radical groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were ordered even before the law went into effect. Similar verbal instructions were also transmitted to judges and prosecutors across Turkey by the Justice Ministry, led by a crony of Erdoğan. The move came after the government hushed up a major al-Qaeda investigation made public in January 2014 that exposed how a former Turkish Guantanamo detainee and known al-Qaeda figure was working with Turkish intelligence in Syria. Erdoğan did not want all these dirty schemes to come out into the open and was keen to avoid legal troubles.
Before the passage of the law, under the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK), if there was strong suspicion during an investigation that a crime had been committed and if there were no other means of collecting evidence, upon a request by the public prosecutor, and if a judge agreed, the telecommunications of the suspect or the accused could be intercepted, monitored or recorded. If third parties were wiretapped as they communicated with the suspects, law enforcement officers were required to inform the prosecutor about them in a separate file. If there was any incriminating content, the prosecutors could apply to the court to obtain another order to wiretap them. Voice recordings with incriminating content were included in the indictment. Again, under the CMK, the court could issue an order permitting wiretapping for a three-month period, which could be extended for another month for a maximum of three times.
As Erdoğan and his close associates were intercepted talking to suspects in several investigations, Erdoğan wanted to restrict the powers of law enforcement and judicial authorities to conduct wiretaps. The result was devastating for monitoring and tracking radical and violent groups in Turkey. Veteran police chiefs, intelligence officers, prosecutors and judges were removed from their positions, case files were shelved and some of the evidence was destroyed to erase the traces to people in the Erdoğan government.
As part of the ongoing investigation into the ISIL network in Turkey’s southeastern border province of Gaziantep, police investigators had surveilled suspected members since 2012 to expose sleeper cells. But the surveillance was interrupted abruptly in March 2014 after the government’s unlawful interference in case No. 2012/44540. The investigation was originally into al-Qaeda but later focused on ISIL as members moved from one terrorist network to another. Among the 19 targets was suicide bomber Yunus Durmaz, who blew himself up in a suicide attack in 2015 in Gaziantep.
The police asked the prosecutor’s office to seek from the court renewal of the wiretap authorization and physical surveillance of the suspects on March 5 and 6, 2014. But the judge refused to authorize the wiretap, citing the bill in Parliament, although the bill had not been signed into law and was not yet effective. The judge claimed the suspects’ rights might be violated in the future if the surveillance were to be extended.
As a result, law enforcement was stripped of authority to monitor the communications and movements of ISIL suspects who included a suicide bomber and other militants who later staged deadly terrorist attacks in Turkey. Some of them fled the country and moved to Syria to escape prosecution. As if the rejection of the wiretap were not enough, the prosecutor’s office asked the police to destroy all previous wiretap records as if no criminal activity had been recorded. Complying with the order on March 17, 2014, the police destroyed some of the wiretaps and sent the remainder to the prosecutor’s office.
Three deadly ISIL attacks in 2015 that claimed the lives of 142 people took place after the police were prevented from monitoring jihadist suspects. Of the 19 suspects for whom the judge denied a wiretap in March 2014, police were able to arrest only eight of them in 2015 in various anti-ISIL sweeps. Suspects Mustafa Diken and Halil İbrahim Kiraz were arrested after ISIL suspect İsmail Güneş staged a vehicle suicide bombing attack against a police station in Gaziantep. Durmaz blew himself up during a police raid on his home. Other suspects identified as Ahmet Güneş, Talha Güneş, Nusret Yılmaz, İlyas Kaya, Cebrail Kaya, Abidin Aygün, Kürşat Akçiçek and İsmail Pektaş remain at large and are believed to be in Syria.
Because of the government restrictions on monitoring jihadist groups in Turkey, most move freely across Turkey and travel through the porous border between Turkey and Syria with ease.
By the time the government acts on these militants, it often proves to be too late. Perhaps this was the intended outcome all along, and the Erdoğan government did not want to really crack down on these jihadist networks that were used by the regime as proxies to destabilize and threaten other countries.