A jihadist Turkish police officer who assassinated Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov in the capital city of Ankara in 2016 also considered the US ambassador as a possible target, the evidence collected from a computer in his home suggests.
A forensic examination of the hard drive in an Asus laptop seized from the home of the 22-year-old assassin, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, revealed that the killer Googled the name of the then-US ambassador, John Bass.
The examination of the hard drive, bearing serial no. JA100A1F37HTJM, revealed that Altıntaş used the keywords “John Bass,” “Bass John” and “Türk Amerikan Derneği” (Turkish American Association) to conduct searches on his computer in addition to “Büyükelçiliklere nasıl girilir” (How to enter embassies). He was apparently assessing when and where US Ambassador Bass would make a public appearance and perhaps trying to figure out how to penetrate the security perimeter in and around embassies.
Bass was in Turkey as the US ambassador until July 2017, when President Donald Trump named him the US envoy to Afghanistan.
At some point, Altıntaş appears to have shifted focus to the Russian envoy and determined that he would make an appearance at the Füreyya Korel Sergi Salonu, an exhibit hall in the Çağdaş Sanatlar Merkezi art gallery in Ankara. He ran searches using the terms “Rusya Büyükelçiliği” (Russian Embassy), “Rus Kültür Merkezi” (Russian Cultural Center) and “Karlov.” The web browser history indicates that the search intensified between December 9 and 19, 2016, the examination report states.
The evidence, incorporated into the prosecutor’s indictment, points out that Altıntaş, who had clearly been radicalized within pro-government Islamist networks, was not sure which envoy to kill in the beginning but subsequently settled on the Russian ambassador. The session opened in Google through his personal email account firstname.lastname@example.org on December 18, a day before he killed Karlov, showed that Altıntaş searched for the location of the Russian Embassy and residence on Google Maps.
Some of the words used in the search such as “Tabanca hızlı atış teknikleri” (fast gunfire tactics), and “Tabanca atışı nasıl geliştirilir” (how to improve shooting skills) showed that Altıntaş wanted to perfect his shooting skills. Search terms like “Koruma kulaklığı” (bodyguard earpiece) and “İGS takım elbise” (IGS brand suit) hinted that the killer wanted to disguise himself as part of a protective detail and had already devised his plan on how to kill the envoy. Another search for “Hotel Best Ankara” involved a place for him to lie low, make final preparations and change into a suit.
Altıntaş also researched scheduling delivery of an email and searched using the words “İleri tarihli mail” (delayed mail) on Google. That might have meant he wanted to leave a manifesto that would be discovered only after his death and perhaps have it sent to the press or people or groups he was familiar with. Investigators found four email messages when they gained access to his account, all similar in content. The messages were written in the form of a declaration that a jihadist militant would leave behind after martyring himself.
His letter started with Verse 156, Chapter 2 of the Quran, which reads, “Verily we belong to God, and verily to Him do we return.” The verse is often recited by Muslims when they face imminent death or learn that another person has died. It was clear that Altıntaş had been planning some sort of attack that would result in his demise long before he killed the Russian ambassador because the messages were date-stamped July 27, 2015. He wrote that there was no escape, asked for God’s mercy and hoped to end up in heaven after his death. He said he had sponsored an orphan until November, paying 1,001 Turkish lira a month, and asked his family to keep up with the payments. He asked his loved ones not to cry too much at his funeral and did not want processional musicians, instead requesting religious chants of Allah Akbar. He promised to see them in the afterlife.
The examination of the access records revealed from the subject headings only that he had three emails stored in the draft box of his email folder several hours before he killed the Russian envoy, two with the Muslim greeting, “Selamün Aleyküm” (As-Salaamu-Alaikum), “Ve Aleyküm Selam” (Wa-Alaikum-as-Salaam) and “Sırf Allah rızası için başka bir menfaat gözetmeden” (Just for the sake of Allah, without seeking any other benefit). There was no discovery made as to the content of the messages in the evidentiary file or if he wrote any manifesto and managed to send it according to a delayed delivery schedule.
Altıntaş also looked into how to go to Syria and made searches on the Internet to that effect. He also downloaded an al-Qaeda video and watched it, according to the investigation file.
The body of evidence and statements in the case file point to the fact that the killer was radicalized when he started attending sermons given by several radical imams, some on the Turkish government payroll, working for the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). He had close ties to İbrahim Bilal Oduncu, a 35-year-old jihadist who had worked with the assassin and had been serving as muezzin (deputy imam) at Ankara’s Gimat Mosque, according to the indictment. A series of contacts, both in person and over the phone, between Bilal and Altıntaş were revealed. Bilal and his brother, Murat Oduncu, have for some time been leading a Turkish al-Qaeda-affiliated front NGO that is operational in Turkey’s capital of Ankara with the protection of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. Both of them were in contact with the killer and involved in activities to support jihadists in Syria. Another brother, Metin Ali Oduncu, who is also a district mufti working for the Diyanet, and his son Muhammed Selman Oduncu were involved with the killer to varying degrees.
At the time of the murder, Altıntaş was staying with Serkan Özkan, a suspect in the case, in an apartment located in the Kalaba neighborhood of Ankara’s Keçiören district. Investigators concluded that Özkan could not have used the computer because he was away in Istanbul at the time . He is an attorney who regularly attends the lectures of Nurettin Yıldız, a venomous preacher who advocates violent and armed jihad. Incidentally, Yıldız has often appeared as keynote speaker at events organized by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) youth branches as well as the Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), which is run by Erdoğan’s family.
None of the imams who played significant roles in radicalizing Altıntaş were named as suspects in the case or charged with any crime. Radical, Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups were never made a subject of the investigation despite clear evidence of Altıntaş’s jihadist leanings and radical views. Instead Turkish authorities attempted to find a scapegoat in the Gülen movement, a group critical of the government, and frame innocent people who had nothing to do with the murder whatsoever. It was clear that the Erdoğan government wanted to protect radical networks and figures that it relied on as a political support base. When the trial of suspects involved in the murder began, however, the government plot was dealt a huge blow when a key suspect accused by the prosecutor of instigating the hit exposed in court the torture he had been subjected to in police custody and testified that the statement extracted from him was fabricated by the police and that his family had been threatened.