Turkey turned blind eye to role of convicted al-Qaeda militant with ties to the killer of Russian ambassador 

Fatih Köçer, convicted al-Qaeda militant who engaged in a financial transaction with the assassin of Russian ambassador in Turkey.

Abdullah Bozkurt

 

The Turkish prosecutor investigating the police officer who murdered Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov in Ankara in 2016 failed to pursue a lead that showed the assassin had ties to a convicted al-Qaeda terrorist.

The investigation revealed that Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the 22-year-old riot police officer who gunned down the Russian ambassador on December 19, 2016, sent funds to a Turkish man named Fatih Köçer, who had been convicted of membership in the al-Qaeda terrorist group. Köçer’s Facebook profile indicated that he had a friendship with the killer’s mentor, İbrahim Bilal Oduncu, a 35-year-old government employee who worked as the muezzin (deputy imam) at Ankara’s Gimat Mosque. However, Turkish prosecutor Adem Akıncı neither pressed charges against the bookstore owner for promoting al-Qaeda books nor investigated Altıntaş’s mentor on suspicion of terrorism.

Instead he dropped the probe and simply took Köçer’s statement as a witness in what appears to have been an effort to derail the criminal investigation and prevent it from exposing the real jihadist network that was cultivated by the assassin before the hit.

The details of wire transfers that were examined by the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) showed that the killer wired funds in the amount of 270 Turkish lira to an account at Islamic lender Kuveyt Türk Bank on December 7, 2015. The account holder was Köçer, who was prosecuted on al-Qaeda charges by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office under case file no. 2007/112. He was convicted of al-Qaeda membership in April 2013 for facilitating the travel of Turkish militants to conflict areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the jihadist fight.

The Ankara 11th High Criminal Court sentenced Köçer to seven years, six months for “willingly and knowingly aiding and abetting a terrorist group.” It later reduced the sentence to two years, one month for good behavior during the hearings. In the same case, Halil Abanoz, Ebubekir Dilek, Mehmet Reşit Kazancı, Muammer Demirbaş and Abdulkerim Civelek, who all went to Pakistan in 2007 for arms training in al-Qaeda camps, were sentenced to six years, three months.

 

The Benli bookstore, where the Russian ambassador’s killer purchased jihadist books.

 

The evidence in the investigation file revealed that Abanoz told Köçer that he wanted to go a jihadist camp to be trained in suicide bombing and upon his return could blow himself up to kill American troops stationed at İncirlik Air Base in Turkey’s southeastern province of Adana when the soldiers went to pubs and nightclubs. Demirbaş and Civelek had already been imprisoned in Pakistan for some time before they were allowed to return to Turkey. Köçer’s accomplice, Vakıf Sarı, who helped people go abroad for the jihadist fight, was also convicted at the end of the trial.

A bookstore that was set up in Ankara by Köçer and his brother Ferdi Köçer in 2009 was instrumental in helping the Russian envoy’s killer to radicalize. The books on jihad bought by the assassin came from this shop, the Benli Kitap ve Kultur Merkezi (Benli Bookstore and Cultural Center).

 

Ferdi Köçer’s police statement:

Ferdi_Kocer_statement_police

 

The investigators visited the bookstore on December 24, 2016, only five days after the assassination, which suggested that the government had already discovered the killer’s network of contacts and tracked his financial transactions. The evidence clearly pointed to this bookstore. An examination of sales order records indicated that Altıntaş ordered 17 books from the Benli store on May 20, 2016 and five books on December 7, 2015. In his statement taken at the police department’s counterterrorism unit, Ferdi denied knowing the killer. Again, Ferdi was not listed as a suspect, and his statement was simply taken as a person with knowledge of the crime.

Among the books he ordered were the translated works of jihadist literature authored by radical figures such as Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian preacher who helped found al-Qaeda, Hamas and Lashkar-e-Taiba and served as Osama bin Laden’s mentor; Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leader; Abu Yahya al-Libi (Mohamed Hassan Qaid), a high-ranking Libyan terrorist within al-Qaeda; Abdullah Mansour, the leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an Islamist, separatist Uyghur organization; Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American imam who was involved in planning terrorist operations for al-Qaeda; Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Egyptian Muslim cleric who was convicted and sentenced to life prison in the US; and Abu Omar al-Saif, an al-Qaeda affiliated Saudi jihadist who was killed in Russia’s Dagestan.

 

Still shots from CCTV footage that show the killer walked from his hotel to the art gallery where he killed Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov.

 

Altıntaş was apparently attracted by the writings of Turkish jihadists as well because his book order included the works of Abdulkadir Şen, a suspect in a 2014 al-Qaeda probe in Turkey. Şen was exposed while moving supplies to jihadist groups in Syria, but the investigation, which also uncovered Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization’s (MIT) close cooperation with al-Qaeda groups in Syria, was quickly hushed up by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Another Turkish author that appealed to the killer was Cemal Nar, who advocated that Muslims must always be ready for armed jihad. The memoirs of a Turkish jihadist who recorded his experiences while fighting in Pakistan and published them under the assumed name of Salih Seriyye was another book that attracted the killer’s attention.

Although prosecutor Akıncı included statements from both the Köçer brothers as witnesses to the sale of the books, he declined to press any charges against them, casting further doubt on whether the Turkish government was genuinely interested in locating all of the killer’s accomplices.

 

Indictment showed that the killer placed two orders for books from the Benli bookstore:

Benli_Bookstore1

 

The Facebook profile of Fatih Köçer shows him as sharing messages of radical cleric Nurettin Yıldız, a key extremist figure in helping radicalize the killer, who was found to have attended religious study circles set up by the cleric in Ankara. Yıldız was not listed as a suspect in the case, either, and the police never bothered to take a statement from him even as a person who might have had knowledge relevant to on ongoing investigation. Yıldız, described as the Erdoğan family cleric, often appeared as a keynote speaker at events organized by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) youth branches and by a foundation run by Erdoğan’s family. He even travelled to Syria to meet with militant groups and often preached in support of violent jihadist campaigns around the world.

 

 

Orders loaded onto a cargo van from the Benli bookstore.

 

A day before he set out to kill the Russian envoy, Altıntaş left most of the books he had bought with his close friend Oduncu, who functioned as a mentor to Altıntaş in the neighborhood where the killer lived and played a part in his radicalization. Altıntaş said the books he had purchased earlier might be of benefit to others. Oduncu is listed as a friend on Fatih Köçer’s Facebook page.

The killer took three books to room number 204 at the Best Hotel, where he stayed and prepared himself on the day of the assassination before walking to the art gallery to kill the ambassador. One of the books that were picked up by the police from the hotel after the incident was an Arabic prayer book titled “Rahmetin Kapısında” (At the Door of Mercy), written by cleric Yıldız.

 

Three books were found in the hotel room where the killer stayed before the assassination: 

Benli_Bookstore2

 

The second book that gave last-minute inspiration to the killer was “Kırk Hadis,” which was written by senior al-Qaeda figure Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan. The book was about the importance of martyrdom and how God would reward martyrs in the afterlife. Al-Libi was killed in June 2012 in a drone attack in Pakistan. The third book was a collection of prayers titled “Hisnu’l Müslim Dua ve Zikirler” (Hisnul Muslim Supplications and Remembrances), compiled by  Saudi Sheikh Saeed bin Ali bin Wahf al-Qahtani, a well known Islamic scholar.

The books the assassin bought and was inspired by are still widely available for purchase in Turkey in many bookstores including Benli, which shipped the books to the killer. The Erdoğan government has not launched a crackdown on the authors, publishers, distributors and bookstores that promote such jihadist literature that keeps poisoning the minds of young people in Turkey.

In the meantime, however, dozens of publishing houses including the nation’s largest, Irmak, which published and distributed books that were authored by critics of the Erdoğan government and offered a panacea against radicalism in Islam, were arbitrarily seized and shut down by the government. For example, books written by Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been staunch opponent of violent ideologies throughout of his life and an advocate of interfaith dialogue, were banned by the Erdoğan government and all existing copies in over a thousand public libraries were collected and destroyed. Anybody found reading or possessing Gulen’s books is charged under terrorism laws in Turkey.

 

Radical Turkish cleric Nurettin Yıldız, who helped radicalize the assassin.

 

Fatih Köçer shared a video of radical cleric Nurettin Yıldız on his Facebook page.

 

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