Turkish authorities overlooked mysterious visitors who frequented the house where the assassin of the Russian ambassador to Turkey had lived until the day of the murder and ignored inconsistencies in a statement provided by his roommate.
Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the 22-year-old assassin of Russian envoy Andrei Karlov, was living in a first floor apartment owned by Serkan Özkan, an Islamist lawyer, located in the Granit alley in the Kalaba neighborhood of Ankara’s Keçiören district. Although Özkan claimed nobody visited the killer while he was his roommate, witnesses’ statements and evidence collected from the apartment show he had lied to the police.
According to witness Aslı Kara, the occupant of a second-floor apartment in the same building, four or five men in suits visited the killer’s apartment. She also added that many people frequented apartment No. 5, where the killer was living. When the police asked Özkan about who these men were after Kara made her statement, Özkan simply said they were his colleagues and relatives from Konya and had dropped by his flat when returning from a wedding ceremony. The police did not confirm the statement and took it at face value.
Serkan Özkan, the roommate of Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, who killed Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov, falsely stated that nobody had visited the killer:Serkan_Ozkan_statement
Another witness named Memduh Güler, a pensioner who had lived in the same neighborhood for years and knew all the residents, told the police that about 10 days before the assassination he noticed a mysterious man heading toward the killer’s apartment. The man, 35 or 40 years of age, was wearing a black hat and dark jacket and carrying a James Bond-style attaché case.
Based on the Marlboro and Camel brand cigarette butts collected from the apartment, forensic examiners concluded that most of the DNA samples taken from the butts indicated men other than the killer, Altıntaş, and his roommate and landlord Özkan had been present in the apartment, corroborating the witness statements alleging the presence of more visitors to the flat.
However, the prosecutor’s investigation file that was submitted to the court showed that the investigators did not bother identifying the mysterious visitors who the witnesses recalled seeing and the forensic evidence confirmed. What is more, the police did not run a thorough examination of the security cameras in the neighborhood to find out who the visitors were.
The file included footage from many places the killer visited, such as the public bus he rode, the hospital he visited to get a medical report to justify his absence from work, the gas station shop he dropped by to make a purchase, his entry to a hotel and art gallery and his getting into a taxi. However, no footage from the public security cameras installed by the police or CCTV cameras owned by the local stores exists in the case file.
The existence of security cameras that recorded the killer’s entry and exit from the apartment and his movements in the neighborhood was confirmed in the indictment. For example, the indictment noted that “[Altıntaş ] went to his residence located in the Keçiören district’s Kalaba Mahallesi Granit Sokak No: 5 at 10:40 a.m. and remained in the residence until 11:58 a.m. Terrorist Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş left his residence at this hour with his suit bag and suitcase.” It is clear that the police obtained footage from security cameras.
About a dozen witness statements provide some clues as to who some, if not all, of these mysterious visitors were. According to statements provided by members of the jihadist Social Fabric Foundation (Sosyal Doku Vakfı) led by cleric Nurettin Yıldız, a venomous preacher who advocates violent and armed jihad and has criticized Russian involvement in Syria, men were gathering in the killer’s apartment to converse and study the cleric’s guidelines.
Yıldız enjoys the support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government and has often appeared as a 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. The cleric set up a special cell in the Turkish capital under a volunteer group from Sosyal Doku Vakfı and began recruiting militants.
The Ankara cell was led by İbrahim Yılmazoğlu, a businessman who was tasked by the cleric with running logistical operations in the capital. Starting with the summer 2013, the cleric was coming to Ankara to give sermons on Monday nights in the Hacıbayram mosque in a neighborhood where many Turkish jihadists joined al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In the absence of Yıldız, whose main base of operations was in Istanbul, Süleyman Vatansever was preaching to the group under the coordination of Yılmazoğlu, who set up a WhatsApp group and created a Facebook page to expand outreach. Both the killer and his roommate frequently attended lectures organized by Yılmazoğlu and even hosted some of the private gatherings in their apartment.
İbrahim Yılmazoğlu’s statement:Ibrahim_Yilmazoglu_statement
Although the two had exchanged phone numbers earlier, the killer and Yılmazoğlu first met in person after a sermon delivered by Yıldız in Ankara in October 2014. In the courtyard of the Hacıbayram mosque Yılmazoğlu gave the killer directions on how he could attend their private study group. Altıntaş started with the group in December 2014.
The cleric’s point man in Ankara, Yılmazoğlu, took special care of the killer and helped nurture and guide him. He arranged a religious woman for him as a possible marriage partner, but it did not work out, so he kept looking for other candidates for the killer.
It was also Yılmazoğlu who urged Altıntaş to move into the apartment owned by Özkan. When the killer was reassigned to Bitlis province on temporary assignment in 2015, Yılmazoğlu kept him connected to the jihadist network in the province. He called Muhammet Dalkılıç, his protégée from Ankara and a student at the university in Bitlis, to make the killer’s stay as pleasant as possible. Dalkılıç stated that he received instructions from Yılmazoğlu and got the phone number of the killer. He met the killer at a cafe and talked to him.
On at least one occasion, Yılmazoğlu led a group of his loyal men to the apartment in which the killer was living some time after July 2016. According to the statement of Ibrahim Vardar, a witness and member of Sosyal Doku Vakfı, he and others — Yılmazoğlu , Mücahit Ayrancı, Sabahhatin İpek, Arif Demiriz, Salih Karaoğlu and Murat Olpak – gathered in the killer’s apartment. Similar statements were made by others as well.
In his statement, Yılmazoğlu listed a company named Yılmazoğlu Makina Kalıp Proje Ltd. Şti. as a business owned by his uncle Mustafa. He started working for the company in 1999, the same year it was established as a family business. The company specializes in machinery and manufactures parts for defense contractors including state-owned ones in Turkey. On the company web page, Mustafa Yılmazoğlu is seen visiting a defense fair and trying out a rifle in May 2019.
Neither jihadist cleric Yıldız nor his man in Ankara, Yılmazoğlu, who had been instrumental in radicalizing the assassin Altıntaş, were charged as accomplices in the murder. The Erdoğan government protected militants and jihadists from any criminal prosecution because it has been using them as proxy forces in Turkey and abroad. No wonder Yılmazoğlu and his men including Özkan were quickly mobilized to stand guard around Erdoğan’s presidential palace in Ankara during a failed coup on July 15, 2016. Özkan has experience in such gatherings as he admitted in his statement that he had joined anti-Israel protests in front of the Israeli Embassy in Ankara after attending morning prayers held by the Yıldız group in Ankara. His boss Abdullah Polat, a pro-Erdoğan lawyer whose picture with Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was revealed on social media after the murder took place, was also spared from criminal charges.