COMMENTARY — Did Turkey’s intel have anything to do with a bomb attack on jetliner?

Mirza Tur's owner Mehmet Öğütçüoğlu with Turkish Minister Faruk Özlü.

By Abdullah Bozkurt & Ahmet Dönmez

A suicide bombing attack aboard a civilian passenger jet in Mogadishu on Feb 2, 2016 that forced the plane to land with a gaping hole on its fuselage has been traced back to a Turkish travel company that is seen close to the government circles.

The reservation for the ticket in the name of Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh, a Somalia national who boarded a plane with a bomb hidden in a laptop which exploded at 11,000 feet, was made by a travel agency identified as Mirza Tur which is allegedly linked to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) of Turkey. The accusation that Turkish government stonewalled the probe into this company has cast further shadow on possible role played by groups linked to the Turkish government. The attack which was claimed by al-Shabab, prompted a global investigation led by the Interpol and assisted by the UN experts as well as the FBI investigators.

The fact that the management of the Mogadishu airport Borleh boarded the plane was under a Turkish company that is very close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not escape from the scrutiny either.

Mirza Tur owner Mehmet Öğütçüoğlu posing in Somalia.

The PNR (passenger name record) code for the bomber’s ticket was generated by Turkish company Mirza Tur that received the initial order from the client and later forwarded to an Angolan travel company Eurostral Limitada to process the ticket based on the reservation details. Turkish government has refused to cooperate with Angolan authorities who wanted to investigate Mirza Tur and its owners and declined to respond to repeated inquiries to that effect, according to Angolan police officer who was involved in the investigation.

Instead, two Turkish nationals who has been living in Angola for years and thought they were acting as brokers for a legitimate travel business between the two companies appear to have been made a fall guy for the terror attack and sentenced to a long prison time in rushed court proceedings. The case was hushed-up in a criminal lawsuit in Angola by scapegoating unsuspecting middlemen while real culprits and accomplices for the incident remained protected in Turkey.

Mirza Tur owner Mehmet Öğütçüoğlu visited Iran.

Mirza Tur, a relatively new company that was set up in 2010 as a start-up business, has quickly developed to become a major player in hospitality and travel industry reportedly. The company has branches in Iran and Sudan, the two countries that the United States Department of State designated as state sponsors of terrorism. It is owned by a 32-year old man named Mehmet Öğütçüoğlu who declares himself as a nationalist figure and presents himself as an ardent supporter of Turkish president Erdogan. In his published photos include his picture with a Turkish minister while taking an award for services his company has rendered or having a lunch with him.

Despite the fact it was this company that made the reservations for the bomber, there was no investigation launched against the company or Öğütçüoğlu who has the majority shareholder in the family run business entity. No trial was ever conducted into his alleged involvement in the attempt to take down a civilian airline plane that was claimed by al-Qaeda affiliated terror group al-Shabab. His personal web page shows Öğütçüoğlu made a trip to Somalia, and pictured in a photo standing next to Somalia security forces.

The suicide bomber had also a Turkish visa from the embassy of Turkey in Mogadishu that received a recommendation letter to facilitate a visa for Borleh from the Somalian embassy in Ankara. Although Somalian embassy denied ever sending such letter, Turkish embassy did not respond to repeated calls by the Associated Press reporter who wanted to verify the letter after the incident occurred.

It is no secret that Turkey has a special focus in Somalia and maintains the largest embassy building complex ever run by a foreign government in Mogadishu to coordinate its large scale operations in the Sub-Saharan Africa.  Turkish President Erdoğan appointed a staunchly Islamist doctor, Cemalettin Kani Torun, as a non-career ambassador to Mogadishu in 2011 to develop policies with respect to Horn of Africa.

According to a Turkish government insider and an anonymous whistleblower that uses Fuat Avni as his handle on Twitter, Torun met al-Shabab terror leaders secretly and sold them arms. He was rewarded for his services by Erdoğan who later appointed him as his chief adviser in 2014 and made him a deputy in Parliament a year later. He is currently serving as deputy chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission. Torun has also lobbied with Somalian government to secure a contract to run Mogadishu airport for a Turkish joint venture company which is led by ex-military Turkish man.

ANGOLA LINK TO THE BOMBER

The ticket itinerary issued by Angolan travel agency at the request of Turkish travel company Mirza Tur which is reportedly linked to Turkish intelligence agency.

The scheme run by Mirza Tur in Africa on behalf of Turkish intelligence has links to Angola where a local company was used to process tickets after the PNR codes were generated and reservations made in İstanbul. The codes were then sent to a Turkish businessman in Angola who in turn asked an Angolan travel company to process tickets based on the PNR codes.

It appears İbrahim Gökhan Karadöl (36), a Turkish national who has been living in Angola for seven years, was an unsuspecting merchant in this scheme. Karadöl was approached by Mirza Tur owner in December 2015 and asked whether he can find a local company to

İbrahim Gökhan Karadöl with his wife and child.

process ticket sales for reservations made in Turkey. He was offered to make some money in the transactions, mainly from the currency exchange differences between Angolan and Turkish markets as well as commissions. According to the agreed deal, Öğütçüoğlu would have covered Karadöl’s debt payments back in Turkey where he owed some money from his troubled machinery sale business. In return, Karadöl would cover ticket sales out of his own pocket and pay to the local travel company in Angola in local currency.

Karadöl thought he was making money on a legitimate business and was simply acting as a middleman between a travel agency Mirza Tur in Turkey and Angolan travel agency Eurostral Limitada which is owned by a French national Laurent Jean Marie Lepetit and located in the district of Talatona in Angolan capital Luanda. He enlisted the help of Eljan Tushdiev (29), a Georgian national who has been working as an English teacher at Colegio Esperanca International since 2012.

Tushdiev knew the travel agency Eurostral Limitada and was even earning commissions when he was referring clients to the company for ticket purchases. Karadöl made a deal with Eurostral Limitada on five percent commission on each ticket he would bring for the processing. The business took off in middle of January and they were purchasing some 15 to 20 tickets on daily average per orders from Mirza Tur.

Karadöl and his partner Tushdiev — who left his teaching career to work with him — thought they were making some money and all were legitimate. But their hopes were

dashed when one of the name forwarded by Mirza Tur turned out to be a bomber Borleh who wanted to destroy a jetliner with all the passengers aboard. The business they started in middle January 2016 shattered only some 20 days later when the business scheme hit the wall with the news of the Borleh appearing in the boking list they received from Turkey.

They had no idea that PNR codes sent by Mirza Tur on January 27, 2016 via Viber messaging application included Borleh’s name as a passenger who booked the flight. Just as they had done for other orders filled by Mirza Tur, they also processed the ticket for Borleh when the reservation code 1A – MUC005210074 – A002 was forwarded to them from İstanbul, resulting in purchase of e-ticket no. 235 249 328 484 6.

Eljan Tushdiev with his wife and two children.

In fact, when Borleh blew himself up on Feb.2 on the flight no.159 that was operated by Dubai-based Daallo Airlines between Mogadishu and Djibouti, Karadöl and Tushdiev did not even realize the ticket sold to the bomber, booked by Mirza Tur and processed by Eurostral Limitada, was among the ones they helped get processed. They continued attending to their businesses as usual without knowing that the investigation into the incident will eventually trace back to them. At times, Karadöl was even using his personal credit cards to make payments to Eurostral Limitada for the processing of PNR booking codes he received from Mirza Tur even after the incident.

Both of them were arrested on February 11 by Angolan authorities as part of the investigation led by police chief Destino Pedro who works at the Interpol section of the Angolan police department. They were put in Hospital Prisao de Sao Paulo prison. A criminal lawsuit filed against them and they were convicted to serve 15 years on March 21, 2016 by Luanda Provincial Court’s 4th Section of the Common Crimes Chamber on terror charges. No employees of Mirza Tur or Eurostral Limitada were indicted although they were the main facilitators in providing the ticket to Somalia bomber. It appears Karadöl and Tushdiev, unsuspecting entrepreneurs in this case, were made a fall guy and the case was hushed up.

There were so many questions remained unanswered around the case. Although there are documents confirming the relationship between Karadöl and Turkish company Mirza Tur are in fact a commercial nature, investigators in Angola were quick in jumping into conclusion that this was a terror link, limited their probe only to middlemen who facilitated the ticket sale without looking into main suspects at the either end of the ticket order and purchase.

The quick trial gives an impression that both men were scapegoated for something that they were not even aware of and the case was wrapped up quickly. Except the plane ticket that was ordered by Turkish company, there was no piece of evidence submitted to the court suggesting a connection between the bomber in Somalia and two Turkish nationals Karadöl and Tushdiev in Angola.

Police chief Pedro declined to respond 14-point questions we submitted to him and instead he simply said he was involved in the investigation stage and submitted all the findings in the case to the court. Öğütçüoğlu did not return our message to respond to the allegations.

We talked to the wife of Karadöl, Tunay Yüksel Karadöl who claimed that her husband was set up. She denied her husband has anything to do with terror, saying that İbrahim Karadöl continued running his business even after the bombing took place, paid the price of tickets with his personal credit cards, produced invoices in his name. “Do you think that fits a profile of a terrorist behavior?” she asked.

She pointed out that Mirza Tur is the one that sold the ticket to this particular client and the payment was processed in Angola. She said Mirza Tur owner Öğütçüoğlu must be number one suspect in this case yet she lamented no indictment filed against him and no application was made with Interpol with regard to his role as far as she knows.

Tunay Yüksel Karadöl also maintained that she later fund out through her contacts that Mirza Tur is connected to Turkish intelligence, works with Turkey’s Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), Turkish government development agency abroad that MİT often uses as a cover to shield the identity of its agents working overseas.

MEHMET ÖĞÜTÇÜOĞLU: A KEY MAN IN THE MIDDLE OF AL-QAEDA BOMBING

It is worthy to note that Mirza Tur owner Mehmet Öğütçüoğlu has quickly turned his small startup company he set up in 2010 İstanbul’s Karaköy district at the age of 25 into one of the top 100 travel agencies in Turkey where 8,300 agencies operate today. He dropped out of the university in 2006 and started working for a travel agency a year later. He says he prefers cash money and takes a risk in entering markets that are not tapped. That is how he explains his business branches in Sudan and Iran. He has also been expanding in Nigerian market in recent years.

Trade registry data for Mirza Tur shows a family owner company.

According to the trade registry database by the İstanbul Chamber of Commerce (İTÖ), the company is officially listed as Mirza Uluslararası Organizasyon Turizm ve Otelcilik Ticaret Limited Şirketi with trade registry no.722617. It has TL3 million (equivalent of some $842,105) in paid capital and owned by Mehmet Öğütçüoğlu and his family members Fatma Öğütçüoğlu and Esra Nur Öğütçüoğlu. The company has increased its capital twice, one on Nov.22, 2013 and the other on March 4, 2016, just a month after Somalian bomber

The company increased its capital a month after the bombing take place in Mogadishu.

attempted to take down the airliner jet.

Öğütçüoğlu is a die-hard fan of Turkish President Erdoğan whom he sees on par with past Turkish Sultans Alpaslan and Fatih who conquered large lands in Asia and Europe. In a statement he issued from his own page in support of Erdoğan during the April 2016 referendum campaign that gave sweeping new powers to Turkish President, Öğütçüoğlu predicted a revival of major Turkish Islamic empire that will unite all Muslim and Turkish countries in the world against the US, EU, Russia and China. He bashed Vatican and claimed all non-Muslims do whatever Pope Francis tells them to do.

He has contacts in Somalia and even visited the place at least once. Since it was his company that received the order for the reservation of ticket for the bomber, he is a prime suspect in this case yet he appears to have been protected by the Turkish government. In photographs posted on his own personal web page and on company web pages, he was seen as receiving an award from Turkey’s Science, Industry and Technology Minister Faruk Özlü.

In an interview he gave to Konya Yenigün newspaper on October 3, 2016, Öğütçüoğlu said he sees the Gülen movement as an ‘axis of evil’ and describes them as ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’ in line with Erdoğan and Turkey’s Islamist government narrative. Yet he strikes a deal with Karadöl who is known to be among supporters of a school affiliated with the movement in Angola. Although this represented a contradiction, Karadöl’s wife says she has an explanation for this. She claims Öğütçüoğlu framed his husband with the instructions from the Turkish intelligence to smear the Gülen movement.

It is no secret that Turkish government has been lobbying to convince foreign governments to crack down on the volunteers and participants of the Gülen movement (also known as Hizmet), asking them to shut down schools and other institutions affiliated with the peaceful civic group.

Turkish President Erdoğan started describing the movement as illegal structure first and later as a terrorist organization, following the expose on major corruption investigations on December 2013 that implicated Erdoğan and his family members in billions of dollars of bribes and kickbacks. Gülen who criticized Erdoğan and his government for corruption suddenly became a foe for Erdoğan. The fact that Gülen also remained opposed to Turkey’s interference into Syrian domestic affairs and is critical of Erdoğan’s arming and funding of radical Jihadist groups has drawn the ire of Erdoğan since 2011 when Syrian civil war started.

As part its global campaign of persecution and harassment, Turkish government reportedly asked Angolan government to shut down Hizmet-linked school Colegio Esperanca International, deport all Turkish nationals believed to be affiliated with Gülen. Karadöl’s wife claims the conviction of her husband and his partner was also among the demands made by the Turkish government. She believes the conviction of her husband on false charges is part of plot devised by Turkish intelligence.

Police chief Destino Pedro who works for the Interpol section in Angolan Police department.

She also said Interpol’s police officer Pedro told her that her husband had nothing to do with the terror act in Somalia and Angolan investigation concluded that this was likely a deliberate plot cooked up in Turkey and predicted that her husband would quickly be released in a month-time with a financial penalty. According to her recollection, Pedro also told her that neither Turkish government nor the Turkish Embassy in Angola have responded to their repeated inquiries with regard to accomplices in the ticket booking, especially Mirza Tur owner and employees. Tunay Yüksel Karadöl believe her family has become a victim of Erdoğan’s witch-hunt campaign targeting his critics and opponents abroad.

Turkish President Erdoğan started targeting Gülen and his movement openly after the major corruption dragnet was exposed, and even accused Hizmet of being behind the failed coup of July 15 that he himself called as gift from the God. Gülen, however, rejected the accusations and has called for an independent international commission to be set up to investigate the coup attempt. The Turkish government has failed to present any direct evidence linking the cleric or the movement to the abortive coup.

TURKEY IS UNCOOPERATIVE

Despite inquiries from Angola, Turkish government refused to cooperate in deepening the investigation into the bombing incident in Somalia. Neither Öğütçüoğlu nor the other employees of the company were investigated by the authorities in Turkey, suggesting that this was a clandestine operation that somehow involved Turkish elements and that Ankara wanted to cover this up.

Tunay Yüksel Karadöl said she personally met with Angolan police chief Pedro and talked to him through a translator. According to her account, Pedro told her he suspected the involvement of Turkish state and found it bizarre that Turkish authorities have not responded to Angolan officials’ inquiries. He also said he believes Karadöl and Tushdiev are used in this plot and they were caught up in scheme without knowing what was happening.

Pedro said Turkish government is making very difficult for them to make a progress on this case. He said normally Turkish government should have shown interest in this case when Turkish nationals are involved and asked what evidence Angolan authorities have against their own citizens. Yet he lamented that neither the Turkish government nor the Turkish embassy in Angola have taken an interest in the case.

TURKISH AIRLINES WAS SUPPOSED TO FLY BOMBER

The flight on Feb. 2 was supposed to be operated by Turkey’s national flag carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) but the airline cancelled it reportedly because of bad weather from a previous departure point according to various wire reports. Instead, Daallo Airlines was used with an hour delay. “If the bomb had gone off at cruising altitude, as it might have if it was rigged to a timing device set to coincide with the original flight time, the result could have been catastrophic, with the plane possibly disintegrating because of the vast difference between air pressure inside and outside at 30,000-plus feet”, the Associated Press report filed on Feb.16, 2016, stated.

“Instead the blast happened earlier, at a lower altitude. Borleh was the only fatality and the plane’s controls were unaffected by the blast allowing the pilot able to fly the plane back to Mogadishu safely,” it added.

Reuters and AFP also reported on Feb.8, 2016 that Mohamed Yassin, Daallo Airlines chief executive, as saying that most of the passengers who were on the bombed flight were scheduled to fly with Turkish Airlines, but were ferried to Djibouti by one of his planes after the Turkish carrier cancelled its flight. “That particular passenger [who was behind the blast] boarded the aircraft on a Turkish Airlines boarding pass and was on the list for the Turkish Airlines manifest,” Yassin said. He said Daallo picked up the 70 stranded Turkish Airlines passengers – including the suicide bomber – to fly them to Djibouti. Turkish Airlines did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2012, Turkish Airlines became the first major international commercial airline to fly out of Somalia in more than two decades after Turkey started showing a keen interest in rebuilding Somalia. CCTV footage released by the Somali National Intelligence Agency (Nisa) appears to show two airport workers in military uniforms inside the terminal handing the suicide bomber a lap top stuffed with explosives, according to the government spokesman Abdisalam Aato.

The US ban on air travelers from ten Middle Eastern countries including Turkey carrying elec­tronic devices such as laptops with them in passenger cabins appears to be linked to this incident for which the FBI investigators were also involved in probing it. The ban, imposed in March included Turkish Airlines (THY) as well to the surprise and dismay of Turkish officials. Security experts say the bomb carried in a laptop was a test-run by al-Qaeda that is trying to come up with new ways of attacks on airlines.

On March 2016, less than a month after the Daallo bombing, al-Shabab attempted to smuggle two bombs — one hidden in a laptop, the other in a printer and both containing high­ly explosive Pentaerythritol tetran­itrate (PETN), aboard aircraft at a Somali regional airport at Beledw­eyne, 325km north of Mogadishu. The printer was found and de­fused but the bomb in the lap­top exploded prematurely on the ground, wounding six people.

THE UN DID NOT DISCLOSE THE CONFIDENTIAL REPORT

The bombing of the flight 159 was also covered by the report submitted to the United Nations Security Council by the the Chair of the Security Council Committee on October 7, 2016 as part of its monitoring on Somalia and Eritrea. The report sounded alarm bells by saying that “while Al-Shabaab used an improvised explosive device concealed in a laptop in at least one known previous attack in Mogadishu in November 2013, this is the first known case in which it directly targeted an aircraft.”

UN Security Council Monitoring Committee on Somalia said tha attack demonstrated important connections between Al-Shabaab and certain international actors.

It noted that “the choice of a Somali businessman as a suicide bomber, the extensive operational security measures implemented, including the apparent assassination of some of the conspirators in the wake of the attack, together with indications that Al-Shabaab is likely to have had external assistance in the construction of the device, reflect an evolution of the group’s tactics, techniques and procedures. The attack followed reports received by the Monitoring Group that Al-Shabaab was working to enhance its capability to target aviation interests, increasing the need for effective aviation security measures in Somalia and the region.”

The UN report concluded that “the attack also demonstrated important connections between Al-Shabaab and certain international actors” and said the findings of the Monitoring Group on the attack are kept strictly confidential.

TURKISH COMPANY OPERATES MOGADISHU AIRPORT

Muddying the waters more, on September 15, 2013, a Turkish company called Favori L.L.C took over the management of the Mogadishu’s Aden Abdulle International Airport where the bomber Borleh got on the plane. It came as a surprise for industry observers that Favori LLC, a joint venture established in 2012 by Turkish businessmen Ahmet Çetin & Süleyman Kozuva, had no experience in airport management and ground handling services yet it was awarded the contract by the Somalian cabinet amid major corruption allegations in $1.8 million that implicated Somalian government officials. A Dubai based SKA which has been managing the operation of the airport since 2010 was forcefully kicked out from the airport and Favori L.L.C, took over the operations.

Süleyman Kozuva appeared in the photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkish businessman Süleyman Kozuva leads a construction company called Kardeşler Yapı Grup in Turkey while Ahmet Çetin owns Çetin group which primarily provides private security services. Ahmet Çetin (50) is an interesting character. He served in Turkish navy SAT marine commando before he was discharged in 1996 after a chopper accident during Kardak/Imia islet crisis between Turkey and Greece that brought the two countries to the brink of war.

He was tried as a suspect in Sledgehammer (Balyoz) case where the defendants are accused of attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government in 2003 by attempting to wreak havoc in Turkey with a series of planned provocations, including but not limited to assassinating non-Muslim minority leaders, triggering a war with neighboring Greece over disputes in the Aegean Sea and bombing major mosques in İstanbul.

Security firm owner, ex-military, Ahmet Çetin who has been involved in Mogadishu since 2011.

Çetin group was already providing security for Turkish Airlines in Mogadishu since 2011. In fact, Çetin sent his marine colleague Saadettin Doğan to oversee security operations for the THY in Mogadishu Airport. Doğan was killed in an attack by unknown gunmen on May 2014. Doğan was a suspect in Poyrazköy trial in Turkey which exposed a clandestine armed group nestled in Turkish military following the discovery of a stash of arms in İstanbul district. He was forced to leave the navy and started working for Çetin group.

Süleyman Kozuva is a businessman who is close to Turkish President Erdoğan who inaugurated the opening of the newly built terminal in Mogadishu on January 22, 2015. He has pictures shaking hands with Erdoğan. It appears both men were favored by Erdoğan who lobbied on behalf of their joint venture in gaining lucrative ten-year contract with a possibility of extending another ten years in Somalia.

The UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring group criticized the contract with Turkish company and questioned the terms of the agreement, saying that the contract is a technically poor deal for Somalia and represents “a case of potential abuse by a private entity.” It specifically highlighted that Favori which rebuilt the infrastructure and a new terminal at its own cost, can subsequently deduct all expenses from future income of the airport, without any agreed and clear mechanism for assessing the actual cost of the investment.

According to agreed deal, Favori receives 55 per cent of the net revenue and Somalia government gets 45 per cent from the net revenue. The problem is that the deal lacks precise terms and processes, allowing Favori to deduct inflated expenses and consequently diminish the government’s share of the net revenue. The UN found that Favori is deducting salary taxes as expenses and has also been making use of a depreciation deduction at up to USD 300,000 per month. “These processes were neither initially identified nor agreed upon with the FGS [Federal government of Somalis],” the UN underlined.

There is a mounting body of evidence suggesting a connection between the Turkish intelligence and Jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). On January 2014, Turkish law enforcement agencies intercepted illegal arms shipments that were escorted by the intelligence MİT officials and that were carrying heavy arms to Jihadists in Syria. According to court documents, Turkish intelligence sent some 2,000 trucks full of arms to radical groups fighting in Syria.

The investigations into these unlawful shipments were thwarted by Erdoğan, who then turned the case around and accused prosecutors, police chiefs and military officers of espionage for exposing the illegal arms shipments. In another investigation that run out of the Eastern province Van in 2014 uncovered how Turkish intelligence MİT funded and armed al-Qaeda groups in Syria. That probe was also hushed-up by Erdoğan.

May 18, 2017

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