By Abdullah Bozkurt
A Turkish al-Qaeda militant who had been involved in kidnapping for a ransom to raise revenue for the radical armed group was saved by the government of Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who hushed up the probe, thwarted the trial hearings and eventually secured the release of all suspects from prison.
The operative’s name is Orhan Yaşar, 43 year old (DOB: July 11, 1974) from the the Suruç district of Turkey’s southeastern province Şanlıurfa on Turkish Syrian border. He was involved in the scheme of kidnapping and later the release of Turkish photo-journalist Bünyamin Aygün of Milliyet daily from his captives in al-Qaeda affiliated armed group in Syria. Yaşar had been probed as part of the confidential investigation file No. 2012/1361 which was launched by the Office of the Public Prosecutor in the Eastern province Van in 2012.
Yaşar was detained in a sweeping al-Qaeda operation on January 14, 2014 and formally arrested few days later. He and other suspects in the case were indicted on July 2014. But Yaşar was released pending a trial on the first hearing in the case by Van No.3 High Criminal Court on August 6, 2014. In his testimony to the court, he denied any involvement with al-Qaeda and said he is a businessman trading in textile in Syria. Yaşar did not even bother showing up in the next trial hearing held on October 28, 2014 and became a fugitive in the case.
The release of Yaşar did not make a sense at all given the fact one of the wiretap evidence in the case file revealed how he and his al-Qaeda cell leader was tipped off about the ongoing probe and planning to flee Turkey before police detained them on January 2014. Most likely the MİT learned about the police investigation file and passed that info to al-Qaeda suspects. As soon as the prosecutor was alerted by the investigators that suspects were made aware of the probe, he ordered their detention before they could have escaped the country.
There are five wiretap recordings in the investigation file that revealed how Yaşar involved in abduction of foreign nationals by al-Qaeda affiliated Jihadist groups in Syria. The investigators, after securing wiretap authorizations from the judge, listened in his communications with other al-Qaeda suspects. He was operating in a cell led by İbrahim Şen, a former Gitmo detainee and a convicted senior al-Qaeda militant, who has been working with Turkish Intelligence Organization (MİT) in moving arms, funds and supplies to Jihadist groups in Syria.
In several recordings, Yaşar was talking to Şen and a man named Sadullah Alyo about what they termed as “kaldırma” (an abduction in Turkish). Yaşar was also talking about financial needs of al-Qaeda, how to raise funds and transfer them to al-Qaeda in Syria. He was saying that Turkish intelligence agency MİT has been facilitating the transfer of Jihadists to Syria, and providing arms, funds and logistical supplies to al-Qaeda groups.
The case file includes a wiretap recording that shows Yaşar was discussing the kidnapped Turkish photo-journalist Bünyamin Aygün, and Spanish correspondent Javier Espinosa and Spanish freelance photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova. Aygün was kidnapped on Nov.26, 2013 while Spanish journalists were kidnapped on Sept.16, 2013. Yaşar was urging his contact to locate these journalists, and ask for a ransom money from their families. “Without taking any [ransom] money, do not release him [Aygün],” Yaşar was recorded as saying according to the investigation file submitted to the court.
All three journalists were eventually released from captivity but there was no mention of any ransom money was paid in exchange of their freedom. When asked about that, Aygün simply said he had no knowledge of such transaction. The interesting part of his kidnapping is that Turkish media reported that MİT teams helped secure his release and took him back to Turkey.
The controversial charity group International Humanitarian Relief (IHH), accused by Russia at the UN Security Council for smuggling arms to rebels in Syria, was also involved in negotiations for Aygün’s release. In other words, while MİT had been helping Jihadists to organize kidnapping, ransom demanding and even killing hostages, it was also brokering the release of hostages to save the day and appear as a hero at the same time.
If the MİT was helping Jihadist groups to arm, fund and resupply themselves as the evidence in the prosecutor’s confidential file suggests, it should not come as a surprise that these hostages were easily picked up from the hands of Jihadist groups.
There is another twist in Aygün’s saga which was told by him after he made safely back to Turkey. He said he met with a man named Haisam Toubaljeh, also known as Heysem Topalca, who was involved in recruiting foreign fighters and smuggling arms to Syria in cooperation with Turkish intelligence agency. Aygün claimed he was kidnapped after he met this guy to interview and later both were separated during the captivity.
Toubaljeh is no ordinary figure according to Turkish prosecutors who traced his footprints to the twin bombings in the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı, which claimed the lives of 53 people on May 11, 2013. Accordingly, two suspects who stood trial as part of an investigation into the Reyhanlı incident said what they claimed to be a Turkish official named Toubaljeh had pushed them to mastermind the attack.
The attack came only five days before then-Prime Minister and current President Erdoğan’s scheduled visit to Washington to meet US President Barack Obama in the White House. The plausible explanation was that MİT staged the Reyhanlı bombing through the contractor Toubaljeh as a false flag operation to prod the US into a military engagement in Syria to oust President Bashar al-Assad from power.
In a separate case, Toubaljeh was named as a suspect in moving three Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) terrorists who killed three people, including two police officers in the central Anatolian province of Niğde in March 2014. The ISIL militants, identified as Çendrim Ramadani, Benjamin Xu and Muhammed Zakiri, who are citizens of Switzerland, Germany and Macedonia, respectively, were later convicted. The court asked for the probe on the link between ISIL militants and the MİT, but later dropped when judges and prosecutors looking into the case were reassigned.
Toubaljeh’s name also surfaced in May 2013 in the case of 12 members of Syria’s militant al-Nusra group arrested in connection with the seized chemical materials that could be used to make sarin gas (also known as nerve gas), which was going to be used in a bomb attack on Turkish soil. The ringleader of the network was a man identified as Hytham Quassap, another name allegedly used by Toubaljeh. He was arrested by Turkish police but let go in July 2013. Toubaljeh is believed to have been involved in numerous cases of smuggling as well as the transfer of almost 1,000 rocket heads to Syria, which were intercepted in November 2013 in Adana by security forces.
According to Turkish police intelligence, Toubaljeh moved in and out of Turkey hundreds of times between 2011 and 2014 and remains at large despite the fact that he was detained several times by law enforcement agencies. He acted as a middle man for the MİT to link up with all sorts of Jihadist groups in Syria including al-Qaeda, ISIL, Nusra and others. The veteran prosecutors who unmasked this shadowy guy and Turkish intelligence’s dirty business with Jihadists are in jail today because the Islamist rulers including Erdoğan are afraid of expose on these clandestine schemes that were drawn up to advance their political goals.
April 19, 2017