COMMENTARY — UAE sweep exposes Turkish intelligence links to jihadists in Syria

By Abdullah Bozkurt

The government of autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has aided, funded and armed jihadist groups in Syria for years, is troubled by the detention of a key operative in Dubai by United Arab Emirates security, most likely in cooperation with the Americans.

The man who was picked from a Grand Sheraton Hotel in Dubai while having breakfast with his wife on Feb. 20, 2018 is Mehmet Ali Öztürk. He has been running logistical lines for jihadist groups, especially Turkmens and Chechens, in Syria, since 2011, when the Syrian crisis began. Öztürk is linked to Turkish spy agency the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), which is the lead government agency in running the Syrian file on behalf of Turkey’s Islamist rulers. To camouflage secret operations, Öztürk and his associates set up an ethnic Turkmen aid association, Türkmen-Der (Bayırbucak Türkmen Dağı Kültür Eğitim ve Yardımlaşma Dernegi in Turkish), in 2015. Öztürk was later succeeded by another jihadist named Hayrullah Dündar, the current chairman of the association.

Although they pretend to be a charity group, Öztürk and his associates were photographed carrying arms in military fatigues on the ground in Syria. The group ran joint operations with the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH), a pro-government and Islamist charity organization that was accused of smuggling arms to jihadist groups in Syria according to United Nations Security Council documents. The IHH was also involved in moving supplies to al-Qaeda groups in Syria according to the file of a two-year-long confidential investigation that was made public in January 2014. Another partner of Türkmen-Der is an organization called İmkan-Der, an İstanbul-based NGO believed to be aligned with al-Nusra front, Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam.

Öztürk often spoke about jihad in comments aired on Turkish TV and hints about his links to the Erdoğan government. In a September 2016 TV interview that was aired by Channel A, a pro-government television network, he was talking about volunteer intelligence agents all over the Middle East and claiming that Turkey can very well stir up trouble in Egypt and Yemen. Although the Americans are believed to be behind his detention in Dubai, the Russians are likely to be interested in this man as well because of his links to jihadist groups that reportedly killed a Russian pilot parachuting from his SU-24 warplane after was shot down by the Turkish air force on the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015. Likewise, Dündar, the current chair of Türkmen-Der, was pictured many times in meetings with jihadist figures in Syria. In one file, he stands next to a Turkish jihadist sniper named Yavuz in a safe house in Idlib province. These are the bad boys of Turkish intelligence operatives who work directly with Erdoğan’s office.

When Öztürk was whisked away from his hotel, MIT fed the story the next day to several pro-government dailies to contain the damage from the fallout but did not generate much traction in public debate. On Feb. 27, 2018 a low-circulation daily called YeniBirlik, known to be the public relations arm of the Turkish intelligence agency, ran a headline story branding his detention as a conspiracy against Turkey by the US and UAE. Then came the classic move of the MIT that has been seen time and again in similar situations: a protest rally in front of the embassy of the UAE in the Turkish capital of Ankara on the night of March 2, 2018 where effigies of UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan were displayed with ropes around their necks.

The man who led the rally with religious chants and Turkish police standing by was Servet Turgut, whose trail leads all the way to the office of President Erdoğan. Turgut, a nationalist-Islamist figure who publicly reveres al-Qaeda’s slain leader Osama bin Laden and considers him a martyr for Muslims, is the head of the Ankara-based Seriyye Knowledge, Thought, Education and Culture Foundation (Seriyye İlim, Fikir, Eğitim ve Kültür Vakfı in Turkish). The foundation’s charter was certified by the Ankara 9th Court of First Instance on Sept. 15, 2015, and the board members were listed as Servet Turgut, Oğuzhan Gökmen, M. Fatih Altan, Aydın Çalışkan, Uğur Gökmen, Zübeyir Korkmaz and Zekeriya Şahin.

Turgut and his foundation Seriyye have close links to former culture minister Yalçın Topçu, now Erdoğan’s chief advisor. The two became acquainted from work they did in the past while involved with the nationalist religious Grand Unity Party (BBP), where Topçu served as chairman for some time. There are several pictures showing Topçu meeting with Turgut and his associates at the Seriyye foundation. It is clear that Turgut has links to Turkish intelligence and Erdoğan’s office in the presidential palace. When he got into trouble for running gangs of nationalist groups at Ankara’s Gazi University and was detained by the police in September 2011 along with 35 other suspects, his big brothers in the government helped him avoid criminal prosecution without any charges filed against him. During the sweep, police found 10 unlicensed guns, one Kanas (Dragunov) sniper rifle, six unregistered rifles, swords, knives, spying equipment and police uniforms. This was not the first time he had run into trouble with the law. In April 2002, he was also detained when student groups clashed at Gazi University.

The Seriyye foundation is today leading the campaign to free captured Turkish intelligence operative Mehmet Ali Öztürk from a detention facility at a base near Abu Dhabi. Erdoğan is afraid that Öztürk under pressure may spill the beans about him and expose his dirty laundry involving jihadist groups in Syria. In fact, the press statement put out by Seriyye pointed to the possibility of launching a criminal case against the Turkish government similar to Iranian sanction buster Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty to violating US laws that bar people and entities from certain financial transactions with the Iranian regime. Zarrab testified that he set up a corruption network with the approval of Erdoğan and his associates using state-lender Halkbank and few others in moving Iranian funds.

It remains to be seen whether the detention of Öztürk will lead to building a criminal case against Turkish officials or whether US authorities were involved in his abduction, but one thing is clear: The Erdoğan government is quite uneasy about such a prospect and was alarmed by this incident. That explains why the Turkish government is in hurry to mobilize their assets to spin the story and contain the possible fallout from this case. (

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