The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Turkey wants to have it both ways: To act against the Salafists, while using them as dispensable mercenaries against the Kurds.

AKP’s Stance Towards the Salafi Movement

Ever since the Turkish Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) first electoral victory in 2002, Islamists have gradually taken control of all Turkish state organs. The AKP sees itself as the sole political representative of Turkish Islam, and it furthermore seeks to expand its dominance over all Islamic movements and religious orders in Turkey. Groups that have tried to resist, like the Fethullah Gülen movement, have been crushed.

The Salafi movement has chosen not to bow to the Turkish state’s authority, unlike most other Islamic orders (tarikat). In line with similar movements in the region, the Salafi movement attracted many “free-spirits” who did not want to be controlled by the state. They see themselves as a natural adversary of the state, as long as it does follow fully their strict (and revolutionary) interpretation of Islam. The movement found recruits mainly in the cities, where social dynamics drove some young people to endorse a radicalized interpretation of religion. However, they failed to take hold in conservative areas such as the east and southeast of Turkey, where Sufi orders are strong. In ideological terms, the growing anti-Americanism and anti-Western tendencies propagated by the government, as well as the social problems that Erdoğan has failed to fully address, reinforce the build-up of Salafism in Turkey.     

The Turkish Salafist community is a natural recruitment base for the ISIS and therefore constitutes a national security threat for Turkey. However, given Salafist hatred towards the Marxist PKK, and its sister movement the PYD in Syria (hatred which is shared by the Turkish government), the Turkish authorities have adopted an ambivalent policy towards the Salafists.

In 2016, the Turkish police’s intelligence department penned a report on the Salafi movement. According to the report the Turkish Salafists numbered approximately 20000. The report also revealed that 2750 Turkish Salafists joined Salafist fighting formations in Iraq and Syria. 749 of became affiliated with ISIS and 136 with the Nusra Front.[1] However the 2020 International Crisis Management (ICM) report provided even a graver picture for Turkey as it mentioned 5000-9000 Turkish Salafists in ISIS.[2]Salafists’ desire to live in an environment governed by Sharia law, and an opportunity to become a martyr pushed them to the arms of the ISIS.

Turkey did not prevent them from joining ISIS that fought the Kurds. Since the Salafist fought the Kurds, from 2014 onwards, they were perceived by the Turkish intelligence agency MIT and Erdoğan, by then in political alliance with the nationalist, anti-Kurdish MHP as a useful presence beyond the border.

However, following the destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, some Salafists chose to return to Turkey and turned into what can be described as “ISIS sleeping cells” – thus constituting a significant security risk that MIT could not ignore.

Most Turkish Salafists live in Konya, Ankara, and Adana. They also have a community in Istanbul. The police report also highlighted the weakness of the Salafists in terms of their numbers in the conservative eastern and southeastern parts of Turkey. In these areas, other religious orders (tarikat) are very strongdiminishing the appeal of the Salafist.[3] Due to the Sufi teachings that are followed by tarikat the Salafist see them as infidels. The increasing numbers of the Turkish Salafists created great concern among the heads of the religious orders. For instance, on January 17 and on September 10, İsmailağa Islamic Order leader Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü (Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca) openly accused the Salafı Movement of fueling the tension in the city of Adıyaman and İzmir. Ünlü warned the officials that the situation may trigger even an unwanted civil war among the tarikat, the Salafists and the PKK. Following Ünlü’s accusations, on September 21, the Turkish Ministry of Interior Affairs announced a new investigation against the Salafi movement.[4]

Turkish Salafists’ leader Mehmet Balcıoğlu (uses also his Arabic name Ebu Said El-Yarbuzi) rejected Ünlü’s accusation and portrayed his community and its nationwide linked 14 legal communal organizations,[5] which operate openly, as peaceful communal organizations. The Salafists are recruiting new members by attending to the prayer services in the mosques of their neighborhoods through forming personal conversations and inviting the members of the congregation to their sermons in the Salafi community centers. The Salafists are also very active in the internet. They frequently use social media platforms to broadcast their sermons. Apart from Balcıoğlu, younger preachers like Cihan Elmas attract the attention of the masses with their more dynamic socio-religious political sermons that are touching current issues like Israel’s sovereignty in  Jerusalem or the Coronavirus.[6]

Given their Islamist world-view and hostility towards secularism, the Salafists publicly have supported Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Yet, despite their support to the party, the Salafists are complaining about AKP’s unwillingness to be associate with them in an open manner. In order to publicly distance the Salafi movement from ISIS associations, Balcıoğlu did not hesitate to attack it as an illegitimate project.[7]

Revolving Doors

The manner in which the authorities have previously dealt with ISIS elements and other Salafis has come to light recently. On September 1, 2020 the Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu proudly announced the capture of ISIS leader, “Emir of Turkey” Mahmut Özden. The operation conducted by the Turkish security forces revealed plans by ISIS to kidnap Turkish political figures and attack economic targets. Yet this was not the first time Özden has been in custody. He had previously been accused by the Turkish authorities of being a member of a terrorist organization, and of arranging for the hospitalization of ISIS wounded fighters in Turkish hospitals. He was also charged for acting as an “arbiter”, or judge, in the terrorist organization.

In an ISIS propaganda video in 2015, Özden even did not hesitate to threaten Turkey directly.[8] In spite of the severity of the charges, however, it turns out in retrospect, Mahmut Özden was in fact arrested and freed from the Turkish prison for four times. When this became public, Soylu blamed the courts for setting the terrorists free due to “lack of evidence”.[9]

This “revolving door” policy of the Turkish prisons, reflecting the ambivalence o Turkish authorities toward the Salafist camp, occurred also in the case of the Tevhid Salafist Community leader Halis Bayancuk, also known as “Abu Hanzala.” The son of a “Turkish Hizbullah” terrorist, Bayancuk was involved in many terrorist activities including recruiting youngsters, facilitating passage of foreign and Turkish al-Qaeda recruits to Syria, and providing weapons and logistical support to al-Qaeda. Bayancuk was known by the Turkish police and was even held responsible for the 2003 synagogue bombings which claimed 28 lives. Bayancuk was arrested in 2008 and spent a year in the prison. However, later in 2009 he was freed again from the Turkish prison due to “lack of evidence”. Upon his release from the prison he continued his activities with Al-Qaeda. The Turkish police arrested him again in 2011 when he was preparing for a bomb attack. Yet again, in 2013 he was set freed due to “lack of evidence.”[10]

In 2014 Bayancuk’s name appeared once more in the news when police raided the offices and warehouses of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH – the organizers of the Mavi Marmara flotilla[11]) and Qatari Red Crescent in the city of Kilis. The Turkish police caught Bayancuk using humanitarian aid trucks for smuggling weapons and ammunition into Syria. Later, after the involvement of the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MİT), on November 9, 2014, Bayancuk was freed from prison. This time Bayancuk was portrayed as a victim of a plot that was orchestrated by the Gülenists who controlled over the police forces.[12] Though the real story may have been quite different: his release may have been part of the price paid Bayancuk was set free in the October 6, 2014 – most probably in the exchange of prisoners between Turkey and ISIS. According to the British Times, Turkey agreed to set free 180 ISIS terrorists in exchange for 49 diplomats[13]  (and their families who fell into the hands of ISIS in Turkey’s Mosul consulate) and 32 Turkish truck drivers[14] who were taken as hostages in Iraq. It should be noted that Turkey denies the exchange of prisoners. Ankara sought to portray the return of the Turkish hostages as a diplomatic victory. 

Upon leaving the prison, the Turkish state accused Bayancuk, despite his denials, for forming ties with the new emerging jihadi power, ISIS.  Despite not admitting affiliation with ISIS, on July 18, 2015, only two days before the ISIS’ Suruç terrorist attack[15] which claimed 34 lives, Bayancuk held an open Eid al-Fitr feast ceremony in Istanbul where a thousand ISIS supporters attended. In this infamous event Bayancuk “warned” the Turkish government for conducting raids against the “Muslims”. In the same event Bayancuk called for jihad and asked the Turkish government to embrace the Sharia law.[16]

The Kurdish Angle

Even though Bayancuk’s warnings projected friction between the government and the ISIS, many Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin and many political activists from the opposition circles accused the Turkish government of turning a blind eye to ISIS’ activities in Turkey. During the 1990s the Turkish state embraced a similar strategy when the Turkish security forces ignored the activities of the “Turkish Hizbullah” since it fought against the PKK. Later in 2000, when the Turkish Hizbullah began to target secular Turkish intellectuals, the Turkish police had to launch a massive operation against this organization and killed its head Hüseyin Velioğlu.

It seems that the Turkish security apparatus implemented the same method once again as ISIS fought against the PKK and the PYD. Like the case of the Turkish Hizbullah, the harsh consequences of this strategy backfired. Beginning from Bayancuk’s declaration of jihad until the end of 2016, 337 civilians have lost their lives in ISIS’ successive suicide, shooting and rocket attacks in Turkey.[17]

Turkey reacted to ISIS attacks by launching operations against it at home and abroad. Apart from numerous operations in various provinces inside Turkey, on August 24, 2016 Ankara launched its “Operation Euphrates Shield” to remove ISIS from the Syrian-Turkish borderline. While the operation was formally designed to defeat ISIS in the Jarabulus canton, the focus of the Turkish military was the Kurdish PYD. For the Turkish administration, the ISIS served as a fig leaf to break the geographical contiguity of the PYD fighters between the Kobani and Afrin cantons. At last on March 29, 2017, Turkey defeated the ISIS and acquired control of the whole Jarabulus canton including the city of Al-Bab putting an end to ISIS’ rocket attacks against the Turkish city of Kilis. But ISIS’ atrocities did not come to an end. In December 22, 2016 two Turkish soldiers held as captives by ISIS, were burned to death. To minimize the effect of the news, the Turkish government launched a censorship campaign. Hence the access to the main social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were barred while the speed of the internet was slowed down. Despite these steps many Turks were aware of the news. Ordinary Turkish citizens were not the only ones who could bypass Turkish state’s internet restrictions. In order to attract the masses ISIS launched several internet sites like “Takva Haber”[18], “Mustaqim Haber” and “Enfal Medya”, later all shut down by Turkey.[19] Today “Tevhid Gündemi” acts as the most important news site for the ISIS sympathizer Tevhid Community where Bayancuk’s interviews can be found.     

The enraged Turkish public opinion began pressuring the government. Indeed, on May 2017 Bayancuk was re-arrested with the charges of leading and establishing a terrorist organization and was sentenced 12 years imprisonment[20] In spite of this, recently, in April 2020 after a hearing, the Turkish court dismissed all of the accusations against Bayancuk once again and decided to free him. However, this time the public prosecutor office interfered in the implementation of the court decision.[21] Recently on September 18, the court sentenced Bayancuk for 12 years and 6 months in prison.[22]

Conclusion

It seems that in spite of Balcıoğlu’s political correctness, the rising number of the Turkish Salafists and the ISIS recruits among this group began to ring the alarm bells not only of the Turkish state but also the tarikats which are considered as Erdoğan administration’s most important allies on the communal basis. Thus, in this framework, the recent bold steps that have been taken against the Salafists can be acknowledged as government’s endevaour to please the tarikat leaders who do not hesitate to express their discomfort openly with the growing Salafist influence in the Turkish society.

However the “revolving doors” of Turkish prisons indicate that Turkey still has not internalized the fact that the ISIS and the Salafists are not a “bunch of angry youngsters” (as former Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated in a televised interview in 2016). Rather, they are a real national security threat to Turkey. Worse still is that the AKP government seems interested in mainatining the option of using Salafi radicalism in pursuit of its own ends. In sum, Turkey wants to have it both ways: To act against the Salafists, while using them as dispensable mercenaries against the Kurds.  


[1] “İşte Emniyet’in selefi raporu: Türkiye tabanları 20 bine ulaştı, bu bir tehdit”, Hürriyet, April 25, 2016, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/iste-emniyetin-selefi-raporu-turkiye-tabanlari-20-bine-ulasti-bu-bir-tehdit-40094417 [Accessed: September 7, 2020]

[2]  IŞİD Türkiye’de yeniden harekete geçebilir mi?, DW, July 1, 2020, https://www.dw.com/tr/i%C5%9Fid-t%C3%BCrkiyede-yeniden-harekete-ge%C3%A7ebilir-mi/a-54013967  [Accessed: September 7, 2020].

[3] “İşte Emniyet’in selefi raporu: Türkiye tabanları 20 bine ulaştı, bu bir tehdit”, Hürriyet, April 25, 2016, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/iste-emniyetin-selefi-raporu-turkiye-tabanlari-20-bine-ulasti-bu-bir-tehdit-40094417 [Accessed: September 7, 2020]

[4] “İçişleri, ‘Selefi derneklerin silahlandığı’ iddiasıyla ilgili tahkikat başlattı”, Diken, September 21, 2020, http://www.diken.com.tr/icisleri-selefi-derneklerin-silahlandigi-iddiasiyla-ilgili-tahkikat-baslatti/ [Accessed: September 21, 2020]

[5]  The names of the Salafist Organizations: Yarpuz İslami İlimler Araştırma Merkezi, Gençlik, Eğitim ve Ahlak Derneği, İlme Davet Derneği, İkim ve Hikmet Derneği, Yarım Hurma Derneği, İlim ve İhya Derneği, Uludağ Araştırma Derneği, Asri Saadet Derneği, Davet Eğitim Araştırma ve Yardımlaşma Derneği, Ehli Hadis Derneği, Darul Hadis Kültür ve Yardımlaşma Derneği, İkra İlim Kültür ve Araştırma Derneği, Huzur Vadisi, Basiret Der

[6] “KUDÜS’Ü İSRAİL’E NASIL VERDİK ? Cihan Elmas”, YouTube, December 17, 2017,   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkZIRf5Fu8I&ab_channel=Yarpuz%C4%B0slami%C4%B0limlerAra%C5%9Ft%C4%B1rmaMerkezi [Accessed: September 3, 2020] 

[7] “Selefilerden ‘iç savaş çıkarabileceklerini’ iddia eden Cübbeli Ahmet’e cevap: Halk dilinde buna işkembeden atıyor deriz”, Independent Türkçe, January 22, 2020, https://www.indyturk.com/node/121376/haber/selefilerden-i%C3%A7-sava%C5%9F-%C3%A7%C4%B1karabileceklerini-iddia-eden-c%C3%BCbbeli-ahmete-cevap-halk [Accessed: September 7, 2020]

[8] “Arrest of Turkey’s ISIS ’emir’ highlights skewed anti-terrorism priorities”, N World, September 3, 2020,  https://www.thenational.ae/world/europe/arrest-of-turkey-s-isis-emir-highlights-skewed-anti-terrorism-priorities-1.1072068 [Accessed: September 3, 2020]

[9] “Soylu, IŞİD’cinin serbest bırakılmasıyla ilgili konuştu: Somut delil gerekiyor, yoksa bırakılıyor”, Bir Gün, September 4, 2019, https://www.birgun.net/haber/soylu-isid-cinin-serbest-birakilmasiyla-ilgili-konustu-somut-delil-gerekiyor-yoksa-birakiliyor-314400 [Accessed: September 3, 2020]  

[10] Atilla Yayla, “Portrait of Turkey’s ISIS Leader Halis Bayancuk: Alias Abu Hanzala” Academia, https://www.academia.edu/29110602/Portrait_of_Turkeys_ISIS_Leader_Halis_Bayancuk_Alias_Abu_Hanzala [Accessed: September 3, 2020]

[11] IHH is considered as a terrorist organization by Israel.

[12] Atilla Yayla, “Portrait of Turkey’s ISIS Leader Halis Bayancuk: Alias Abu Hanzala” Academia, https://www.academia.edu/29110602/Portrait_of_Turkeys_ISIS_Leader_Halis_Bayancuk_Alias_Abu_Hanzala [Accessed: September 3, 2020]

[13] “Times: Türkiye 49 rehineyi 180 IŞİD’liyle takas etti”, BBC Türkçe, October 6, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2014/10/141005_times [Accessed: September 3, 2020]  

[14] “Türk şoförler böyle serbest kaldı”, Habertürk, July 3, 2014 , https://www.haberturk.com/dunya/haber/965100-turk-soforler-boyle-serbest-kaldi [Accessed: September 3, 2020]

[15] In the Suruç attack, ISIS targetted Kurdish political activists who demonstrated against Turkish government’s reluctance on the ISIS siege against the city of Kobani in northern Syria.

[16] “İstanbul’da bayram namazı kılan IŞİD’den Türkiye’ye tehdit: Aklınızı başınıza alın”, Cumhuriyet, July 18, 2015, https://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/istanbulda-bayram-namazi-kilan-isidden-turkiyeye-tehdit-aklinizi-basiniza-alin-325675 [Accessed: September 6, 2020]

[17] ISIS terrorist Diana Ramazova’s suicide attack which targetted a Turkish police station on January 6, 2015 killing one Turkish police officer was not included into this category since it was not directed against the civilians. For More Details: “Female Istanbul Suicide Bomber Identified as Russian Citizen”, Newsweek, August 1, 2015, https://www.newsweek.com/female-istanbul-suicide-bombed-identified-russian-citizen-297888 [Accessed: September 6, 2020] 

[18] “IŞİD’in Türkiye’deki haber sitesi Takva Haber kapatıldı, yerine yenisi kuruldu”, Diken, March 26, 2015,   http://www.diken.com.tr/isidin-turkiyedeki-haber-sitesi-takva-haber-kapatildi-yerine-yenisi-kuruldu/ [Accessed: September 3, 2020]

[19] “Turkey blocks access to pro-Islamic State websites in crackdown”, July 14, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-turkey-islamists/turkey-blocks-access-to-pro-islamic-state-websites-in-crackdown-idUKKCN0PO1DB20150714 [Accessed: September 3, 2020]

[20] “IŞİD’in Türkiye sorumlusu olduğu iddia edilen ‘Ebu Hanzala’ tahliye edildi!”, Bir Gün, April 9, 2020, https://www.birgun.net/haber/isid-in-turkiye-sorumlusu-oldugu-iddia-edilen-ebu-hanzala-tahliye-edildi-295696 [Accessed: September 3, 2020]

[21] DEAŞ’ın ‘üst düzey yöneticisi’ Bayancuk yeniden tutuklandı, AA, April 9, 2020,  https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/turkiye/deasin-ust-duzey-yoneticisi-bayancuk-yeniden-tutuklandi/1799211 [Accessed: September 3, 2020]

[22]  Son dakika haberler… ‘Ebu Hanzala’ kod adlı Halis Bayancuk’ın cezası belli oldu, Hürriyet, September 18, 2020, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/son-dakika-haberler-ebu-hanzala-kod-adli-halis-bayancukin-cezasi-belli-oldu-41615221 [Accessed: September 21, 2020]


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