A trove of secret documents and classified court cases obtained from confidential sources reveals Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government illegally sent thousands of trucks loaded with heavy arms and ammunition to support jihadist groups fighting in Syria via the Turkish–Syrian border. Turkey’s actions signalled its intentions to plant an Islamist proxy government to replace the Bashar al-Assad regime, adding fuel to the eight-year conflict with its Arab neighbor that began with disputes over the Arab Spring uprising, subsequently amplified by Syria’s internal conflict.
The Investigative Journal (TIJ) conducted interviews with several security specialists who used to work for the Turkish government and are familiar with Erdoğan’s clandestine operations. They confirmed what was revealed in official documents and provided further details about the arms shipments, which show that the arms were illegally brought into the country via air freight and then hauled to the Turkish–Syrian border using tractor-trailers.
The documents further show how the arms consignment was airlifted by foreign suppliers on cargo planes and taken to Esenboğa Airport in the Turkish capital of Ankara, which was used in lieu of airports at the nearby Syrian border in order to avoid attracting unnecessary attention. The loads were then transferred to tractor-trailer trucks at the secluded section of the capital’s airport, away from prying eyes. The trucks covered approximately 404 miles (650 kilometers) via the land route to deliver the arms to a pre-determined location near the border area, and from there was moved to destinations in Syria where waiting jihadist groups could use them to further their operations in the country.
The documents and interviews provide substantial detailed information on the modus operandi of the discreet operation coordinated by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MİT in Turkish) in a clear breach of multiple Turkish and international laws. Bringing arms and explosives to Turkey without first clearing and registering at customs, and without a duly authorized license, is a crime punishable under Turkish law. The strict rules also apply to exports, which require prior authorization from authorities under the Turkish General Staff and Foreign Ministry in advance of any formal authorization.
Moreover, the MİT was not authorized to transport arms under the laws that were in effect at the time, which meant the MİT agents were obliged to notify local authorities in order to coordinate such shipments for the safety measures, thereby minimizing the risks to residential areas. However, the MİT did not bother informing the local law-enforcement agencies about secret consignments because the agents — most of whom were personally authorized by Erdoğan himself ― thought the long arm of the law could not touch them.
That this secret was even withheld from the MİT regional director suggests the operation was sanctioned by a select group of people at the top echelon of the government in Ankara. The fact almost all the shipments were delivered to their destinations without any hold-ups implicates direct government involvement in Turkey’s dirty business of arming radical groups in Syria.
TIJ’s confidential interviews with former Turkish government officials who confirmed the findings were obtained on the condition they remain anonymous. With Turkey’s reputation as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists (188 are currently behind bars in Turkey, according to the Stockholm Center for Freedom),1 and recent criminalization and online harassment of journalists and other dissidents sharing information on social media whose posts are perceived as critical of Erdoğan’s regime (1,656 were arrested for social media posts between December 2016 and May 2017),2 these individuals were fearful for their own and their families’ lives in the country, or further negative repercussions from Erdoğan agents.
Arms Shipments Under the Cover of Night
“On a weekly average, two or three shipments delivered by trucks were organized at the Esenboğa Airport under the cover of night, with no registration at customs and no record of incoming air cargo at the airport logs,” says a source who had worked for the security establishment in Turkey, and was working on an assignment at the airport at the time. “The operation that often saw Qatari planes landing with arms in their cargo load was tightly run by the Turkish intelligence agency, MİT,” the source added.
According to the source, the intelligence agent identified only by the name of “Uğur” had overseen the operations and was serving as the chief protocol officer assigned to Esenboğa Airport by the government. “[The agent] was known with the nickname ‘Yalancı (the liar) Uğur’ because we knew he would not be telling the truth whenever he got asked about the nature of business he has been involved with,” the source recalled.
The consignment was unloaded after the planes were taxied to a rarely used tarmac section, Apron No. 5, which is near the VIP section of the airport. This is where government planes exclusively assigned for use by the Turkish president and prime minister are parked. Its specific tarmac is away from the main terminal building and not visible from the outside of the airport complex, thus providing a perfectly secluded place to run clandestine operations. The Apron No. 5 tarmac is also used for receiving visiting foreign dignitaries. The source noted that the tarmac was also used as the designated airport spot for landing hijacked planes so that the police can conduct special operations safely.
Planes flying into this apron typically arrive after 11 p.m. when the overall load of air traffic is reduced. The entire operation of unloading the shipment of arms from the planes and transferring them to the trucks takes around three hours. The trucks use the customs gate entrance without registration to enter the tarmac area, where they receive the shipments.
“The employees who were working for Turkish Ground Services (TGS) and Havaş for the ground-handling operations at that section of the airport were told this was done in the interest of Turkey’s national security and in line with its laws,” explains the source. When asked where he thinks the shipments would be heading, he comments that Jabhat al-Nusra ― known as al-Qaeda in Syria ― is generally mentioned as the recipient of the arms.
The source’s statements were independently corroborated by another witness in a separate interview by TIJ, during which the second source ― another former security official, who had also requested anonymity due to lingering concerns for safety over threats to his life — said he was aware of this clandestine operation being approved at the highest level by then-prime minister and current president Erdoğan. He stated that both Mehmet Kılıçlar, who was serving as the head of Turkey’s national police, and Alaaddin Yüksel, governor of Ankara, were aware of these illegal operations. As the chief security and administrative officers in the province of Ankara where the Esenboğa Airport is located, Erdoğan had authorized them to facilitate the shipments without undue hassle.
Asked to comment on the accounts provided by confidential sources, Murat Çetiner — a security specialist who has worked for the United Nations and is currently listed as an independent expert with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ― told TIJ that his own research has shown the MİT routinely running these illegal shipments to jihadists in Syria.
“The MİT agents who have overseen these operations thought they were untouchable because of the protection provided by Erdoğan. When Turkish prosecutors and law-enforcement officials caught the MİT agents red-handed with the intercept of trucks and launched criminal probes, all hell broke loose,” he underlined.
According to Çetiner, who had worked for the Turkish police in various capacities, specifically in counter-terrorism efforts, Erdoğan and his Islamist associates have experimented with the idea of creating a proxy, non-state armed group to help pursue their regional projects. “For a while, they appear to have succeeded, until Russia and the United States entered into the Syrian conflict and started bombing jihadist groups,” he pointed out.
Beginnings of the Operations
The clandestine operations involving these shipments began in late 2011 and have continued since then, according to all sources interviewed. The total number of truck shipments was unveiled by Turkish intelligence agency head Hakan Fidan in March 2014 in a leaked audio from a top-secret meeting held in the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The leak, which was authenticated by the Turkish court3 in January 2019, showed Fidan explaining that his agency had sent 2,000 trucks to jihadists in Syria loaded with provisions. This was when various top government and military leaders were discussing the weapons being demanded by opposition groups in Syria.4
In his testimony on June 22, 2017, Kaan Kürsat Karaahmetoğlu ― an intelligence officer who was assigned by the MİT to work on the Syrian file and was providing an escort to trucks carrying arms ― claimed that arms-laden trucks were being dispatched practically every day, or once every two days. Describing these shipments as “routine operations,” Karaahmetoğlu identified the MİT agent responsible for the depot that stockpiled the arms. The name of the MİT agent in charge was redacted in government papers and identified only by his first-name initial, “D.”
Journalist Levent Kenez, former editor-in-chief of Meydan Daily, who exposed how the MİT provided thousands of Turkish passports to Chinese Uighur jihadists to bring them into Syria to fight, says he was not surprised about the MİT trafficking arms to jihadists. “All pieces fit perfectly into a jigsaw puzzle of how the Erdoğan government empowered jihadists with every available means,” he told TIJ in an interview.
Kenez was detained by the police and had to flee Turkey after his release. His newspaper Meydan was also shut down by the government. “The traces of footprints of the Turkish intelligence when it comes to supporting jihadist groups were all over it [the trafficking of arms to jihadists in Syria],” he added.
Illegal Arms Intercepted by Local Law Enforcement
The secret Turkish government documents confirm the accounts TIJ’s sources provided. On two separate occasions during the month of January 2014, local prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the Turkish border provinces near the Syrian border had intercepted shipments of these trucks after they were tipped off that illegal arms and explosives were being transported to terrorist groups in Syria.
At the time, there were frequent talks about possible attacks by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) against Turkish targets; local security services were picking up substantial intelligence in the region. The memory of a major car-bombing attack in the Reyhanlı district of southern Hatay province in May 2013, which killed 53 people, was still fresh.
In the first intercept, which occurred on January 1, 2014, authorities stopped a truck and an escort vehicle in the town of Kırıkhan, in the Turkish southeastern province of Hatay, some 37 miles (60 kilometers) from the Turkish–Syrian border, after the local gendarmerie — a military police that has jurisdiction as a law enforcement agency in Turkey ― became aware of an illegal arms shipment. The information was quite specific, as it detailed the license-plate numbers of the tractor, trailer and the escort car used.5
Based on a search-and-seizure warrant issued by a Turkish prosecutor, an immediate alert for the search and interception of the vehicles was issued to all police and gendarmerie units in the region.
A traffic-patrol unit spotted the vehicles on the highway between the towns of Kırıkhan and Reyhanlı in Hatay and halted them at 4.40 p.m. (16.40 hours) near the Turkish village of Torun. The gendarmerie authorized by the prosecutor to search and seize the shipment was deployed to the scene, but they were prevented from doing their jobs by intelligence officers. The four MİT agents tried to convince the gendarmerie to swap the truck’s trailer for an empty one before the prosecutors arrived at the scene.
When the gendarmerie refused, the agents barricaded the truck and prevented the search with the help of a support unit, which deployed four more MİT agents to the scene. None of the MİT agents showed their badges, and no paperwork authorizing them to move the arms-laden truck was presented to the prosecutors.
Turkish prosecutors were persistent on investigating the truck and collecting the evidence from the crime scene, but they were overpowered by the MİT agents. When the Erdoğan government’s executive branch unlawfully intervened in a judicial matter by giving an illegal order to pull out the security detail, including the gendarmes who accompanied the prosecutors as judicial police, the prosecutors were left unprotected at the crime scene against the armed MİT agents.
Yener Akbaydar, the regional head of MİT in Hatay, arrived at the scene and threatened to fight off any prosecutors if they attempted to open the container in the truck’s cargo load. Fearing for their safety, the Turkish prosecutors left the scene, but subsequently registered the chain of the events and made a legal memo to submit as evidence in a criminal probe against the officials who had intervened in the judicial investigation.
Later that day, authorities in Hatay province received a fresh tip from a man who says he was at Esenboğa Airport when the load was placed on the truck and the shipment was designated as being bound for al-Qaeda under the cover of humanitarian aid. As MİT officials did not want the truck to be intercepted by law enforcement agencies, they took additional precautionary measures to avoid any scrutiny, he adds.
The documents reveal how Erdoğan government officials tried to convince Süleyman Bağrıyanık, the chief public prosecutor in Adana province, to let the case go quietly, dismiss prosecutors on the ground, and revoke the search-and-seizure warrant for the truck. Kenan İpek, then-undersecretary of the Justice Ministry, had placed 10 calls to the chief prosecutor to convince him to halt the search, and had even threatened him with negative consequences in the end.
However, Bağrıyanık did not budge, and instead told him this was an independent judicial investigation, and that the justice ministry official, being an arm of the executive branch, cannot order him to drop the case according to the articles of the Turkish Constitution, which guarantee separation of powers between judiciary and executive branches.
Later, the Justice Minister himself, Bekir Bozdağ — a political appointee and Erdoğan’s confidante — spoke to the chief prosecutor. He states that Interior Minister Efkan Ala and MİT head Hakan Fidan were sitting next to him as he spoke on the phone, and they all assured him there were no arms in the cargo of the intercepted truck. Bozdağ asked the chief prosecutor to hush up the case, release the intelligence officers and let the truck proceed on its journey.
Apparently, Adana Governor Celalettin Lekesiz, also an agent of the executive, was unlawfully ordered by Erdoğan to stop the search. The governor ordered the law enforcement units at the crime scene to withdraw, although he was not officially authorized to do so. Özcan Şişman — the specially authorized anti-terror prosecutor in Adana province, where the US-led coalition against ISIL is located at Incirlik Air Base — had to leave the scene when the police and gendarmerie were pulled out.
Turkish Minister Bozdağ Faces Criminal Probe Over Al-Qaeda Charges
The overt political interference into the independent judicial probe, which thwarted judicial authorities from doing their jobs by searching the truck, prompted the prosecutor to initiate criminal proceedings against the government officials involved.
Upon referral from the chief prosecutor, Bağrıyanık, on Jan. 13, 2014, public prosecutor Aziz Takçı, who is specially authorized to pursue terror cases under the Turkish Penal Code, charged the local officials with having left the crime scene despite explicit orders from the investigating prosecutors not to do so. They were also charged for breaking several laws, including dereliction of their duties.
Takçı also charged İpek, the Justice Ministry’s number-two official, with five counts of criminal behavior because he had no judicial role in a criminal investigation, yet decided to interfere in an ongoing criminal probe; he also threatened the prosecutors, conveyed the wrong information about the identity of the intelligence officers who were accompanying the truck and informed his superiors about a confidential investigation. The charges included covering up criminal evidence, aiding and abetting criminals, abuse of power, breach of confidentiality and threatening a public official, as listed under Articles 257(1), 281(1,2) 283(1,2), 285(1) and 106(1) of the Turkish Criminal Code (TCK).
Justice Minister Bozdağ was also accused of aiding and abetting the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, abusing his authority and trying to prevent members of the judiciary from performing their jobs. Justice Minister Bozdağ and his undersecretary, İpek, were both saved from legal troubles when the Erdoğan government hastily pushed a legislation through Parliament to reshape the HSYK (The Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors),6 the judicial council that decides on promotions, assignments, and disciplinary proceedings for judges and prosecutors.
With control of the judicial council in government hands, the cases against Bozdağ and İpek were dismissed. Prosecutors Bağrıyanık and Takçı were reassigned to other posts, but were later dismissed and jailed on fabricated charges of espionage and revealing state secrets.7
Panicking over the potential exposé of the illegal clandestine activities run by the MİT, the Erdoğan government took further measures. For example, Ali Doğan, the new deputy chief public prosecutor in Adana who was assigned to make the arms shipment case go away, wrote on February 20, 2014 to all of the public prosecutors in the Turkish border cities and towns to ask whether they have active running probes involving MİT agents. This was a clear bid to try to hush up all the other cases that involved the MİT.
On February 13, 2014, Doğan also obtained a sweeping gag order to censor any news article, broadcast story or even a critical comment appearing in the traditional media or Internet with respect to illegal arms shipments from Judge Eray Doğan. The full erasure of the operations was thus in the works.
Journalists Threatened and Jailed for Reporting on the Arms Shipments
The journalists who investigated these shipments face prosecution by authorities as well. Can Dündar, then editor-in-chief of leftist daily Cumhuriyet, and its Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, were prosecuted under terrorism and espionage charges when the newspaper ran the story on the shipment that took place on Jan. 19, 2014. Erdoğan was incensed by the exposure, to the extent that he vowed in a live broadcast that Dündar would pay a heavy price for his actions. “I won’t let him go [unpunished],” Erdoğan said.8
Both journalists were arrested on November 26, 2015 and released on February 26, 2016 from the pre-trial detention after the ruling by the Constitutional Court, which affirmed that their rights were violated. On the day of the court hearing in Istanbul, hours before the judgment was delivered, Dündar was attacked by a man wearing a suit who tried to shoot him outside the courthouse, firing several times before he was forcibly restrained by Dündar’s wife, Dilek, and some reporters at the scene, while others hurried Dündar to safety.9 “In the space of two hours, we have experienced two assassination attempts: one was done with a gun, the other was judicial,” Dündar said after the attempt on his life.10
Erdoğan, who appeared as a plaintiff in the court case, did acknowledge that the trucks that were intercepted by the police en route to the Syrian border belonged to the MİT, but claimed they were carrying aid to the Turkish soldiers who were in the country battling against Assad and ISIL. As Republican Party opposition leader Mahmut Tanal commented, “This case isn’t based on law, it’s political. That’s evidenced by the president joining this case as a complainant… [as] an attempt to pressure the court.”
According their lawyers, had Dündar and Gül been found guilty of attempting to topple the government by revealing footage of the MİT using the trucks to transport weapons into Syria, they could have jailed Dündar for 25 years on a charge of procuring and revealing state secrets, and Gül for 10 years for publishing them. As Dündar commented ahead of the assassination attempt and trial, “We are on trial for our story: for acquiring and publishing state secrets. This confirms [that] journalism is on trial, making our defense easier and a conviction harder.”
After his release, Dündar fled to Germany for safety, where he has been on a “Writers in Exile” scheme funded by PEN International.11 In absentia, he was convicted and sentenced to serve a jail term of five years and 10 months. Gül was sentenced to five years, but he was subsequently acquitted. Dündar’s lawyer has advised him not to return to Turkey, since the prosecutor has recommended that his sentence be extended to 20 years. The court is currently awaiting Dündar’s extradition to Turkey to continue the trial, with the next court hearing scheduled for October 31, 2019.12
The media gag order for the journalists over the shipments was even extended to defendants who were punished for investigating the interception of arms, although they ought to be provided access to the case file to defend themselves against ludicrous charges.
At the request of prosecutor Doğan, judge Cebrail Cem Alıcı placed a restriction on access to the case file for defendants who used to be lead prosecutors in the case, and gendarmerie officers who did their jobs under the laws but were made into suspects in a witch-hunt prosecution for airing the government’s dirty laundry. Doğan even ordered the handover of all photographic and video evidence, and the destruction of all copies, to prevent any leaks.
On February 17, 2014, he also threatened to launch criminal cases against any news agency or outlet that reported on the illegal arms shipment. They were obliged to turn over all their video recordings to him.
During the deposition in the Hatay governor’s office on February 11, 2014, Hatay Regional Director for MİT Yener Akbaydar told the Interior Ministry investigators that his request to question the MİT agents who were involved in the trucks was denied by MİT headquarters in Ankara.13 Although the criminal probes were initiated against intelligence agents by lead prosecutors over the incident, the new prosecutor, Doğan, who took over the case after the government’s move, dropped the investigation of MİT agents on October 2, 2014.
Traffic Camera Records Show Trucks Running Arms Consignment Many Times
TIJ has also obtained still shots from the traffic-camera footages of a Turkish intelligence vehicle14 in the Turkish border province of Hatay from 2012–2014 that reveal the car’s movements on various dates. The stills show that the vehicle had been used as an escort car to arms-filled trucks and was driven by the intelligence officers from the MİT’s spy agency.
Although the license-plate recognition system known as PTS [Plaka Tanıma Sistemi in Turkish] was still in the testing stage under this period, it had nevertheless recorded the dates and times when the MİT’s escort car had been spotted along different sections of the highways passing through Hatay province. The still shots from the camera recordings that formed the confidential prosecution file was compiled by the Antakya police department.
In the still shots, the car was spotted 52 times on various dates from July 2012 to January 2014. The intelligence vehicle was most active during October 2013, when it entered the camera’s view on 10 different dates in that month, suggesting increased arms-shipment activity.
During the months of July 2012 and December 2013, the car was recorded crossing the province on 16 different dates. There was no record from the surveillance cameras of when it was intercepted in Kırıkhan on January 1, 2014, however, which means the vehicle was either able to avoid detection or that the camera may have been in a regular rebooting phase. It should be noted, however, that the car is by no means the only escort vehicle the MİT uses in order to accompany cargo-laden trucks.
TIJ also spoke to an expert who had in fact worked in the installation and monitoring of such networks in Turkey, and who had reviewed the PTS still images. According to the expert, the evidence is authentic; the recording of the car brand, which showed differently on the same license tag, is most likely due to the glitches they faced during the testing of the software and cameras. The expert concluded that the evidence is solid, confirming the clandestine operations the MİT is running in the border provinces.
Turkish Intelligence Worked with Drug Smugglers to Move Arms
The second case of the interception of arms shipment took place on Jan. 19, 2014 after a lead provided by Turkish gendarmerie intelligence officer Gültekin Avcı, who was investigating the activities of drug traffickers and an auto-theft gang operating out of the Turkish capital at the time. Avcı’s unit wiretapped the phone communications of the 29 people15 who were associated with the gang.
On January 18, 2014 at 3:00 p.m. (15.00 hours), the wiretaps show one of the suspects saying on the phone that they have three guests coming up in the nighttime and agreeing to meet at the same place “as usual around midnight.”
With the help of cellphone signal tracing via cell towers, Avcı and his team located the suspects in the vicinity of Esenboğa Airport. They got into the car to chase the signal and to monitor the suspects’ movements. They discovered the signal was coming from a convoy of three trucks moving away from the city and bound for Adana province, near the Turkish–Syrian border.
It turns out that six suspects16 in the drug network under investigation were MİT agents, and that the wife of one of the suspects works for the intelligence agency. Avcı and his team members were unaware they had stumbled into an off-the-book clandestine operation run by MİT, which is in clear breach of Turkish law.
Several months earlier, the same gendarmerie unit in Ankara was involved in uncovering the smuggling network that was stealing flatbed trucks. These are trucks that can be mounted with a machine gun and are popular with jihadist groups in Syria. Avcı says three of the 19 suspects who were detained in that operation were al-Qaeda militants who were also involved in transporting foreign fighters to Syria.17
One of the vehicles seized in that operation was a tractor-trailer. In view of the recent crackdown on jihadist networks, Avcı suspected these trucks could be carrying bombs and weapons. As it was too late for him to organize a raid because the trucks moved out of his jurisdiction area on the way to the border, he called in his colleagues at Adana Gendarmerie Command to tip them off about the trucks and gave them the trucks’ license-plate numbers.
Another Intercept of Arms Shipment Exposes it All
The incoming tip received at 07:29 a.m. on Jan.19, 2014 caused local authorities to scramble to organize a search for the trucks. The search-and-seizure warrant for the trucks was immediately issued by a prosecutor on the suspicion the arms were destined for al-Qaeda. Given the fact local authorities had previously collected 81 tips and intelligence leads between May 11, 2013 and January 22, 2014, each suggesting al-Qaeda and ISIL were looking for an opportunity to attack, the tip about the trucks set off alarm bells in the region.18
Authorities suspected these trucks were part of a major plot for a sensational attack and wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be able to target a major city center. The Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was planning major rallies in the area at the time, and that activity may very well have been a target for terrorists, as local intelligence officials had warned.
As a result of the intensive search, all three trucks and one Audi-brand escort car were located and apprehended at noon while traversing the Adana–Ceyhan eastbound highway near the toll gate. Unlike the previous intercept where the Erdoğan government managed to halt the search by pulling out local police and military units from the crime scene, despite objections by the prosecutors, this time the gendarmerie units complied with the judicial orders, refusing to enforce illegal orders from the executive branch.
The MİT agents initially refused to identify themselves and show their badges to the authorities at the scene. They also failed to present legal documents authorizing the transfer of arms by MİT to the prosecutor.19
Prosecutor Aziz Takçı, who came to the scene to oversee the search, defied intense mounting pressure to drop the probe. He managed to document the crime scene and collect the evidence from the cargo load, which included mortar shells, ammunitions for machine guns and other ammunition. He took evidence in the form of both photographic and video recording of the cargo load, and sent samples to forensic labs for analysis. The trucks were eventually handed over to the intelligence agency after Adana MİT director Orhan Harmancı20 agreed to sign a piece of paper testifying to the prosecutors that the load in fact belonged to MIT.
Under orders from Erdoğan, Adana governor Hüseyin Avni Coş tried to get the trucks released from prosecutor Takçı without any investigation into the shipment, but Takçı rejected the suggestion, saying the investigation is a judicial matter. Being the agent of the executive, the governor cannot instruct a member of the judiciary about how to proceed in a criminal probe or order it to be conducted in any particular manner.
After negotiations, Harmancı, the MİT regional director in Adana, agreed to vouch for the shipment and provided a written letter testifying that the trucks were sent by the MIT.
On January 22, 2014 Takçı also ordered the gendarmerie to go through the traffic cameras to find out when the seized trucks bearing the same suspicious license plates went through the Ceyhan–Sirkeli tollgates to find out if there were any previous shipments. According to the records, the three tractors made 26 entries at the tollgate between April 2013 and January 2014, confirming multiple runs for the arms shipments for jihadist groups in Syria.
The traffic-camera records were also corroborated by statements from the two drivers, according to the case file. Unlike the Jan. 1 incident where the drivers were also MİT agents, this time the MİT hired civilians to drive the trucks to the border area.
A driver identified as Mustafa Yanıkoğlu told non-commissioned gendarmerie officer Ömer Muharrem Güneş, who was deployed to the scene to enforce the search-and-seizure order, that he is a civilian who was hired for the MİT, and so thought he was doing a duly authorized job for the government. Yanıkoğlu confessed he had picked up the intercepted load at Ankara’s Esenboğa Airport and was allowed to go onto the Apron No. 5 tarmac for the loading process. He said he had run similar shipments before and was surprised to see the gendarmerie intercepting the trucks.
Another driver, 34-year-old Murat Kışlakçı, also testified that he had picked up the load from Esenboğa Airport in Ankara in a signed deposition at 02:30 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2014. He noted that the shipment arrived in a foreign cargo plane, but he was unable to tell which country it came from. Stressing that he and other drivers had run similar routes before, he also testified that they used to deliver shipments to MİT agents in the border town of Reyhanlı, and were later placed in a hotel in the town. “Trucks were then taken across the border. We have done similar several jobs before. We [thought we] were fulfilling the assignment given by the [Turkish] state,” Kışlakçı stated.
The driver also revealed the standard modus operandi of how the consignment of arms was delivered. According to his testimony, drivers were leaving their trucks overnight in a depot owned by the MİT in Ankara; they were instructed to pick them up the next day around 7:00 a.m. in the morning to haul the cargo. He knew the operation was run by the intelligence agency, and he felt comfortable because he thought he was part of state business that had been approved according to the proper rules and regulations.
Kışlakçı noted that for the first time, they were ordered to bring the truck to the Apron No. 5 at the airport on January 19, 2014 and picked up the load directly from the cargo plane. “We were right next to the trucks when the loading was done at the airport for the first time,” he recalled, suggesting that MİT did away with routine security protocols, allowing civilian drivers to observe and maintain a presence at the tarmac when the shipment from overseas was loaded on trailers. Perhaps the MİT was in a rush to deliver this arms shipment, or it showed the level of comfort felt by the MİT agents who were personally authorized by Erdoğan, despite being in clear breach of laws and regulations.
The arms shipments were usually transported across the Turkish–Syrian border via two crossings, one located at Cilvegözü (Bab al-Hawa) in Hatay proivince, and the other at Akçakale (Tal Abyaḍ) in Şanliurfa province. The Jan. 19 shipment was bound for Cilvegözü, according to drivers’ testimonies. The Syrian side of this border gate has been under the control of various competing Salafist jihadist groups, which at times fought and at other times cooperated to achieve common objectives; al-Qaeda and ISIL groups were also known to be active in the area. Some jihadists even raised a black al-Qaeda flag over the gate in September 2012, prompting conflict with others who were concerned that the arms supply might be cut off in reaction to raising the flag (the flag was taken down later, however).
The Islamic Front, an umbrella group of a dozen jihadist groups including Ahrar ash-Sham, the al-Tawhid Brigade and Jaysh al-Islam, took control of the gate in December 2013 after its formation three months earlier. The Erdoğan government provided support to many of these groups, including the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
However, based on wiretap records among jihadist operatives who were working with Turkish contacts, a Turkish daily21 claimed that the intercepted arms of Jan. 19 were in fact destined for Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliate group that was established in Iraq but maintained another operation in the north of Syria. Ansar al-Islam worked with both the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic Front. The Erdoğan government knew very well that once the arms were delivered to one group, they would end up at the hands of other jihadist groups such as ISIL, as selling the arms is routinely done even among opposing factions.
The Contents of the Cargo Load In Steel Containers
The six steel containers in three trucks held a total of 1,000 artillery shells, 50,000 machine gun rounds, 30,000 heavy machine-gun rounds and 1,000 mortar shells. In one steel container, inspectors registered some two dozen mortars measuring roughly two yards (two meters) long and 5.9 inches (15 centimeters) in diameter; metal mortar casings in smaller sizes; around 10–15 wooden boxes, each containing 24 units of weaponry mechanisms that fire explosive projectiles; around 30 boxes of 2.3-inch (60-millimeter) mortar shells; and five or six bags of anti-aircraft ammunition.
The preliminary forensic examination of samples taken from the containers was carried out by Adana’s gendarmerie branch on Jan. 20, 2014 at the request of the prosecutor. The container samples included a mortar shell for a tank or artillery, two fuses and anti-aircraft artillery. The mortar was around a yard (103 centimeters) long and a yard (100 millimeters) in diameter, and letters on the shell body read FULL CHARGE-VOF-412 100 MM G-TG, D10-2C.BS-3 NDT-3 18/1 18/75((10)), 20-75-((11) FD. The projectile included the letters ((11)) 20-75-100 N TNT OF 412.
The fuses were each approximately 4 inches (10 centimeters) long and 1 inch (three centimeters) in diameter, with the letters 8-429 and 2 B-429. The anti-aircraft projectile was 5.7 inches (14.5 centimeters) long and bore the letters 81 VA 188.
In the report,22 the experts concluded that the mortar shell was manufactured in Bulgaria as part of an arsenal of high-explosive, military-grade ammunition. They also said the fuses were manufactured in Bulgaria for OG-7 anti-tank, rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They could not trace the origin of the anti-aircraft projectile.
The sample munitions taken from the trucks were also forwarded to criminal labs of the Gendarmerie General Command in Ankara for a thorough examination. According to the expert report,23 which cited Jane’s Ammunition Handbook as a reference, the sample fuse sent by the prosecutor’s office ― a 4-inch (106 millimeter) x 1.5-inch (40 millimeter) fuse with the letters B-429-((11))—1-77 r 03 — is ready for a use in artillery cannons ranging in size from 3.3 to 5.9 inches (85–152 millimeters).
The fuse was a Russian-developed V-429-type model that is manufactured in several former Soviet bloc countries such as Bulgaria, Ukraine, Slovakia and Czech Republic. The fuse ― which can also be set for delayed-action in bombs designed to explode after hitting the target and are prepared to detonate at impact — is called “Super-Quick” in industry terminology, the report said. The experts agreed that the fuses contained highly incendiary substances and are designated controlled explosives under Turkish law.
The second sample included a 0.5-inch x 4.25-inch (12.7mm x 108mm) artillery cartridge identified as AP1-B32, which is used in heavy machine guns. The armor-piercing cartridge has been used in various type machine and rifle guns such as DShK, NSV/NVSVT, YakB-12.7, Type 77, 85, 88 (QJC-88), 89 (QJZ-89), Gepard, V-94, OSV-96, KSVK. The cartridge also has imprinted *188*81 numbers on its base, indicating that it was made in Soviet Russia’s Novosibirsk ammunition factory.
Turkish Intelligence Admits Running Arms Shipments
Traditionally, the Turkish intelligence agency used to deny any involvement in clandestine operations when they were exposed, putting a distance between the scandals and the agency in order to avoid legal troubles and protect the agency’s reputation. However, in an unusual move in these illegal arms intercepts, the MİT officially issued letters24 ― albeit in classified-document format and under pressure from lead prosecutors — testifying that the shipments were part of its secret operations and that the agents who were involved with them are on the agency’s payroll.
One letter sent to the Office of Chief Public Prosecutor in Adana on March 17, 2014 confirmed that both shipments were MİT’s, and that the agents involved were conducting secret missions. The letter was signed by legal counsellor Ümit Ulvi Canik on behalf of intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. The court files showed that Canik tried to convince prosecutors to halt the search for illegal arms when they were intercepted, but he failed to convince them.
The second letter testified to the fact that suspects in the drug-smuggling network who had overseen the illegal arms shipments are MİT agents. The letter was sent to the Adana Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office on March 27, 2014. The letter, also classified as secret, was signed by then-deputy undersecretary of the MİT Ismail Hakkı Musa, who is now serving as the Turkish ambassador in Paris. Musa declined to list the names of the agents25 involved in the shipment for fear of an exposé when they were partially identified in the wiretap orders authorized by Turkish courts in Ankara.
As Ahmet Yayla, former Turkish police officer and currently a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies in Washington, D.C., has commented, “Clearly, if Erdogan had not backed and allowed IS members and other Salafist Jihadi terrorists to transport weapons and explosives from Turkey to Syria and Iraq openly, there would have been no IS or other al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria as we know today, and thousands of people likely would not have died at the hands of those terrorists. Furthermore, as this vast scale of support happened in broad daylight, and thousands of Turks were involved in those operations, the public perception towards the terrorist organisations involved dramatically changed. Those terrorists were legitimised in the eyes of the public.”26
The Turkish government under Recep Tayib Erdoğan has not only armed jihadists in Syria, but has also provided logistical supplies, offered medical treatment for the injured militants, facilitated trafficking of foreign fighters to/from Syria and turned a blind eye on illicit funds flowing to Syria to finance terrorism.
The criminal justice system has also failed to crack down forcibly on jihadist groups in Turkey, as most were released under the permissive environment of Erdoğan’s government, which implemented an undeclared revolving-door policy for the detained jihadists. Erdoğan’s goal is not only to topple the Assad regime, but also to create a proxy group that would do his dirty bidding whenever and wherever needed.
One intelligence officer, who was lashing out at the local enforcement officials when the arms-laden trucks were intercepted at the border province and he was placed in handcuffs, summarizes the tale in his report of the incident. The official was shouting, cursing and demanding to be allowed to talk directly to then-Prime Minister Erdoğan because the operation had been authorized by Erdoğan himself, even though the rules and regulations did not allow such clandestine operation in Turkey and beyond its borders. This was why Erdoğan’s government rushed an amendment to the intelligence bill in April 2014, as it needed to clothe itself with a thicker armor of immunity and provide impunity for the MİT as earlier operations were exposed.
What is more, the governor of Adana, Hüseyin Avni Coş, who arrived to the scene to stop the search in the incident on Jan. 19, told the investigating prosecutor, Takçı, to release the trucks because he was called by Erdoğan personally, and the Prime Minister had asked for the shipment to be let go this time, pledging to introduce an amendment to the intelligence bill soon to make the problems go away.
This statement itself testifies that the Erdoğan government knew the arms shipment by the MİT was illegal, and they wanted to provide a legal cover for the operation once it was exposed. Coş, who brought some 400 police units to overpower the gendarmerie, even wowed to fight to the death in order to secure the release of the MİT trucks.
Apparently troubled with legal woes, Erdoğan orchestrated the removal of all judicial authorities, as well as the police and military officers who uncovered this shady business of arming jihadists. Many of them ― including veteran prosecutors who had worked on terrorism cases for decades ― are still languishing behind bars as of today.
Furthermore, many of the investigative journalists who have written about Erdoğan’s links with jihadist groups have been locked up under fabricated charges, and some have had to flee the country ― including journalists Levent Kenez, Can Dündar and myself — in order to continue their work in exile under challenging conditions.27 The intimidation campaign against journalists continues even abroad, as the agents of the Erdoğan government relentlessly pursue them with threats of assassinations. Turkey’s current ranking — at 157 out of 180 of the countries with the worst record of human rights abuses to journalists in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Ranking ― remains alarming.28
There are also over 1,000 lawyers who have been prosecuted, with 500 in jail; 110,000 public officials who have been dismissed without due process since July 2016; 40 military personnel facing life sentences in connection with the 2016 failed coup; and dozens of academics, teachers and human rights defenders who have been detained or dismissed.29
Under its current Islamist regime, Turkey is playing with fire. It is a nation of 81 million predominantly Sunni Muslims, whose radical views have been promoted openly by the government. The country as it is today also poses a serious threat to its allies and partners by empowering jihadist groups, exporting their militants beyond Turkish borders and promoting their dangerous ideologies under the cover of political Islamist ideology, which frequently serves as a conveyer belt enabling all types of radical religious groups to flourish around the globe.
- Jailed and wanted Journalists in Turkey- Updated List – Stockholm Center for Freedom
- The Other Threat Against Journalists in Turkey: Criminalization of Social Media Use and Online Harassment
- “Turkish court authenticates audio that revealed spy agency MİT’s false flag in Syria,” Nordic Monitor, January 23, 2019
- In the leaked recording, then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, then-Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu, MİT Undersecretary Hakan Fidan and then-Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler are heard discussing false-flag military operations in Syria in Davutoğlu’s Foreign Ministry office on March 13, 2013. Fidan says in the recording: “If needed, I would dispatch four men to Syria. [Then] I would have them fire eight mortar shells at the Turkish side and create an excuse for war.”
- The license plate numbers of the tractor and trailer were 06 BR 8860 and 06 DE 3290, respectively. The escort car, a Fiat Linea, bore the number 31 Y 5060.
- The HSYK was renamed HSK (Board of Judges and Prosecutors) in 2014.
- The four prosecutors who were involved in the interception of the MİT trucks ― Adana Chief Public Prosecutor Süleyman Bağrıyanık, Adana Deputy Chief Prosecutor Ahmet Karaca, and Adana prosecutors Aziz Takçı and Özcan Şişman ― were reassigned, later suspended and finally jailed on fabricated charges of espionage and attempt to overthrow the government.
- Erdoğan’dan canlı yayında Can Dündar’a tehdit (Threat against Can Dündar by Erdoğan on a live broadcast), Cumhuriyet, May 31, 2015
- Can Dündar’a silahlı saldırı (Armed attack against Can Dündar), Cumhuriyet, May 6, 2016
- Turkish journalist Can Dündar jailed after surviving gun attack
- Acquittal for Erdem Gül, No Penalty for Enis Berberoğlu
- The Interior Ministry Inspection Report No: (31-18) 409, (31–18) 444, Civil Service Inspector Yener Yüksel and Gendarmerie Special Inspector Col. Kemal Benek, April 14, 2014
- 2012 Fiat Linea sedan car with license plate No. 31 Y 5060. It was registered to a private citizen named Ahmet Demir, a 35-year-old resident of the border town of Reyhanlı. According to Prosecutor Aziz Takçı’s statement, Demir had a record of a legal action against him on al-Qaeda charges.
- In legal motions submitted to the courts on various dates in January 2014 by the gendarmerie intelligence, some of the suspects were identified as members of the drug-trafficking and money-laundering network, and had criminal records and convictions. The MİT agents under the probe were therefore working closely with known criminals. One legal brief also detailed how the gang was providing escorts for foreign nationals as they crossed Turkey.
- One MİT agent who worked with the drug gang is identified as Kaan Kürsat Karaahmetoğlu, a 41-year-old officer who was born in Şabanözü, a district of Çankırı Province, on Jan. 1, 1978.
- One MİT agent who worked with the drug gang is identified as Kaan Kürsat Karaahmetoğlu, a 41-year-old officer who was born in Şabanözü, a district of Çankırı Province, on Jan. 1, 1978.
- The authorities also feared the theft of the Hyundai-brand Starex model vans around that time might be an indication of an impending vehicle-bombing attack like the one that took place in the town of Reyhanlı in May 2013, which killed 53 people.
- Under Turkish laws, transport of explosives and ammunitions can be transported within Turkey with permission from relevant authorities and by informing local authorities where the shipment will transit. Such shipments require the implementation of safety and security measures along the journey. MİT neither obtained a permission nor notified the local authorities about the arms shipments.
- Court papers indicate that MİT regional director Orhan Harmancı was not aware of the shipment either, and did not know the MİT agents who were transporting arms. The operation was run directly from Ankara.
- “‘TIR’daki sır aydınlandı” (The truck’s secret was revealed), Cumhuriyet, February 14, 2015, http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye/213863/_TIR_daki_sir_aydinlandi.html
- The Expert Report No.9100-4843-14 was issued by the Interior Ministry’s Gendarmerie Provincial Command in Adana on January 20, 2014. It was signed by demolition and explosives experts 1st Sgt. Celalettin Bardakçı and Master Sgt. Nihat Yılan, and approved by gendarmerie provincial commander Özkan Çokay.
- 23The Expert Report No. 2014/33456-230004 was issued by the Interior Ministry’s Gendarmerie General Command in Ankara on January 23, 2014. The report was signed by ballistic experts Mustafa Kayıkçı and Mehmet Kılıç, and explosive experts Yemiha Kale, Vedat Sadak and Berkant Aydın.
- The letters by the MİT invoked a “state secret” clause to shield the agency and its operatives from criminal prosecution. Investigators challenged that claim by arguing that a criminal act cannot be classified as a state secret or the assignment run in clear violation of the Turkish laws.
- The agents’ badge numbers were recorded in a document at the insistence of Prosecutor Takçı. According to the documents, they were listed as S-2587, S-2580, M-7392 and M-7341.
- Ahmet S. Yayla, “The so-called Islamic State and the (slow but steady) radicalisation of Turkey,” III: 58, Orient: Deutsche Zeitschrift fur Politik, Wirtschaft und Kultur des Orients, Deutsches Orient-Insitut, Berlin, Germany, 2017.
- List of arrested journalists in Turkey
- 2019 World Press Freedom Index — RSF
- World Report 2018: Turkey — Human Rights Watch