Throughout the second half of the 20th century the Republic of Turkey was hailed as a beacon of “multi-party democracy” and even “secularism” in the Middle East (1950-94/2002). The advent of the overtly Islamic and populist Justice and Development Party (or AKP), founded by the hugely popular yet equally divisive Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has brought an abrupt end to this perception and currently the country is once again in the grip of political Islam and one-party rule.
Dr. C Erimtan 21st Century Wire:
At present, the Republic of Turkey has been ruled by Islamists for many years now, and not just in this century. The rise of Islamist politics in Turkey started as long ago as 1994, when Turkey’s Islamist figurehead of yesteryear, Necmettin Erbakan’s last political vehicle the Refah Partisi (or RP, somewhat erroneously translated as Welfare Party) unexpectedly swept the country in local elections, winning 19.7% of the national vote and taking the mayoral seats of 29 major urban centres, significantly including Ankara and Istanbul.
The latter city gave Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the opportunity to climb the national stage, which he has been using to hog the limelight till the present day. The former, on the other hand, brought the figure of Melih Gökçek to prominence who has since been occupying his post heading the Turkish capital for nearly 23 years. And some time ago, Ankara’s now-AKP Mayor invited a number of reporters from a “bevy of major outlets,” such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press, to the Turkish capital.
As a colourful figure, well-known for his sometimes quite outrageous statements, he did not disappoint on this occasion either, saying that the terror organisation formerly known as ISIS-yet-now-calling-itself the Islamic State (or IS/ISIS), acronymised in Arabic as Daesh, “is an artificial organization, a fake organization, just like President Trump says,” before adding that the U.S. President “didn’t say it just once, he repeated it three times. So three times — I believe it has some truth in it,” as related by the Huffington Post‘s Foreign Affairs’ Reporter Jessica Schulberg.
Prominent Islamists in Turkey: Terrorist and Preachers
Melih Gökçek’s words are puzzling at best, as if the mere idea of “radical Islamic terrorism,“ as President Trump now likes to call his chosen enemy, were something utterly unknown in Turkey. In addition, his words would also imply that the Turkish authorities have no knowledge or experience with the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) either.
In reality, though, homegrown “radical Islamic terrorism“ has been part and parcel of the Turkish reality for a long time now – two names immediately pop up in this context, IBDA-C (or the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders-Front) and Hizbullah (or Turkish Hezbollah). And the ruling AKP government appears to be close to both movements.
The founder of the first, a “Salafist group that advocates Islamic rule in Turkey,” Salih İzzet Erdiş (better known as Salih Mirzabeyoğlu or the Commander) was arrested on 31 December 1998 and subsequently sentenced to death in 2001, which was commuted to a 20-year sentence when Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002. But then, out of the blue, “he was pardoned on 23 July 2014, and even met with [none other than Tayyip] Erdogan some four months later. The latter, then, a “Sunni Turkish/Kurdish Muslim militia” or terrorist group that came to national prominence in 2000. when the police engaged its members in a deadly firefight, leaving the founder and leader Hüseyin Velioğlu dead and its second-in-command Edip Gümüş imprisoned for life following charges of “belonging to a terrorist organization and participating in the murders of more than 100 people.”
Still, on 4 January 2011, the latter was freed together with 22 other Hizbullah members. And subsequently, many of the freed simply disappeared and others apparently founded the Islamist political party Huda-Par, as expressed in late 2013 by Yılmaz Arslan, the Governor of Batman, the terror group is “alive” and has made “a comeback with Huda-Par.”
Another such notorious Islamist figure with apparently excellent government connections is Halis Bayancuk, better known by his nickname or “Kunya Ebu Hanzala.” His father Haci Bayancuk was a member of Hizbullah (or Turkish Hezbollah), and even “among the leadership cadres,” of said terror group according to Ahmet S. Yayla, a former members of the Turkish National Police and currently active as a researcher on Islamic terrorism (ICSVE).
Code-named ‘Hafız,’ Bayancuk, Senior, was the leader of the terror group’s political wing and is “currently serving a life sentence in Turkish prison” after his arrest in 2005. Ebu Hanzala himself then spent some time in Egypt, where he apparently became involved with Al Qaeda before returning to Turkey in 2008. According to the now defunct Turkish daily Radikal, during this trip he was accompanied by six other Hizbullah (or Turkish Hezbollah) members and they received regular payments from “Germany,” allowing them to concentrate on their religious-ideological training in Egypt.
Still upon his return to Turkey, Halis Bayancuk was arrested only to be “released on May 15, 2009 due to lack of evidence,” as expressed by Yayla. Following his release he continued preaching and spreading Islam till he was arrested again in 2011, during simultaneous police raids on 50 individual locations when more than 40 individuals were apprehended. Bayancuk (or Ebu Hanzala) was then set free on 24 January 2013, remaining out in the open till “January 14, 2014” when he was re-arrested “during an al Qaeda policing operation in which he was named as the leader of Turkish al Qaeda.” Yayla continues that the “[now-]Turkish ISIS leader Ebu Hanzala . . . was released from prison in January 2014 [but] had to be arrested again in June 2015 because he was caught red-handed . . . facilitating the passage of ISIS foreign fighters . . . from Gaziantep to Syria. Though he was released again in March 2016 with all other 96 ISIS suspects.”
Islamic Terror and Islamic Piety in Turkey
The story of Bayancuk’s arrests, liberations, and re-arrests could lead one to conclude that Turkey’s current AKP government somehow protects or otherwise assists said figure with alleged connections to Islamist terror groups operating within and beyond Turkey’s borders. On the other hand, the apparent ease with which the names Al Qaeda and ISIS are apparently intermittently used in connection with this figure is puzzling.
After all, the enmity between both organisations is all but well-known. Usamah Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri recently even publicly declaring in an audio file in Arabic, distributed through Al Qaeda channels and subsequently translated and spread by supporters on various social media that “ISIS was struck with madness in takfir [declaring other Muslims to be apostates] and exceeded the limits of extremism.”
In this day and age when the internet affords easy communications and social media are all about, Bayancuk (or Ebu Hanzala)’s presence in the realm of virtual reality allows us to have a closer look at his own statements and actions. On a YouTube video dated 22 December 2014, he makes the following pronouncements:
“ISIS are our Muslim brothers. Any attack on them will be counted as an attack on us. I do believe that this war [in Syria] is a religious war. I am on the side of my brothers. Whomever attacks those brothers of mine I will accept that as a [direct] attack on me.“
In other words, rather than presenting himself as a member of either the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) or Al Qaeda, Bayancuk simply invokes the principle of Islamic solidarity and presents himself as a champion of Islam striving in its cause and well-being.
Last year, he made the following declaration:
“[i]n one [court] file I am being presented as Al Qaeda’s Turkey representative and in another file as a member of ISIS. Under normal circumstances, for one man to be the leader of one organisation while being a member of another one, [while] these organisations are fighting one another, is not normal, is not possible even.”
Bayancuk concluded his case by saying that “[t]he difference between us is [that] I talk to people about my beliefs, [while] ISIS fights for what they believe“ (24 February 2016). On his Twitter account, which has been inactive since the Coup-that-was-no-Coup, Bayancuk reacted to the AKP government’s appropriation of the Turkish Constitution’s words that “Sovereignty belongs to the People” in the aftermath of the success of the popular reaction to the military’s attempted power-grab by retorting that “SOVEREIGNTY BELONGS TO ALLAH,” (dated 19 July 2016).
Turkey’s Media-Savvy Islamists: Terrorists or Charlatans?
Rather than being an active Al Qaeda or IS member in Turkey, Bayancuk (or Ebu Hanzala) seems to act as a Muslim proselytizer, whose social media presence reaches many but who does not appear to have any direct links to either the AKP, any of its members or affiliated organisations or even national or international Islamist terror groups.
Halis Bayancuk employs a publishing company and multimedia enterprise known as Tevhid to distribute his words (and deeds). This propaganda vehicle seems to have no apparent connections to any national or international organisations related to “radical Islamic terrorism“ but seems to be nothing but a vanity enterprise whose sole actor and author appears to be Bayancuk himself, with the help of some internet-savvy followers behind the scenes actively keeping his social media presence alive.
On a requisite YouTube channel, for instance, Bayancuk’s talks and speeches are freely available and accessible, which are also being propagated by various twitter and Facebook accounts. As a result, Bayancuk (or Ebu Hanzala) appears no different from the myriad of Islamic proselytizers that have crept up in today’s post-Kemalist Turkish reality. Two names stand out in this respect: Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) and Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca.
The former achieved some international notoriety with his many glossy publications extolling the virtues of creationism (such as his notorious Atlas of Creationism, with unsolicited copies being sent to scientists and politicians around the world, such as Hillary Clinton, back in 2007). Oktar is also well-known for his ad hominem attacks on Charles Darwin (and what he calls Darwinism) and his contemporary supporters like Richard Dawkins.
At the same time, Oktar is also well-known for his YouTube appearances featuring big-breasted and blonde-maned females, nicknamed “kittens,“ engaging in a veritable lovefest praising his handsome and noble features while pronouncing the name of God over and again in many forms and verbal constructs, with Maşallah (or Masha Allah meaning God has willed it) being the most prominent one. Somewhat hyperbolically, the co-founder/editor-in-chief of the Balkanist magazine, Lily Lynch calls Oktar the “messianic leader of an apocalyptic Islamic sex cult.“
On the purely national stage, then, the man known as Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca – known legally as Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü and described as a “Muslim televangelist with a big wardrobe of long robes, matching hats and an untidy beard” – has over the past years gained great popularity and notoriety in Turkey.
At the very outset of this year, he briefly attained international attention by remarking that playing chess is “worse than gambling and eating pork.” Cübbeli Ahmet, affiiliated with the Ismailağa religious order headquartered in the Çarşamba area of Istanbul’s Fatih district, even secured his own television programme on the channel Lalegül TV, established by the same order in September 2014. His television talks and expositions are meant to instill a sense of awe in the hearts and minds of his many viewers who are thus urged to live wholesome Islamic lives, by means of refraining from chess among other things.
These two men could be seen as mere charlatans exploiting a gullible public using an Islamic vocabulary and Muslim piety as easy means to convince the masses while also employing Turkey’s vast network of religious orders and brotherhoods to further their own cause and spread the word of Islam wide and far throughout the country. And though some of these religious orders might occasionally criticize the ruling AKP or even Tayip Erdğan himself, neither Oktar nor Cübbeli Ahmet would ever do that . . . and that is where Halis Bayancuk (or Ebu Hanzala) is different.
Bayancuk does not shy away from spewing vitriol in the direction of AKP-led Ankara nor does he mince his words supporting organizations that do not carry a lot of popular favour in the country – as is testified by his outspoken words of support and assistance for the Islamic State (IS/ISIS), words that might very well have led the occasional Turkish youth to cross the border and join the good fight (or jihad) against Bashar al-Assad.
The AKP Policy of Sunnification and Bashar al-Assad
The specialist Yayla nevertheless regards Ebu Hanzala (or Bayancuk) as a dangerous operator on the Turkish scene – last month, one of his scheduled talks in the capital Ankara was cancelled at the last moment by the Governor (26 February 2017), yet another indication that the AKP government does not necessarily entertain positive feelings towards the man and his words. But away from the glare of social media and other televised popularity contests, there is a very real undercurrent of Islamic agitation and support for “radical Islamic terrorism” present in the country.
In fact, as long ago as December 2013, I outlined the many ways in which AKP-led Turkey has backed Islamist factions next door in order to foment, support and cooperate in the genesis and further development of Syria’s not-so civil war in the pursuit of its very own “policy of Sunnification.“ In the initial stages of the armed insurrection to unseat the Damascus government led by Bashar al-Assad, the Islamist terror group known as Jabhat al-Nusra was reputed to be the most effective fighting force.
Appearing on the scene in January 2012, the U.S. designated the group a “terrorist organization” on 11 December, and indications are that Turkey’s AKP machinery has supported the Nusra Front throughout the period 2012-2014. The Minister of the Interior Muammer Güler (24 January-25 December 2013) at the time even appearing to have sent “orders to the governor of the province of Hatay” to that effect, as Turkey then also regarded Jabhat al-Nusra as a hard-hitting tool against Syria’s Kurdish insurgents PYD, linked to the Turkish PKK – Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (or MİT) even securing safe border crossings for the Jihadi fighters and its Directorate of Religious Affairs (or Diyanet) providing guesthouses for Nusra members. The appearance of the Islamic State in the summer of 2014 forced Turkey to recalibrate its relationship with the Islamist factions operating across the Turco-Syrian border.
Gaziantep or Turkey’s Caliphal Outpost
In late June last year, the CHP MP for Istanbul Eren Eldem gave a presentation in Turkey’s Parliament (or TBMM) explaining the various ways in which the ruling AKP is now apparently freely aiding and abetting the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) in Syria’s not-so civil war next door. Eldem ascended the podium with many documents in his hands, declaring that the Turkish police has identified numerous safe houses in Turkey (stating that the police have even named 10,000 separate addresses) and that 14 separate investigations had been initiated in this connection.
The MP highlighted one of the cases, to do with a figure whom he identified with his initials as “İ.B.” This figure can arguably be identified as İlhami Balı, habitually employing the code-name or kunya Ebubekir (or Abu Bakr) – a Turkish citizen hailing from the Hatay region’s hamlet of Reyhanlı, scene of an infamous twin car bomb attack on 11 May 2013, universally attributed to Jabhat al-Nusra at the time though Turkey’s AKP government persisted in blaming Bashar al-Assad. According to the pro-government newspaper Sabah, this individual has in the past been incarcerated on numerous occasions as a member of Al Qaeda, but was from 2013 onwards active as the ‘Amir for the Turkish Border’ (or “Türkiye Sınır Emiri“).
In addition, it has come to light that he made seven official cross-border trips between the two countries in the period of 2012-13. While the Turkish press furthermore asserts that, in Gaziantep, Balı was responsible for training the suicide bombers Orhan Gönder for an attack in Diyarbakır (5 June 2015, with a death toll of four), Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagöz for the attack in Suruç (20 July 2015, with a death told of 33), Yunus Emre Alagöz and the Syrian citizen Abu Usamah for the attack at the Ankara train station (10 October 2015, with a death toll of 103), and Mehmet Öztürk for the attack on the İstiklal Caddesi in Istanbul (19 March 2016, with a death toll of at least five).
In the light of the police documents that he was able to obtain in the course of his investigations, Eldem asserted that “İ.B.” (or İlhami Balı) was able to insert a total of 1,800 fighters into the Syrian war theatre, starting in 2011. In this connection, the southeastern city of Gaziantep plays an important role. Eldem asserted that tens of thousands of pages are available documenting police surveillance of suspects travelling in and out of Syria, even receiving medical treatment in a medical facility in the city, before returning across the border to continue fighting in the jihad against Bashar al-Assad. In fact, Eren Eldem also talked about Halis Bayancuk (or Ebu Hanzala), without however mentioning his name sufficing to simply show his picture, stating that the police had proof that this figure had in the past recruited Turkish fighters to join Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and more recently, to join the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) in Syria.
In fact, during last year’s summer months prior to the Coup-that-was-no-Coup, the Turkish press was awash with reports that the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) was planning to forcibly occupy the Turkish city of Gaziantep. These reports were apparently based on materials retrieved from the computer of the ‘Amir of Gaziantep’ Yunus Durmaz, who blew himself up to avoid getting arrested in May last year.
In fact, in August last year, another CHP MP, namely Elif Doğan Türkmen from Adana, visited Gaziantep only to subsequently report to the press that “3 to 4 neighbourhoods are literally in the hands of ISIS and according to the local population the state deliberately ignores this.” And in November 2016 then, the opposition daily Cumhuriyet published a piece based on the prosecutors’ report on the 2015 Ankara bombings, detailing that video footage available on the computer of one of the arrested suspects, a man called Yakup Karaoğlu, conctituted circumstantial evidence regarding the city’s relationship with the Islamic State (IS/ISIS).
The footage in question showed IS supporters touring the city on 3 motorcycles and in eleven separate vehicles, while shouting “Allahu Akbar.“ The footage also showed passerby standing along the roadside, supporting the troup and joining in – inhabitants of all ages could be seen, from children over bearded men and women in hijab to the elderly. In this connection, about half a year ago, the news agency Reuters’ Hümeyra Pamuk remarked that “Turkish officials say at least 700 Turks have joined Islamic State, but some diplomats say the number could be more than 10 times that“ . . . between 700 and 7,000 Turks who are now fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while at home Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is at pains to receive a popular mandate that would allow him to become an autocrat far beyond the powers once wielded by Hafez al-Assad or that of his son who is now fighting to save his country from an Islamist take-over that would realise the full extent of the AKP “policy of Sunnification,“ if not much more . . .
The fates of Turkey and Syria thus seem strangely intertwined, with the outcome of next month’s referendum in Turkey possibly also having severe consequences for Syria’s future and the whole of the Middle East., if not the whole world.
21WIRE contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar who was living in Istanbul for some time, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle