ISTANBUL – The police this week arrested more than 150 people in a raid against terror organisation Al Qaeda. The operation was speeded up for fear of terrorist attacks in the country. According to Turkish press agency Anatolia on Friday, around 120 suspects were arrested in more than ten provinces.
Before 2003 Al Qaeda was not known to be present in Turkey as a terrorist organisation. There was another Muslim terrorist organisation, Hezbollah (not related to the Lebanese organisation of the same name). Turkish secret services used Hezbollah in the nineteen-nineties against Turkish separatist movement PKK. The leader of Hezbollah was killed in 2000, after which the organisation lost most of its power. Mehmet Farac, investigative journalist at daily Cumhuriyet and specialized in Muslim terrorism: ‘It left a void in the field of Muslim terrorism and Al Qaeda filled that void.’
The group gained notoriety in 2003 with terrorist attacks on the British embassy, a bank and two synagogues in Istanbul. Research showed that some of the culprits were previously active members of Hezbollah. Farac: ”Al Qaeda has been very successful in recruiting Muslim extremists who were previously active for other organisations.’
That Turkey is a country of interest to al Qaeda is because of the structure of the Turkish state, says Farac. ‘Turkey is a Muslim country, but has no sharia law but is, on the contrary, a secular state. Of course that’s a thorn in the flesh of Muslim fundamentlists.’
Several of the around two to five hundred members of the Turkish branch of Al Qaeda were trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but financially they have to take care of themselves. That makes them vulnerable, says Farac: ”They rob jewellery, for example, to get money. The police can relatively easily track them down because of that. Al Qaeda has been under surveillance by police for two years now, but a big operation has been speeded up because of the attack on an American military base earlier this month in Kabul, in Afghanistan. It raised the fear that attacks could be expected in Turkey itself.’