According to a review of court documents, Hüseyin Büyükfırat, former IHH representative for the Caucasus, had run the operations of the IHH under the pretense of charitable work while keeping in contact with a Turkish al-Qaeda group called Tahşiyeciler. Turkish law enforcement kept tabs on Büyükfırat and was wiretapping his phone when he spoke to indicted al-Qaeda group leader Mullah Muhammed (real name: Mehmet Doğan) about plans and funds transfers.
A Turkish al-Qaeda cell operating in Azerbaijan was led by the head of a Turkish-Azeri business association and founder of controversial charity group the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), which has links to Turkish intelligence agency MIT.
Büyükfırat, 48, is one of the founders of the IHH and had represented the charity group in the Caucasus between 1994 and 2000. Although he later left the official position with the IHH and set up a chain of local stores in Azerbaijan, Büyükfırat kept working for the IHH in an unofficial capacity. He often used the code names Abdurrahman and Abu Abrar. He was deported from Azerbaijan for radical activities in 2003 but managed to return few years later.
A Turkish prosecutor who had investigated Mullah Muhammed, a radical preacher who openly called for armed jihad, declared his support for Osama bin Laden and urged the beheading of Americans, listed the Baku-based Büyükfırat as a suspect in his investigation. Authorities who monitored Mullah Muhammed’s phone contacts identified Büyükfırat when the two had phone conversations between May 15, 2009 and June 3, 2009 and talked about transferring funds.
A judge granted a wiretap authorization on June 8 authorizing the interception of both Büyükfırat’s Turkish and Azeris GSM numbers (+905327046154 and +994502165152). His emails [email protected] and [email protected] were also monitored for six months. His home was searched on February 22, 2010 when the police executed detention and search and seizure warrants issued by a judge as part of the investigation into Mullah Muhammed’s group.
Büyükfırat’s clan has long maintained a relationship with radical preacher Mullah Muhammed, and both Büyükfırat’s father Mehmet and his brother attended Mullah Muhammed’s study circles.They also financed the operations of the Tahşiyeciler group. According to a report by the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) dated July 26, 2010, Büyükfırat personally provided funding to the group at the time. The court records indicate that Büyükfırat transferred some 2 million Turkish lira for Tahşiyeciler operations.
Facing an outstanding arrest warrant, Büyükfırat stayed away from Turkey for eight months and eventually decided to come through the land border from Syria instead of flying directly to Istanbul from Baku. He traveled to Iran by land and used the Syrian-Turkish border to enter Turkey. The police detained Büyükfırat in the border province of Şanlıurfa and referred him for arraignment in a Diyarbakır court. The chief public prosecutor in Diyarbakır was a family friend of Büyükfırat, and he was released pending trial.
Büyükfırat went to Azerbaijan as a young man in 1992 and has been living there ever since. He runs various business enterprises, from food and medicine to paper and construction. He currently owns an eponymously named restaurant chain. He set up the Union of Muslim Students (Müslüman Talebeler Birliği) and had served as the Caucasus representative of Turkish political Islam grassroots organization Milli Görüş (National View). In his own words, he was personally appointed to this position by Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of political Islam in Turkey and formerly a mentor to current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
When the police rounded up Mullah Muhammed and his associates in February 2009, Büyükfırat was in Azerbaijan and remained at large for eight months. His brother Reşit Büyükfırat, deputy chairman of the provincial health commission in Şanlıurfa, was detained.
When the police detained Tahşiyeciler leader Mullah Muhammed and his associates in January 2010, the police discovered three hand grenades, one smoke bomb, seven handguns, 18 hunting rifles, electronic parts for explosives, knives and a large cache of ammunition in the homes of the suspects.
The investigation revealed how Mullah Muhammed had asked his followers to build bombs and mortars in their homes, urged the decapitation of Americans, claiming that the religion allowed such practices. “I’m telling you to take up your guns and kill them,” he said in recorded sermons, adding, “If the sword is not used, then this is not Islam.” According to Mullah Muhammed, all Muslims were obligated to respond to then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s armed fight.
In a wiretap recorded on June 3, 2009 at 14:13 hours, Mullah Muhammed asked for 1.2 million Turkish lira (some $780,000 at the exchange rate in effect at the time) from Büyükfırat, who was in Adana province. Mullah Muhammed said the funds were needed in a couple of days and that he had accumulated a large amount of debt. Büyükfırat responded that he would consider Mullah Muhammed wishes an order. When the wiretap was presented to Mullah Muhammed during questioning by the police, he denied having the conversation, while Büyükfırat claimed it was part of a business deal with his brother.
In a wiretap dated May 21, 2009 Büyükfırat informed Mullah Muhammed about new recruits in Azerbaijan and told him Mullah Muhammed‘s first book had been translated into Azeri and would soon be published in Russian. Büyükfırat kept the phone conversation cryptic and said he was involved in “major stuff that is important.” Mullah Muhammed prayed for him and added that “Allah will clear your path.” During police questioning, Mullah Muhammed denied knowing Büyükfırat, although Büyükfırat admitted he knew him well and described him as a close family cleric.
Although Mullah Muhammed and his associates were indicted and tried, Erdoğan started defending the group in 2014, vouching for the radical imam. The campaign to save the indicted Mullah Muhammed was first launched by the Sabah daily, owned by Erdoğan’s family, on March 13, 2014. An article tried to portray Mullah Muhammed as a victim. The government claimed that Mullah Muhammed was framed by the Gülen movement, a group that is highly critical of Erdoğan on a range of issues from corruption to Turkey’s arming of jihadist groups in Syria and Libya.
In the end Erdoğan helped secure Mullah Muhammed and his associates’ acquittal through his loyalist judges and prosecutors, launched a crackdown on journalists who criticized his radical group and even hired a lawyer to file a civil suit in the US against Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been an outspoken critic of radical and jihadist groups, for defaming this fanatic. The Bakirköy 3rd High Criminal Court acquitted all suspects including Mullah Muhammed of al-Qaeda charges on December 15, 2015. In a contradiction of past reports about about Tahşiyeciler, the Security General Directorate (Emniyet) also issued a new report whitewashing the activities of the group.
The veteran police chiefs who had investigated Tahşiyeciler were dismissed and later jailed on fabricated charges of defaming the al-Qaeda group and its leader. Büyükfırat was listed as a complainant in the new case launched against the police chiefs who were involved in the investigation of Mullah Muhammed and journalists who wrote critically about the group.
In a hearing held on August 16, 2016 Ali Fuat Yılmazer, former head of the police intelligence section that specialized in radical religious groups, testified that “the IHH campaigns are designed to provide aid for jihadists engaged in global terrorism around the world and supply medical aid, funding, logistics and human resources for jihadists. This man [Büyükfırat] is at the center of one of the most important jihadist regions, which is Chechnya, a place that comes to mind first with respect to global terrorism.”
The police chief added that he personally submitted detailed reports about the IHH’s terror links to Erdoğan when he was prime minister. “I also provided very comprehensive reports to the prime minister on this issue at the time. These reports are also filed in the archives of the [Turkish] state. It [the IHH] is one of the leading organizations when it comes to al-Qaeda activities in the world,” he said in court.
Presiding judge Canel Ruzgar did not like what he heard from the police intelligence chief and said he could not level accusations against Büyükfırat, who was listed as a complainant in the defamation case against him.
The IHH had long been flagged by Russia as an organization that smuggled arms to jihadist groups in Syria, according to intelligence documents submitted to the UN Security Council on Feb. 10, 2016. Russian intelligence documents even furnished the license plate numbers of trucks dispatched by the IHH loaded with arms and supplies bound for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups including the Nusra Front.
The leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of President Erdoğan and current finance and treasury minister, also implicated the IHH in arming Libyan factions. The secret document found in leaked emails tells the story of how the owner of a bankrupt shipping and container company asked for compensation from the Turkish government for damage his ship sustained while transporting arms between Libyan ports at the order of Turkish authorities in 2011. The document revealed all the details of a Turkish government-approved arms shipment to rebels in a ship contracted by the IHH.
The Erdoğan government helped save the IHH from legal troubles in Turkey while mobilizing resources and diplomatic clout to back the IHH in global operations.
In the meantime, Büyükfırat managed to escape criminal charges in Turkey thanks to the Erdoğan government’s intervention in the case and continues to operate in both Turkey and Azerbaijan. He did not even bother to show up for his trial at the Şanlıurfa 2nd High Criminal Court and did not respond to a warrant issued by a judge, who ordered him to appear at the hearing. He is currently head of the Turkey-Azerbaijan Businessmen’s and Industrialists Union (Türkiye-Azerbaycan İş Adamları ve Sanayiciler Birliği or TUIB), an organization set up by Turkish businesspeople in Azerbaijan. He works closely with the Turkish Embassy in Baku.
Mullah Muhammed is also free to continue expanding his radical network. In the meantime, Yakup Ergun, the police intelligence officer who drafted reports about the jihadist activities of Büyükfırat as part of the counterterrorism investigation, was removed from his job by the Erdoğan government and later fired.