Turkey’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MIT) hid information from the US military and the CIA about links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of what were described as moderate opposition Syrian fighters, during a Pentagon-funded train-and-equip program, a Turkish army officer who was involved with the secret operation said.
According to a transcript of the testimony of Lt. Murat Aletirik of the Special Forces Command obtained by Nordic Monitor, MIT secretly issued guidelines on how to select and enlist Syrian fighters for the US-led train-and-equip program and asked Turkish officers to downplay the fighters’ jihadist links.
The interviews and vetting process for Syrian opposition fighters were part of a joint US-Turkish operation conducted in Turkish provinces bordering Syria. The operation was coordinated by the Turkish and US militaries, but the recruitment on the ground was done by MIT and the vetting and final clearance by the CIA.
Aletirik was one of the Special Forces officers who were tapped by MIT as interviewers because the agency was short on human resources to screen and recruit thousands of fighters. MIT reached out to the Turkish army, and the Special Forces Command, which runs unconventional operations, assigned officers to the program.
“Back then the suggestion made to us by MIT was like this: Just see if they are sympathetic towards the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], the PYD [Democratic Union Party] or offshoots of the PKK. Other terrorist organizations are not important to us,” Aletirik said at a hearing on July 19, 2018 at the Ankara 17th High Criminal Court. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, although only Turkey recognizes the PYD as a terror group.
“Through the questions in the interviews, we were trying to find out if the candidate, the Free Syrian Army candidate, was sympathetic to any terrorist organization,” Aletirik added.
“This was important because these people would be trained and provided with arms,” Aletirik said, stressing that he and other interviewers had been trying to ascertain whether the candidates had any links to not only the PKK and its offshoots but also the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, the spy agency did not care if any of them had any association with radical armed jihadist organizations and was simply focused on links to the outlawed Kurdish groups.
Transcript of the court testimony of Lt. Murat Aletirik blew the whistle on the spy agency’s links to al-Qaeda and ISIS:
In fact, this was one of the major disagreements between the Turkish Armed Forces and MIT at the time because the lists prepared by MIT were in many cases not cleared by the Pentagon or the CIA during the vetting process, and it put the Turkish military in a difficult position. Nordic Monitor previously published confidential documents which revealed that the US side had grown increasingly concerned when a MIT officer, identified as Halil Ibrahim, suddenly came up with the names of hundreds of fighters who wanted to join the program from Idlib, and the CIA had to partially put the brakes on the vetting process, slowing the clearance of fighters.
The Turkish General Staff contact group communicated the problems to the US military, asking for a speedy vetting process, but was told that MIT had not provided enough information about the fighters who were selected. In 2016 some 2,500 fighters were recruited by MIT, and lists with their names and details were shared with the Americans. The CIA had cleared only 361 fighters as of June 6, 2016.
The candidates selected for recruitment were picked from safe houses maintained by MIT for groups of 15 to 20 in Turkish provinces such as Kilis, Urfa and Elazığ and then transported in civilian buses to interview locations, Aletirik said. “Sometimes we collected Syrians from the border or from camps,” he said, adding that the program was coordinated with the Americans.
The US had already spent $500 million in 2015 to train and equip rebels to establish a 5,000-strong rebel force during the Obama administration, but the plan was shut down in October 2015 after most fighters either deserted and joined radical groups including ISIS or were captured by rival factions. The Pentagon resumed the program with some adjustments in 2016, only to cancel it in 2017 on the order of President Donald Trump. Since then Turkey has continued to train, arm and equip rebels on its own, even expanding its program.
Aletirik found himself caught in the July 15, 2016 failed coup events when he and other members of the Special Forces were deployed to the General Staff against a terrorist threat. He never questioned his orders when Col. Murat Korkmaz summoned him and a few others on July 14 to inform them about a drill in what the military terms an “unconventional operation” (Konvensiyonel Olmayan Harekat, or KOH) for protection and security. When they met at the rendezvous point the next day, they were told that the team would be deployed to safeguard General Staff headquarters against a terrorist threat.
“I never saw a written order. I have never questioned orders and instructions given to me as part of my assignments [in the Special Forces].” … I carried out my missions without question for the interests of the state because trust is essential in the Special Forces. Orders are not questioned. If somebody thinks this is wrong, I’m not the person who needs to be questioned about this. This is the culture of the military and the Special Forces. This is how this works,” Aletirik explained.
The coup plotting charges against him in the indictment were not supported by any evidence that showed he actually participated in the putschist attempt. He was accused of killing 11 and injuring 43 people, but the indictment did not have any ballistic, fingerprint or palm swap reports that confirmed he was actually a shooter. No witness statement or CCTV footage was presented to incriminate him. He repeatedly proclaimed his innocence of the crimes he was accused of having committed.
Aletirik endured four days of torture in police custody between July 16 and 20. He was stripped down to his underwear, thrown in a cell with human feces all over the floor and constantly beaten and kicked. He faced a lynch mob, received multiple blows to his head and torso while handcuffed from behind and sustained a broken nose and ribs. Medical doctors under police pressure declined to record his injuries in official documents. The beatings continued in Sincan Prison, where he was taken after his formal arrest. He asked during his hearings for the CCTV video footage at the General Staff, police station and prison where he was subjected to torture, but the authorities declined to provide it. His recollection of events are in parallel with that of many other jailed officers who sustained severe beatings, torture and abuse while in police custody.
Report by Dr. Ömer Faruk Türkoğlu ignored the signs of torture and abuse on Lt. Murat Aletirik’s body:
There was only one medical report in his case file, written on July 19, 2016 by Dr. Ömer Faruk Türkoğlu, who did not bother to include any of Aletirik’s complaints. The broken nose, broken ribs, swelling in the head and signs of injury on parts of his body were not recorded in the doctor’s report, which appears to have been written up in haste. No information was provided as to whether or not the police were present during the examination. By law, police are barred from being present during doctor-patent conversation to ensure that the detainee can describe what really happened and the doctor can record it without any pressure. Doctors are also required to make a note if the police are present during the examination. Yet Dr.Türkoğlu did not make any note in the report and simply wrote that no additional findings were observed as if the victim had undergone a previous medical examination.
Lt. Murat Aletirik’s statement revealing the torture and abuse he suffered while under custody and in prison: