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Turkish Hizballah: A Case Study of Radical Terrorism
By : Süleyman Özören (University of North Texas & Cécile Van de Voorde, University of South Florida)
The Republic of Turkey is one of the many countries that have been struggling with terrorism for decades. This article concentrates on the development and activities of Turkish Hizballah. Following an overview of the resurgence of radicalism and terrorism in Turkey, the main characteristics of Turkish Hizballah are highlighted and compared to other notorious terrorist groups, KONGRA-GEL (Kurdistan People’s Congress) in Turkey and the Hizballah in Lebanon.
The ideology, goals and structure of Turkish Hizballah are also examined. A final analysis focuses on contemporary trends, including law enforcement and security operations against Turkish Hizballah, as well as related policy implications.
The phenomenon of terrorism has plagued countries throughout the world for centuries.
In September 2001, when the United States experienced its first major terrorist attacks on American soil since the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the American public suddenly became painfully aware of a variety of fundamentalist religious terrorist groups that had been active elsewhere in the world for many years.
The Republic of Turkey is one of the many countries that have been struggling with terrorism for decades.
This article will focus on the development and activities of a specific terrorist group: Turkish Hizballah. An overview of the resurgence of radicalism and terrorism in Turkey, the main characteristics of Turkish Hizballah are highlighted and compared to other notorious terrorist groups, KONGRA-GEL (Kurdistan People’s Congress) in Turkey and the Hizballah in Lebanon. Subsequently, an examination of the ideology and structure of Turkish Hizballah will lead to a final analysis focused on more contemporary trends of the terrorist group.
Terrorism in TurkeyFor over three decades, Turkey has been affected by domestic insurgencies and political violence without receiving from the international community much of the attention it deserved. In particular, Turkey has been plagued by terrorism for several years and on many fronts. Active terrorist groups include not only the Turkish Hizballah (Party of God), but also the Kurdish separatist group known as the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (PKK-KONGRA GEL, formerly called PKK), the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C or Dev-Sol), as well as other entities tied to terrorist groups based in Syria and Iran. In order to understand the development of Hizballah in Turkey, it is crucial not only to comprehend the resurgence of political Islam and radical terrorism in a fundamentally secular country, but also to distinguish Turkish Hizballah from both the more notorious PKK-KONGRA GEL and its Lebanese namesake.
Religious Violence and Radical Terrorism in Turkey
Although religious faith itself cannot produce violence and terrorist behavior, it may be interpreted to justify an attack on social structure. Three circumstances must be present in order to motivate believers to shift their thoughts towards violent action:
(1) believers must perceive a threat to their values,
(2) a theology must be transformed into a dogma produced by textual interpretation and
(3) the true believers must embrace the violence as a means for preserving their faith.
Where these criteria are met, terrorism becomes an integral part of theology. Nevertheless, Islam does not inherently condone terrorism: the word Islam shares the same Arabic etymological root as the word peace and the Holy Qur’an condemns war as an abnormal state of affairs opposed to God’s will.
Essentially, Islam is ‘an apolitical religion concerned solely with spiritual and ethical guidance’ and using Islam as both a religion and a state or global political structure may be perceived as ‘a deviation from and a perversion of that true conception’. Furthermore, political Islam may be construed as ‘an illegitimate extension of the Islamic tradition outside of the properly religious domain it has historically occupied’.
In recent years, the phrase ‘political Islam’ has been used to refer to ‘the seemingly unprecedented irruption of Islamic religion into the secular domain of politics’ as ‘Islam has become a central point of reference for a wide range of political activities, arguments and opposition movements’. Nevertheless, even though Muslim activists often use Islam for political purposes, it is important to note that not ‘all forms of contemporary Islamic activism involve trying to “capture the state”.’
The role of Islam in Turkey is peculiar insofar as it is intricately related to Turkish history, nationalism and identity. Historically, Turkish Islam has been tolerant and respectful of other religions, which helped Ottomans expand their empire and rule over millions of people without significant conflicts. Furthermore, the first Turkish Muslims, who were heavily influenced by Sufi-oriented ideas, ‘kept a certain distance from the politics of their times in contrast to other Islamic movements’. As a result, prominent religious leaders have denounced any action associated with violence by asserting that a terrorist could not truly be a Muslim and, conversely, a Muslim could not be a terrorist.
Owing to its unique location between Europe and Asia, Turkey has been composed of and influenced by a variety of cultural, ethnical and historical entities for centuries. Diversity is still a hallmark of contemporary Turkey and the rapidly modernizing country has seemingly set ‘an example of what is possible in integrating Islamic movements into its relatively democratic political system. By accommodating Islamic voices and expanding the boundaries of participation, Turkey has preserved and consolidated its democracy and civil society’.
Nonetheless, fundamentalist terrorism is still a reality and such radical terrorist groups as Turkish Hizballah are active in Turkey today. Overall, the activities and ideologies of these groups have been met with much resistance by the mainstream society. Major issues have been revived and causing growing concern throughout the country, including radicalism, integrism, separatism and terrorism.
Major Differences Between Turkish Hizballah and PKK-KONGRA GEL
The most prominent source of Turkish terrorism, which Turkish Hizballah is sometimes confused with, is the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (PKK-KONGRA GEL). PKK-KONGRA GEL was founded in 1974 by Abdullah Öcalan as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK (Partya Karkeren Kurdistan), a Kurdish political party and insurrectionary group adhering to a Marxist-Leninist ideology.
The main objective of PKK-KONGRA GEL has been the creation of an independent United Democratic Kurdistan in southeast Turkey (Anatolia), northern Iraq, Iran and Syria. Since the early 1980s, it has led a brutal campaign of guerrilla warfare and terrorism against Turkey with the collaboration and protection of various countries and groups, mainly Syria and Greece. In the early 1990s, PKK-KONGRA GEL evolved from radical activism in rural areas to more structured urban terrorism.
Today, the group operates in Turkey, Europe and the Middle East. It is arguably one of the best-organized terrorist organizations in the world with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 members, mainly located in northern Iraq, and thousands of sympathizers throughout Turkey and Europe. The financial stability of PKK-KONGRA GEL is guaranteed by its heavy involvement in narcoterrorism, arms smuggling, kidnapping (primarily children and tourists) and other forms of organized crime. Between August 1984 and February 2000, PKK-KONGRA GEL was credited for about 22,000 terrorist actions. The leitmotiv of PKK-KONGRA GEL’s left-wing extremists is the use of their ethnicity as an incentive for politico-ideological recruitment.
Paradoxically however, PKK-KONGRA GEL has arbitrarily murdered Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin, that is, the people on whose behalf it allegedly acts. The group further considers both the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (the two main Kurdish groupings in northern Iraq) as enemies.
PKK-KONGRA GEL is most notorious for its promotion and use of terrorist suicide attacks, a modus operandi Turkish Hizballah has never resorted to. The suicide terrorism techniques used by PKK-KONGRA GEL are characteristic of a continuum that entails not only a hierarchical organization with a highly charismatic leader (known as the ‘pioneer’), but also the idea of a ‘suitable culture’ likely to promote self-sacrifice for the sake of religion or the interests of the group through intense indoctrination. Thus, PKK-KONGRA GEL’s ‘indoctrination of its members is based on praising valor and rebellion against oppression and victimization’. Additionally, situational factors play an important role in the continuum of PKK-KONGRA GEL’s suicide terrorism campaign. Whereas PKK-KONGRA GEL only ordered a few suicide attacks in prisons until the 1990s (none of which resulted in mass casualties), several attacks took place in the 1990s that were mainly prompted by political or internal crises.
Many of the terrorist suicide attacks perpetrated by PKK-KONGRA GEL actually coincided with the arrest, imprisonment, sentencing or extradition of Öcalan, as well as upsurges in repressive measures adopted by the Turkish government. Between 30 June 1995 and 15 July 1999, fifteen terrorist suicide attacks occurred and caused the death of thousands of people, including many women and children. In addition, PKK-KONGRA GEL, which strives to impose its subversive views on the uneducated and the ignorant, is also responsible for the assassination of more than a hundred schoolteachers.
PKK-KONGRA GEL membership is often favored by educated people who prefer its more transparent actions. PKK-KONGRA GEL and the Hizballah have openly clashed in Turkey since PKK militants killed the father of a Hizballah member in 1990 and Hizballah militants retaliated by murdering a PKK sympathizer. According to Turkish Hizballah, the main reason for their struggle with PKK-KONGRA GEL is that the latter is a Marxist-Leninist group that kills Muslims and collaborates with Armenians, who are considered to be Infidels. In reality, their rivalry results from a long-standing fight for authority over southeastern Turkey. Both PKK-KONGRA GEL and Turkish Hizballah have high stakes in that region, which is composed of a highly religious Muslim population. From an ideological perspective, even though it has nothing to do with religion, PKK-KONGRA GEL understands that the only way to influence such a public is to use the imams (prayer leaders). Consequently, in order to gain support from the religious population of the area, PKK-KONGRA GEL has established the Kurdish Prayer Leaders Association (Kurdistan Imamlar Birligi).
The PKK-KONGRA GEL strategy obviously contradicts the ideology and tactics defended by Turkish Hizballah, which seeks to radically alter the secular regime in Turkey by organizing religious people toward the use of violence. For a long time, PKK-KONGRA GEL claimed to be the only dominant group in southeastern Turkey. Yet, Turkish Hizballah has engaged in hostile activities against PKK-KONGRA GEL interests in the region, which has reinforced the struggle between the two groups in Turkey. As a result, both sides lost over 500 members between 1992 and 1995, including 22 imams killed by Hizballah.
Major Differences Between Turkey’s Hizballah and Lebanon’s Hizballah
Turkish Hizballah has no official organic ties with either the Lebanon-based Islamist terrorist group also named Hizballah or its offshoots throughout the Middle East. Notwithstanding a few similarities in terms of ideology, methods and goals, they are essentially very distinct terrorist groups. Officially backed by Iran, the Lebanese group known as Hizballah seeks to reestablish the supremacy of Islam in the political and socio-economic life of the Muslim world. Hence, as indicated by the political manifesto of the group, its goals are mainly to eradicate any western influence from Lebanon and the Middle East in general, to destroy Israel, as well as to liberate Palestinian territories and Jerusalem from Israeli occupation.
The ultimate purpose underlying Hizballah’s actions in Lebanon is to establish a radical Shia (or Shiite) Islamist theocracy in that country. Lebanon’s Hizballah is indeed based on Shia ideology, whereas Turkey’s Hizballah is predominantly rooted in Sunni Islam. Besides, in Lebanese Hizballah, the spiritual leader assumes an important function in terms of motivating his members along the lines of the Shiite writings. This responsibility is apparently not as primordial for Turkish Hizballah, as notably evidenced within the Ilimciler group when Huseyin Velioglu served as political and spiritual leader despite his weak religious background or training (which actually led Fidan Gungor, the leader of the Menzilciler group, to claim Velioglu was incapable of leading his group).
Lebanon’s Hizballah has been active not only in Lebanon, but also throughout Europe, North America, South America and Africa. The terrorist group has resorted to various tactics, including car bombings, kidnappings and hijackings, primarily targeting western and Jewish interests. Turkish Hizballah, on the contrary, has not perpetrated attacks outside of Turkey, which is also why it is not technically or officially considered an international terrorism organization. In terms of affiliation with other terrorist organizations, the main difference between the two groups lies in the fact that Lebanon’s Hizballah has served as an umbrella organization for such terrorist groups as Hamas. Turkey’s Hizballah, on the other hand, has only had very limited relationships with such groups. In addition, Turkey’s Hizballah does not strive to be legitimized, whereas Lebanon’s Hizballah has become a major part of Lebanese politics. As such, the Lebanese Hizballah has been struggling for the liberation of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation for years. Furthermore, it has carried out social activities to support social, economic and educational life of the Shiite community. It thus functions like a de facto government for the Shiite people of southern Lebanon. In contrast, the functions of Turkish Hizballah are strictly limited to a very secret group that has nothing to do with everyday life in the community. The main purpose of Turkey’s Party of God is to establish a religious-based government by overthrowing the existing secular government.
Moreover, Lebanon’s Hizballah pioneered suicide bombings in the Middle East, another important characteristic that differentiate it from its Turkish homonym. The Lebanese group is responsible for the wave of suicide terrorism that started in April 1983 when a truck laden with explosives was driven into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 49 and wounding about 120 people. The goals of Hizballah suicide operations evolved over time as the group gained notoriety at the local and international levels and became a role model for and supporter of several other terrorist organizations. The group and its Iranian benefactors used suicide terrorism as a propaganda tool for the dissemination of the precepts of the Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East. Foreign UN peacekeeping forces eventually had to leave Lebanon and the Israeli army also retreated from central Lebanon to a restricted strip further south. Hizballah further used suicide terrorism as an instrument of deterrence and reprisal against Israel. The use of suicide attacks as a primary method of operation has now declined to one attack per year or less, but the overall success of Hizballah has been observable even outside of Lebanon, where the terrorist group inspired and occasionally sponsored several other terrorist entities.
Ideology and Structure of Turkish Hizballah
The Growth of Hizballah in Turkey
According to a U.S. Department of State report, ‘Turkish Hizballah is a domestic terrorist group of mostly Kurdish Sunni Islamists with no known ties to Lebanese Hizballah. Turkish officials and media assert that Turkish Hizballah has received limited Iranian support.’ Turkish Hizballah, also known in Iraqi Kurdistan as the Kurdish Revolutionary Hizballah (Hisbullahi Kurdi Shorishger), is thus composed of Kurds, a large ethnic group that is predominantly Sunni Muslim and concentrated in the mountainous regions of the border area between Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
The ‘network is alleged to be responsible for numerous assassinations and disappearances over the past decade, including a number of high-profile terrorist incidents.1999 estimates suggested that Hizbullah may have as many as 25,000 adherents, including 4,000 armed militants.’ Hizballah members are economically and socially alienated from mainstream society: they typically come from low-income families and half of them are not steadily employed, which reflects the situation of the Turkish socio-economic crisis. More importantly, one fourth do not have any kind of education and about a third of the members only have an elementary-school-level education.
Based in southeastern Anatolia, Turkish Hizballah originally operated mainly in the cities of Diyarbakir, Van, Batman and Mardin. Members of the terrorist group habitually gathered in and around bookstores, where they discussed their ideologies and spread their propaganda. According to official reports, the founding members of Turkish Hizballah initially gathered at one bookstore, Vahdet, but they were never able to form a homogenous group. Due to ideological divergences and leadership disputes, Turkish Hizballah separated into two major groups: Ilimciler (Scientists) and Menzilciler (Rangers). The Ilimciler, led by Huseyin Velioglu, met at the Ilim Bookstore, whereas the Menzilciler, led by Fidan Gungor, congregated at the Menzil bookstore. Beside leadership struggle, the two factions were opposed in the tactics they used to accomplish the goal of the terrorist organization. While the Ilimciler defended armed struggle and comprised Hizballah’s most brutal factions, the Menzilciler believed it was too early for such radical action and opposed, for instance, attacks on suspected PKK-KONGRA GEL members. An intra-group struggle stemmed from the battle for leadership and caused the death of over a hundred people on both sides. In 1994, the assassination of Menzilciler leader Fidan Gungor by Ilimciler members almost obliterated the dispute between Ilimciler and Menzilciler, but the truce was short-lived and the factions remain opposed to this day.
In the late 1990s, Hizballah attempted to widen its area of operation to cities in the western part of Turkey, especially Istanbul. The ongoing conflict between Hizballah and PKK-KONGRA GEL in southeastern Turkey was the major impetus for the shift. Still, western cities like Istanbul did not prove to be as favorable an environment as southeastern cities had been (e.g., Diyarbakir, Van, or Mardin) for the development of Hizballah. The efforts of the group were seriously curbed as major operations were carried out against Hizballah cells in and around Istanbul in early 2000, one of which led to the killing of Huseyin Velioglu, the Ilimciler group leader, and the arrest of his two top lieutenants, Edip Gumus and Cemal Tutar.
Ideology and Goals
The ideology defended by Turkish Hizballah is similar to the principles almost all terrorist organizations have adhered to throughout the world and history. According to Turkish Hizballah, the world is divided between two forces, Good and Evil, which represent the Ultimate Truth. ‘It is likely that in closing themselves off from others, they became isolated and lived in an imagined community that struggled to destroy the ‘unjust other’ in order to prove that they were the “just selves”.’ Based on such ideology, Turkish Hizballah has opposed every group that has deviated from what they believe to be the true path of Islam, including other Islamic movements and organizations.
Hizballah’s brand of radicalism further derives from ‘the threat of the Modern Kharijites’. The uncompromising principles defended by the Kharijites (Hariciler) were in fact the source of the first rebellion against the rulers of the Islamic world. The Kharijites divided the world into two parts, one that belonged to true Muslims and another belonging to nonbelievers; they declared a jihad against all nonbelievers and apostate Muslims and used any means available to them in order to rid the world from the infidels.
The ultimate goal of Turkish Hizballah is to overthrow the constitutional secular regime of Turkey in order to introduce a strict Islamic state inspired by Iran. Accordingly, a two-fold scheme has been devised: people are first invited into the group (the term officially used is davet, to invite) and then, once the group has secured enough supporters, it can deal with other organizations in the region.
Besides, as has been observed in other terrorist groups, Turkish Hizballah follows the rigid rule of ‘you are either with us or against us.’ Those who believe in the same values and means as Turkish Hizballah side with the group, while those who do not are against it. If they choose not to change their mind and join the struggle, opponents of Turkish Hizballah are destroyed by any means available and necessary. Thus, the ‘unjust others’ targeted by Turkish Hizballah have included moderate Kurdish businessmen who support the secular constitutional government, as well as religious individuals who do not embrace the ideology of the terrorist group.
Organizational StructureThe structure of Turkish Hizballah clearly defines each position by the specific functions assigned to each individual. There are three major levels in the hierarchy of the group: leadership, top council (Sura) and lower-level (city) council.
Leadership. The first level of the hierarchy of Turkish Hizballah is the leadership. It is divided between two individuals: the spiritual leader and the political leader. The former has no power or influence on the decision-making or the execution of the operations; he does, on the other hand, have to support the members by means of religious motivation. The latter has decision-making power regarding the activities of the group: he can modify or change the directions of general operations. Although political and spiritual leadership positions are typically not assumed by one man, Huseyin Velioglu was an exception, since he served as both the spiritual and the political leader of Ilimciler, the dominant Hizballah faction.
Top council. The second major hierarchical structure of Turkish Hizballah is the top council, or Sura, a central committee composed of high-ranking political and military members. Important decisions regarding the group are discussed and made by the Top Council, which controls both the military and the political wings of Hizballah.
Lower-level council (city-level council). At the local level, that is, in Turkish cities and towns, the hierarchy of Hizballah is divided between the military and the political branches, following a pattern similar to the Sura framework. The military wing is the unit that carries out the armed operations of the Hizballah in Turkey. The leader of the military wing, who can be a member of either the Sura or a lower-level council, is responsible for the execution of the armed operations on behalf of either council he has membership in. The military wing is composed of unit leaders and operation teams or units. Within each lower-level council, unit leaders are in charge of directing military operations carried out by up to three operation teams. They are supervised by the city leader and direct his orders to the operation units. The latter come last in the chain of command of the military wing; they are typically composed of two to six people. As a rule in the Ilimciler group, operation teams are bound by secrecy: members know only of the members in their own team, not of any members of the group in general (according to official reports, members of operation team A will have code names starting with A, for instance, whereas members of a group B will have code names starting with B).
The political wing, on the other hand, is responsible recruiting new members and communicating the precepts of Hizballah to persuade the people of Turkey to establish an Iranian-like regime. The leader of the political wing of Hizballah is a member of the Sura. High-ranking officials of the political wing are in charge of public relations and propaganda operations. Furthermore, Hizballah radicals perform duties of propaganda and recruitment in units operating in local schools and colleges. Finally, the public unit, generally organized in and around mosques, as well as in neighborhoods and villages, has no influential role in the decision-making process regarding the future operations of the Hizballah.
Contemporary Trends of Turkish Hizballah
Modus Operandi, Victim Selection and Activities
When Turkish Hizballah first came to the attention of the Turkish public, it was often mistaken for the Lebanese movement of the same name. The major differences between the two groups, as explained above, were rapidly clarified and Turkish Hizballah steadily gained notoriety throughout the 1980s and 1990s ‘for the killings of Kurdish rebel sympathizers . . . at the height of a conflict between Turkish security forces and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party.’ Ever since its emergence in Turkey, Hizballah has been operating in great secrecy. Unlike most terrorist groups, it typically does not claim responsibility for its actions and usually does not publish any written propaganda.
Turkish Hizballah started out as ‘a mainly urban phenomenon’ observed in predominantly Kurdish cities of southeastern Turkey and became particularly known for its distinct ‘style of assassination carried out in broad daylight, often by pairs of young assassins using pistols of Eastern European manufacture’.
Initially, only suspected members or sympathizers of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (then PKK) were targeted by Hizballah. Opponents of governmental policies and separatists ‘were being killed at the rate of two a day . . . [and] more than a thousand people were killed in street shootings from 1992 to 1995.’
In the late 1990s, however, Hizballah started killing secularists, moderate Muslims, representatives of Kurdish religious charitable foundations and clerics from other religious movements. One of the first widely publicized incidents attributed to Turkish Hizballah was the April 1997 grenade attack on the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The attack, originally attributed to ‘some hard-core group’, specifically targeted ‘the spiritual heart of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians all over the world’ and occurred in a ‘climate of extreme nationalism and militarism’.
In January 2000, police and security forces became yet another tactical target to boost the motivation of the group members when Police Chief Gaffar Okkan and five police officers were assassinated in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeastern Turkey. Okkan had led a very successful operation to take apart Hizballah factions the year before and had subsequently been added to the death list of the group.
A 2000 indictment of high-ranking Ilimciler members actually specified that the activities of Hizballah in Turkey ‘included shootings, arson, assault with meat cleavers, kidnapping, beatings and attacks with acid on women not dressed in an Islamic manner.’ Kidnapping is indeed one of the methods of operation favored by Hizballah in Turkey. Targets vary from PKK-KONGRA GEL members and sympathizers to members of other religious movements; businessmen have also been kidnapped for ransom, as was discovered during recent police raids. Above all, Turkish Hizballah has set a gruesome record for torture in Turkey. The Ilimciler group in particular has resorted to extremely brutal torture techniques in a methodical and premeditated manner. Some have argued that Turkish Hizballah is an intrinsically fundamentalist and terrorist group in which ‘killing and torturing were perceived of as inherently a part of their mission.’ Turkish Hizballah victims are characteristically bound and gagged and subjected to severe torture prior to being killed.
Some tortured bodies are even buried alive and most corpses have thus far been recovered from shallow graves, concrete blocks, or coal sheds. Such tactics have been used either to merely inflict pain on the victims or to persuade them of the validity and righteousness of Hizballah’s struggle in Turkey. Even individuals from the Menzilciler group and other religious people opposed to Hizballah’s ideology and tactics have been subjected to torture by the Ilimciler group.
Suspected support from Iran.The 1979 Iranian Revolution posed the first major threat to the stability of Turkish-Iranian relations in the twentieth century. Regarding terrorism in particular, the activities of PKK-KONGRA GEL and other right-wing terrorist groups have increased Turkey’s suspicions about neighboring Iran. For example, during his interrogation, Abdullah Öcalan alleged that Iran had served as a mediator between Hizballah and PKK-KONGRA GEL and members of Hizballah have asserted they received training in Iran.
In April 1998, the daily newspaper Cumhurriyet claimed to have uncovered evidence of links between Iran and various radical Islamist groups outlawed in Turkey, including Hizballah. In an effort to dismiss the allegations, the Iranian Embassy in Ankara declared: ‘Iran recognizes no group entitled Turkish Hizbollah (party of God) in Turkey’ and also rejected ‘any link with the Turkish Hizbollah or any other illegal group in Turkey’. Even Hizballah members, in fact, have dismissed those claims as inconceivable and revolting. However, Cumhurriyet affirmed that the Iranian regime was in effect the ‘spinal cord’ of Turkish Hizballah and that their accusations were supported by a ‘statement made by the Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi’.
In June 2000, as officially reported by the Representative Office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran [RONCRI], Turkey ‘sent Iran a detailed dossier drawn up by its security forces on the Turkish Hizbollah, a fundamentalist organization suspected of carrying out hundreds of assassinations with support from Iran.’ Official reports abound regarding members of Turkish Hizballah receiving weapons, financial support and training from Iran, notably from the Iranian Secret Service.Both Iranian and Turkish officials have vehemently denied that members of Turkish Hizballah had ever been armed or trained by the Iranian government, but no investigation has ever been launched to establish the truth. Even allegations that Turkish Hizballah has formally approved of the Iranian Revolution have not been verified and the Turkish terrorist group therefore remains officially unrelated to its Iranian neighbor.
Overall, it has been noted that the relationships entertained by the ‘Iranian theocratic regime with the neighboring Turkey have never been easy ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution of 1979.’ Turkey keeps accusing Iran of not only helping Turkish Islamist and terrorist groups to create an Islamic Republic, but also supporting and protecting PKK-KONGRA GEL separatists.
Law Enforcement Response and Nationwide Security Operations
Since the early 1990s, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have openly criticized the laissez-faire attitude of Turkish authorities towards the activities of Hizballah in their country. ‘Belated police operations against Hizbullah often appeared to be carried out for show, rather than as a determined move against a dangerous illegal armed group. Initially, police did not move against the more ruthless Hizbullah Ilim group . . . but against their rival, the Menzil faction, which was reportedly opposed to attacks on suspected PKK members. . . . The authorities were inexplicably coy about their successes in combating Hizbullah and declined to respond to Amnesty International’s repeated requests for detailed information on prosecutions of alleged Hizbullah members.’
Consequently, some argue, ‘by action or omission, the Turkish state bears some responsibility for the slaughter committed by Hizbullah.’
Following a concentrated effort to bring down the secular branch of Turkish Hizballah, about four hundred people linked to the terrorist group by local authorities were arrested in February 1999. In addition, weapons and propaganda material were seized during raids in three southeastern Turkish provinces. These arrests marked the first stage of a nationwide effort by Turkish law enforcement to dismantle the country’s Hizballah network. In early 2000, a ‘crackdown on Turkey’s violent and shadowy Hizbullah network’ gave the formal fight against Islamic fundamentalists ‘a more direct security dimension’, just as Hizballah leaders were attempting to restore the strength of their group. Hizballah safe houses were raided methodically and mass graves of victims tortured and executed by Hizballah members were discovered throughout the country. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies,
The operation launched by the Turkish police . . . against suspected members of the Turkish Hizbullah has dealt a severe blow to the operational capabilities of the militant Islamist organisation. There are also widening splits within the Kurdish nationalist and moderate Islamist movements. These divisions are causing frustration among younger radicals. Unless the government acts swiftly to improve socio-economic conditions and ease cultural and religious restraints, there will continue to be a stream of ready recruits for Islamic militant groups. It is becoming more likely that the focus of armed resistance to the Turkish state will shift in the long term from Kurdish nationalism to religious fundamentalism.
By the fall of 2000, nearly a thousand alleged members of the radical Islamist group were taken into custody. About twenty thousand pages of documents were also recovered from computer archives. Up to seventy alleged high-ranking Sura members and local-level council leaders of the right-wing terrorist group were apprehended and put on trial, ‘accused of killing 156 people and wounding 80’: most of them faced the death penalty for ‘organizing an armed group that aimed to bring strict Islamic law to Turkey.’ The alleged deputy leader of the group, Edip Gumus, declared that they had ‘fought for Islam’ but not taken part ‘in a single armed attack,’ adding, ‘we intended to make Islam rule the world, not just Turkey. . . . We did not spend a single bullet aiming to break the state’s constitutional order. If we had wanted to do that we could have made Turkey a lake of blood with a group of 20 or 30 people.’
In January 2001, Turkish authorities launched another massive security operation following the assassination of Police Chief Gaffar Okkan and five of his colleagues in Diyarbakir. Okkan, as mentioned earlier, had led the successful anti-Hizballah campaign in his province the year before. According to official reports, efforts by Hizballah to spread out to western Turkish cities have been quelled and the expansion movement has been stopped. In recent years, Hizballah’s actions seem to have alienated more members and sympathizers and the public has even renamed the group Hizbul Vahset, or Party of Slaughter.
Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It has been observed in various forms throughout the world for centuries. In the past few decades, terrorism has developed internationally with the establishment of global terror networks and intensified into a seemingly paroxysmal issue that many countries have been unable to address effectively.
Turkey has been struggling with political violence and terrorism on many fronts for more than three decades. In effect, the resurgence of fundamentalism and radicalism has caused major concerns regarding the revival of radicalism, integrism, separatism and terrorism in and around Turkey. Turkish authorities have had to adapt their policies and response strategies in order to deal more effectively and independently with various terrorist groups, from the separatist Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (PKK-KONGRA GEL, former PKK) to the radical fundamentalist Turkish Hizballah. The latter, composed predominantly of Sunni Muslim Kurds, has been striving to overthrow the constitutional secular regime of Turkey in order to establish a strict Islamic, Iran-inspired state. Turkish Hizballah has targeted PKK-KONGRA GEL sympathizers and suspected members, secularists, moderate Muslims, representatives of Kurdish religious charitable foundations and even clerics of different religious faith. Amidst allegations of leniency towards Hizballah and official support for the terrorist group, Turkish authorities attempted to topple the secular branch of Hizballah in the late 1990s and have vowed to dismantle the terrorist network.
However, Turkish Hizballah’s regimented methods and extremely violent actions, as well as its distinctive brand of radicalism, have baffled and overwhelmed authorities for years. The radical terrorist group is a contemporary version of the Kharijites, a sect that deviated from mainstream Islam: their extremism is constantly fueled by pervasive forms of social alienation, such as widespread illiteracy and inferior education, as well as the inadequate economic and social development of certain segments of Turkey’s society.
The relative success of their counter-terrorism approach notwithstanding, Turkish law enforcement authorities have had to regularly reassess, adapt and alter some of their tactics in order to fit the constantly evolving threat posed by the various terrorist groups active in the country. The outcome of counter-terrorism strategies depends largely upon the ability of law enforcement authorities and state officials to comprehend the source of the problem and, accordingly, to tackle it at its roots.
With regards to radical religious fundamentalist groups, it is crucial to correctly define their goals and ideology instead of merely associating their fanaticism with Islam in a simplistic and reductionist attempt to justify or explicate their actions. Thus, these groups must be clearly distinguished from mainstream Islamic society and the Islamic community as a whole should not be stigmatized as terrorist or violent.
Having acquired much experience in the fight against terrorism over the last few decades, Turkey has now established itself as a major actor in the global war on terror. Indeed, Turkey could play an important role in countering international terrorism and dismantling global terror networks worldwide. Over the years, Turkey has acquired massive amounts of intelligence about terrorist groups and their members active both in Turkey and in surrounding countries. Sharing that intelligence with the international law enforcement community would be an invaluable contribution to the global fight against terrorism. In addition to intelligence, Turkish law enforcement agencies and security forces could transfer their experience to law enforcement agencies in other countries by providing training and education: Turkey could in fact become a training hub for agents in Middle Eastern as well as other European countries. Considering that many international terrorist groups have gained importance and even established networks throughout Europe, sharing intelligence and creating training programs would most likely provide new opportunities and tools to counter international terrorism. More importantly, Turkey could become a model nation for Middle Eastern countries by effectively integrating an Islamic perspective including tolerance and respect for other religions within a secular democratic regime.
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