Did Erdogan’s Police Purge Help Set the Stage for Ghastly Syria-Related Assassination?
The video is as gruesome as it is surreal: A man in a black suit appears to be standing guard behind Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, for several minutes as Karlov addresses an art exhibition in Ankara. The man then steps forward, fires multiple shots into the ambassador’s back and launches into an extended rant. “Don’t forget Syria! Don’t forget Aleppo,” the assassin declares, referring to the Syrian city that has been the subject of intense fighting between Islamist rebels including Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham—the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda—and the Syrian government, which has been bolstered by Russian airpower.
The shooter has been identified as 22-year-old Mevlut Mert Altintas, a Turkish police officer who has allegedly been on the force for two and a half years. He was killed after fulminating and pacing around the site of the killing uninterrupted for 15 minutes.
Was Altintas assigned to a security detail for the Russian ambassador, an obvious target after fierce protests led by extremists waving Al Qaeda flags surrounded the Russian consulate in Istanbul? How was this character hired by the police in the first place, and did he enjoy any relationship to the government of Erdogan, which has pumped immense amounts of weapons and funding to extremist rebel factions in Syria?
The Turkish government has attempted to pin the blame on its exiled arch adversary Fetullah Gulen, claiming that Altintas was a member of Gulen’s FEPO cell. The mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, has even suggested Altintas bellowed out Islamist slogans to implicate Erdogan’s conservative, Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Gulen, for his part, is a fervent opponent of Turkey's support for Islamist rebels in Syria.
But Ahmet Yayla, a former high-ranking Turkish law enforcement official, told AlterNet it is the Erdogan administration that has filled Turkish law enforcement with extremist elements. Yayla would know about the internal affairs of Turkey’s deep state; he served as chief of counter-terrorism in the Turkish National Police at the Turkey-Syria border city of Sanliurfa from 2010-2012 and chief of police until 2014, work that entailed identifying extremists attempting to cross the border into Turkey.
Yayla said he was forced to flee Turkey after conducting a series of interviews with defectors from ISIS. His research led to a wave of death threats from active ISIS assets that caused him to fear for his life, he explained. He has since been branded as a Gulenist by the Ergodan government though outlets like the AKP mouthpiece Daily Sabah have produced no concrete evidence to support the allegation.
Today, Yayla works as deputy director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism at George Mason University.
According to Yayla, the police forces were destabliized by Erdogan's heavy-handed purges of accused Gulen supporters.
“Over 30,000 people were fired, so what do you expect?” Yayla told AlterNet. “All the experienced intelligence — chiefs, officers, majors, lieutenants, captains — they’re all gone. The rest is the traffic police officers, riot police officers — they don’t know anything about investigations.”
Erdogan's government had claimed the police forces were a haven of Gulenist elements. Turkish intelligence, which aligned closely with Erdogan, accused the police of obstructing its attempts to supply Islamist rebels in Syria. With orders from the top, police officiais were fired en masse.
In order to replace all of the law enforcement officers lost to these purges, Erdogan loosened hiring standards, emphasizing loyalty and political obedience over competence and experience.
“They are hiring AKP people,” Yayla explained. “You must bring a letter or call from a trustee that he is…a supporter or member of AKP. Without that reference you cannot be hired. You must be affiliated with AKP.”
According to Yayla, law enforcement hirings happen “a lot faster now.” Training used to entail four years at the country’s police academy. Since Erdogan shut down the police academy, training is now only about four months long and takes place at ordinary universities. As a result, police are no longer equipped to monitor trainees for signs of extremism. Yayla was well acquainted with this process from his time in law enforcement and recalled instances in which he had to raise the red flag about extremism among trainees and new recruits.
“It’s happened to me several times,” he recalled. “If you are good you can sense and know the points that they are making…and tie them to different terrorist organizations because different organizations have different justifications that they use. So those justifications are like keywords for you to understand that there is something wrong with this guy.”
But why would Erdogan rid his government of competent law enforcement? Doesn’t he want good intelligence?
“Because [he sees them as] his enemy because they did not bow to them, they did not close their eyes to his corruption,” Yayla explained. “He always thought that they were going to carry out a coup against him even though those officers were not part of the coup or they had never supported the coup he fired them anyways because he always thought that those officers were honest officers and that would not be corrupted and they would not bow to him.”
The signs of extremism are often so obvious, Yayla said, he suspected the assassin’s law enforcement superiors knew of his politics.
“His superiors probably knew what he was up to in terms of his belief system and that didn’t concern them—which is how Erdogan and his people think. If you care, you do something…[Erdogan] just doesn’t care.”
“An experienced police chief or a police major who would be working [with] this guy, from his attitude or talking, would identify him immediately as a possible security threat.”
In an interview with a Russian publication this August, Erdogan argued that the al-Nusra front, the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, “should not be considered a terrorist organization” because it was supposedly battling ISIS.
Yayla likened the politicized character of Turkey’s new law enforcement to that of Iran’s revolutionary cadre: “Basically, Erdogan is [creating] a new police and a new military just like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who bow to Erdogan, who are tied to Erdogan til death.”
He added, “They close their eyes to his corruption or his wrongdoings and because there is not free media, they only hear what Erdogan is saying, not the others.”
Asked what the U.S. might do to compel Turkey to adopt effective counter-terror practices, Yayla’s recommendation was simple: “The U.S. could pressure Erdogan to stop helping the Al-Nusra and ISIS. If there is no logistical support from Turkey, they cannot survive.”