A jihadist front charity group that has channeled aid al-Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other armed radical groups in Syria continues to operate freely in Turkey's border province of Adana while raising funds overseas.
Hasan Süslü, who leads a Turkish NGO called the Aid and Solidarity Association for the Poor (Fukara Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Derneği, or Fukara-Der), has been active in Syria, Sri Lanka, Burkina Faso, Yemen and Afghanistan despite the fact that he was flagged as an enabler of jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also known as al-Qaeda in Syria.
Süslü and his associates were investigated in Turkey on accusations of terrorism and even briefly detained, yet they keep working on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border while raising funds and partnering with European charity groups with no obstacles to their activities.
New evidence implicating Fukara-Der has emerged in the indictment file for the accomplices of the late Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a 22-year-old jihadist police officer who assassinated Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov in 2016. An examination of the killer's financial and banking transactions by the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) revealed that Altıntaş wired money to Fukara-Der in the amount of 115 Turkish lira on March 31, 2016. It was clear that the killer knew which organization shared his jihadist vision and decided to support them in a mutual commitment to the jihadist ideology.
Altıntaş had been radicalized by Turkish imams, some working for the government, and influenced by al-Qaeda jihadist literature. He wanted to quit his job as a riot police officer and go to Syria to fight, according to the investigation file. There are still questions as to how an off-duty police officer managed to kill the Russian ambassador in the most secure part of the Turkish capital city of Ankara.
Fukara-Der's links to ISIS were indirectly verified by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç during budget deliberations in the Turkish Parliament in 2015. In responding to a question on a Turkish government imam joining ISIS in Syria, Arınç said, "Unfortunately the participation of an imam in ISIS from the town of Bayramiç is true," adding that the imam was terminated from his government job on June 25, 2014.
What the deputy prime minister was referring was the case of 24-year-old Tahsin Baykara, who was assigned by the government to serve as an imam in the village of Kaykılar, located in Turkey's northwestern province of Çanakkale. Baykara took a leave of absence in June 2014 and never returned to resume his duties as an imam. The pro-ISIS Turkish news site islamicstate.media reported him as having joined ISIS in Syria.
General assembly minutes that show Turkey's deputy prime minister confirming the Turkish imam's defection to ISIS in Syria.
It turned out Baykara is a close friend of Süslü, the head of Fukara-Der. Both grew up in Adana province and worked closely at events organized by Fukara-Der as members of the charity group. "Tahsin was one of the people who frequented [meetings of] our association. He took assignments in various humanitarian aid campaigns for Syria," Süslü said of Baykara's trip to Syria to fight. He also added that the runaway imam had made a donation to Fukara-Der in the past.
The signs of the Turkish imam's radicalization were already out there in the public domain. In a Facebook message he posted on May 10, 2014, Baykara slammed his fellow imams serving in the border province of Adana, calling them "the walking dead." He said if they did not exert any efforts to help oppressed people in Syria, they would be better off jumping off a bridge. The imam's profile picture featured an unidentified jihadist fighter holding a shoulder-fired rocket launcher. Baykara reportedly took his elder brother Yasin (26) and younger brothers Hasan and Yusuf, both high school students, to Syria as well.
Fukara-Der's fundraising activities in the Netherlands attracted the attention of Dutch authorities, who were concerned that the funds might be channeled to terrorist groups in Syria. An investigation was launched into the group and its partner organizations in the Netherlands.
Süslü posted photographs on Facebook and Twitter showing that Fukara-Der had recently partnered with the Bremen-based Hilal-i Ummah e.V. charity organization, led by Turks in Germany.
Süslü and 13 other suspects were detained in Turkey in a dawn raid on January 13, 2019 in what authorities said was a crackdown on a group that recruited militants for Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. However, they were all released few days later, allowing the charity group to continue its work.
Fukara-Der, which was set up on Sept. 11, 2013 in the city of Seyhan in Adana province, mainly functions as a rear-end logistical support unit for the families of jihadists. In a June 2014 interview Süslü himself admitted that his priority was on the family members of jihadists.
Süslü admitted he initially wanted to work for the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH), a Turkish government-backed charity that was identified in United Nations Security Council documents as a conduit for providing arms and logistical support to jihadist groups in Syria and Libya. But he said his friends opted to establish a new and separate association for the mission.
Although Fukara-Der appears to be separate from the IHH on paper, in practice and on the ground Süslü actively works with the controversial group. The point man for Fukara-Der is Erhan Yemelek, the coordinator for Syrian operations for the IHH who led the IHH branch office in the border province of Kilis from where major logistical operations are channeled.
Interestingly enough, the IHH Kilis branch and several of its employees were the target of an investigation into al-Qaeda launched by prosecutors in the eastern province of Van. The investigators discovered that the al-Qaeda suspects were using IHH hubs with the full knowledge and approval of IHH officials to support jihadist groups in Syria. When police raided the IHH office in Kilis in January 2014 to detain the suspects and search the premises, then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan immediately intervened, sacked the investigators and quashed the probe.
The social media profile of Fukara-Der President Süslü shows he often retweets messages shared by the IHH's Yemelek as well as other known radical figures including Abdülkadir Şen, a suspect in the al-Qaeda probe. Abdülkadir's brother is İbrahim Şen, a convicted al-Qaeda terrorist who was running a recruitment and trafficking operation between Turkey and Syria and using the IHH, among others, as cover.
İbrahim Şen was detained in Pakistan on alleged al-Qaeda links and transferred to Guantanamo, where he was kept until 2005, before US officials decided to turn him over to Turkey. According to the investigation file in Turkey, he had been working with Turkey's MİT since the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011. Apparently due to his political cover from the government and a secret contract with MİT, Şen was saved from legal troubles. He was arrested in January 2014 and indicted in October 2014 but let go at the first hearing of the trial in October 2014.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.