Talks between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates as part of the normalization of bilateral relations after a tense several years have apparently resulted in the release of a Turkish al-Qaeda militant who was convicted and serving a life sentence in the Gulf state.
Mehmet Ali Öztürk, 54, from the Turkish province of Mersin, set up and ran a jihadist network in 2012 in Turkey and Syria and pursued projects in Iraq and the African countries of Malawi and Madagascar. He was one of many assets used by Turkish intelligence agency MIT in arming and training Turkmen groups in Syria.
Öztürk was detained in Dubai on February 20, 2018 during a trip with his wife purportedly to attend a fair on behalf of the family company, BLC Bakliyat İç ve Dış Ticaret Limited Şirketi, a food wholesaler based in Mersin. His trip was endorsed by the Turkish government.
The next day he was referred to the prosecutor's office, was transferred to Abu Dhabi and put into pre-trial detention. On September 6, 2018 the prosecutor indicted him on five counts ranging from membership in the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham to providing funds and logistical support for these organizations.
His first hearing took place on October 3, 2018 on charges that he supported terrorist organizations. At the end of the trial on December 25, 2018 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The verdict was upheld by an appeals court in May 2019. He was incarcerated at Al Wathba Prison in Abu Dhabi.
The Turkish Embassy closely followed his case and even sent a consular officer to monitor the hearings. The lobbying efforts of Turkish diplomats in Abu Dhabi to secure Öztürk's release failed.
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to mend fences with the Abu Dhabi government and tone down harsh criticism of the Emirati rulers after years of tense relations. Ankara had accused Abu Dhabi of sponsoring a failed coup in 2016 and of stoking tensions in the Middle East. Both countries backed opposing groups in Libya, and Turkey sided with Qatar during Doha's isolation by a group led by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Facing troubles in the domestic economy, Erdoğan decided last year to normalize relations with the UAE in the hope of attracting investment and trade. The first public display of rapprochement was seen when UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan was received in Ankara by President Erdoğan on August 18, 2021. The meeting was followed by a phone call between Erdoğan and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, on August 31.
Months-long talks between the Turkish and UAE delegations as they tried to iron out differences before Erdoğan made an official visit to the UAE in February 2022 covered several agreements including release of Öztürk from prison and his return to Turkey on November 29, 2021. The release came five days after the crown prince made an official visit to Turkey on November 24, 2021.
Öztürk moved funds and supplies to jihadists in Syria using his association, Bayırbucak Türkmen Dağı Kültür Eğitim ve Yardımlaşma Dernegi, a front organization that worked closely with Turkish intelligence. He helped recruit many Turkish jihadists to fight in Syria and gave speeches praising the Syrian jihad at many gatherings in Turkey. Several of Öztürk's associates were photographed dressed in army fatigues with AK-47s.
He also collaborated with the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH), a Turkish charity group that is linked to al-Qaeda and works in cooperation with Turkish intelligence.
In a September 2016 interview on Turkish TV, Öztürk admitted that there were many Turks who volunteer to work as intelligence agents to stir up trouble in the Middle East from Yemen to Egypt while working under the cover of civil society organizations.
Now a free man back in Turkey, Öztürk picked up from where he left off and is frequently featured as a keynote speaker at various gatherings in the country.
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.