A company office used as a dead drop and a meeting place for operatives of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force in Istanbul has resumed its activities after laying low for a while, a Nordic Monitor investigation has found.
Alban Yapı Ürünleri Tekstil Sanayi ve Dış Ticaret Ltd. Şti, a company that is licensed to operate in the import-export business and the sale of textile goods and construction materials, was identified by investigators in 2012 as a secret meeting place of Quds Force assets in Turkey. When the confidential investigation into the Quds Force was made public in February 2014 with the intervention of then-prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to derail and kill the probe, the company was exposed and forced to lie dormant for several years.
However Nordic Monitor has learned that the company was reactivated in 2020 with a new location in Istanbul, resuming operations on behalf of Iranian agents.
The company is owned Cemalettin Yılmaz Alban, who bought it in March 2004 from its original owners – Hasan Acin, Huseyin Acin and Mustafa Acin — who set it up as a printing and graphic design firm under the name Aycan Grafik Matbaa Sanayi ve Ticaret Ltd. Şti in January 1995. After the purchase, Yılmaz moved its location to the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul and changed its name.
Every two years since then, Alban has moved the firm to a new location to prevent it from being exposed and to make it difficult for investigators to identify Quds Force operations in the event they are compromised. This is a classic pattern that is often observed with Iran's shell and front companies in Turkey.
But that did not help when the police detected traces of Hüseyin Avni Yazıcıoğlu, one of the Quds Force's most valuable assets in Turkey who had been convicted in the past for his involvement in an Iranian-backed terrorist group but was released thanks to an amnesty bill pushed through parliament by Erdoğan.
Surveillance and wiretaps that were authorized by judges as part of the public prosecutor's 2011 investigation into the Quds Force network in Turkey identified the firm's office in the Fatih district of Istanbul as a gathering place to meet and pass information.
It was in this company's office that Yazıcıoğlu was writing reports that were based on secretly collected information by him and other Quds Force operatives and turning them over to his handler, Behnam Shahriyari, an IRGC Quds Force general who was operating in Turkey under the alias of Sayed Ali Akber Mir Vakili.
Handwritten notes passed to the police by Yazıcıoğlu's disgruntled wife, who turned out to be an informant in the case, covered a range of issues that Iran was interested in knowing more about such as the content of National Security Council (MGK) meetings, the Turkish government's plans concerning Iran and relations with the US and Israel. Tehran wanted to know where Turkey would position itself in the event of a war between Iran and Israel.
As part of his assignment, Yazıcıoğlu had made many trips to Ankara, met with various people including government officials, took notes and later compiled them into intelligence reports in the company's office. He also used the firm as a cover to gain access to industrial data exclusively provided to Turkish companies by the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB). Iran was very interested in collecting information on defense and arms manufacturing companies.
The surveillance records from March 2012 revealed that İbrahim Baysan (61), a long-time Quds Force asset, used the company office as a dead drop to pass documents to Yazıcıoğlu. The documents, obtained by the police, included information about Numan Kiliç and Yasir Hüseyin Güngör, who were applying for entry positions with Turkish intelligence agency MIT. Apparently, the Quds Force was plotting to infiltrate the spy agency and was working on ways and means to make sure the candidates would be cleared for employment.
In a wiretapped conversation on March 26, 2012, Baysan asked Yazıcıoğlu to pull strings on behalf of some of the candidates and wanted to meet in person to deliver the documents and discuss the matter. When Yazıcıoğlu said couldn't make time, both agreed that the documents should be dropped at Alban's office on Şehit Teğmen Mehmet Sarper Alus No:10/2 in Fatih's Akşemsettin neighborhood. Police photographed Baysan as he was entering the office holding an envelope that contained the documents.
Investigators managed to determine Yazıcıoğlu's connection to Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish intelligence agency, and collected significant evidence on the decades-long working relationship between the two. Yazıcıoğlu knew Fidan him from the 1990s, when Fidan, then a noncommissioned officer, was attending Shiite study circles organized by Iranian operatives in Ankara. In a seized archive of the Quds Force's Turkish network, Tevhid Selam, during a police raid on a safe house in Istanbul in 2000, Fidan was codenamed Metin and was also referred to as Emin (meaning a trusted man) who supports Iran's mullah regime and despises the West, especially the US and Israel.
Baysan knew all about these close relations and was handing over documents to Yazıcıoğlu, thinking he would lobby Fidan to make sure the candidates would be hired by the agency without much trouble.
The investigation also uncovered that Baysan had been working in a cell led by Yazıcıoğlu since 1993 and was on the payroll of the Quds Force. The financial transactions obtained by the police showed that he received a regular payment from the money distributed by Iran for their assets in Turkey. In several wiretaps Yazıcıoğlu was heard talking to Baysan about these payments and how much money he would be wiring to him.
The Quds Force intelligence note listed Baysan as an "exceptionally trusted" man who would never blow the whistle on his comrades. In fact, the note said when Baysan was imprisoned, he kept his mouth shut and proved his loyalty to the Quds Force. Baysan, coming from a nationalist Grey Wolf background, was recruited when he was doing time in prison between 1980 and 1989. Described as "idealist," the note stated that Baysan was after big projects and would not be satisfied with small assignments.
The trade registry data from February 2020 indicates that Alban resumed operations in a new location in an organized industrial zone in Ikitelli, part of Istanbul's conservative Basaksehir district (Ikitelli Osb Mahallesi Keresteciler 23. Вlok Sk. Keresteciler Sanayi Sit. 23. Blok Apt. No: 41 Basaksehir/Istanbul). New family members Muhammet Enes Alban and Mucahit Alban were brought into the company as managers. The filing also reveals that the company expanded its portfolio and listed dozens of fields it wanted to operate in both in Turkey and abroad. The company received a fresh infusion of capital In April 2021.
Baysan and the other suspects were not held to account because the Erdoğan government hushed the investigation up in February 2014 after learning about the probe and prevented the case from moving to court. The investigating prosecutor was sacked before he had a chance to secure detention warrants for the suspects or file an indictment. The suspects avoided the long arm of the law thanks to the intervention of Erdoğan, who apparently protected pro-Iranian assets and helped their Quds Force handlers escape from Turkey.
Irfan Fidan, the new prosecutor, personally selected by Erdoğan to torpedo the Quds Force probe, dropped all the charges against the Iranian and Turkish nationals who were identified as part of Quds Force cells. Fidan also launched a new criminal case against everyone who was involved in the investigation into the Quds Force and ordered the detention of the police chiefs who uncovered the sophisticated Iranian network in Turkey. Fidan was rewarded by the Erdoğan government for squelching the probe and appointed as a member of the Constitutional Court in 2020.
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.