Abu Ubaida, the spokesperson for Hamas's military wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, has gained prominence in the office of Hamas-aligned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and among radical Islamist groups in Turkey.
In these circles Abu Ubaida has been lauded as a hero, and the unexpected terrorist attacks executed by the al-Qassam Brigades against civilian and military targets on October 7 were celebrated as a significant triumph against Israel.
On November 12 Oktay Saral, a chief advisor to President Erdogan, posted a tweet on X, formerly known as Twitter, that described Abu Ubaida as the commander of the blessed warriors who steadfastly combat Zionism with unwavering faith for the sake of Allah and the homeland.
"His words have such an impact on hearts that the whole world is captivated by him. Despite the indifference of many Islamic countries, he is the most blessed soldier of Islam! Victory is near, Inshallah!" he added.
Saral's portrayal of the terrorist group reflects the prevailing sentiment in the Erdogan government, which has consistently refrained from categorizing the militant organization as a terrorist entity. President Erdogan, in particular, has staunchly defended Hamas, rebuffing allegations of terrorism against the Palestinian group. During a parliamentary address on October 25, he asserted, "Hamas is not a terrorist organization but rather a group of liberators and mujahideen fighting to protect their land and citizens." This characterization has been reiterated on multiple occasions since then.
Yücel Arzen Hacıoğulları, a lawmaker from Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a composer, went so far as to create a song dedicated to Abu Ubaida, extolling him in lyrics as "Allah's lion" and urging the al-Qassam Brigades to persist in striking Israel. Although the video was promptly removed from YouTube for violating user policies, it continued to circulate widely through various channels still accessible to the Turkish audience on platforms such as DailyMotion.
With unequivocal government support, numerous Turkish organizations have displayed banners featuring large images of Abu Ubaida on the facades of buildings and on bridges, historic monuments and various structures throughout Turkey. In demonstrations, individuals have gone to the extent of dressing like Abu Ubaida, parading on the streets in a show of solidarity with the al-Qassam Brigades.
A distinct message was conveyed when Abu Ubaida's banner was suspended over the pedestrian overpass on a highway connecting the airport to Ankara city center, precisely as the plane of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken touched down late at night on October 5. Government-controlled newspapers in Turkey characterized the display of Abu Ubaida's image just before Blinken's motorcade passed the overpass as a deliberate message from Ankara to Washington.
The campaign to elevate Abu Ubaida as a role model for Turkish Islamists has proven effective in inspiring individuals to join the fight against Israel. Two Turkish jihadists, Yakup Erdal and Seyfullah Bilal Öztürk, recently traveled to Lebanon, where they enlisted in Hamas's military wing, the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades.
They were killed in Tyre, a southern city just seven miles from the Israeli border, on November 21, as a result of an Israeli drone strike. Both were reportedly operating under the command of Khalil Hamad Kharaz Abu Khaled, the leader of the Lebanese branch of the al-Qassam Brigades.
The driving force behind the campaign to dispatch Turkish jihadists can be traced to Iran-supported networks in Turkey, notably the Tevhid Selam group. This organization, cultivated by Iran's Quds Force, along with Hizbullah, which primarily targets the Kurdish population of Turkey with support from Iran, has played a pivotal role. Despite facing crackdowns in the past for involvement in terrorist activities, both groups have experienced a resurgence during two-decade time in power of the Erdogan government.
In a statement issued on October 13, Edip Gümüş, the supreme religious leader of Turkey's Hizbullah and an ally of President Erdogan's Islamist government, publicly called for a global jihad against Israel. "Hurry up for jihad. Come to jihad and come to salvation. Especially those of you who are neighbors and close to the lands of Palestine, do not leave our Gazan brothers alone. Render the borders meaningless, pour in and join your Palestinian jihadist brothers," he exhorted.
"Fight shoulder to shoulder with the mujahideen against the Zionist enemy, and those who have no opportunity to fight, those with unfavorable conditions should strive to create opportunities and conditions [for combat]," he added. "Be like the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and strike fear into their [Jews'] hearts," Gümüş urged.
Exactly in line with Hizbullah's call, the two Turkish jihadists who were killed in Lebanon had responded by joining the jihad, exemplifying the impact of such appeals from the organization.
On social media, Islamist groups have been actively disseminating videos of Abu Ubaida with Turkish subtitles, aiming to invigorate their followers and attract new recruits. Individuals have been observed changing their profile photos to images of Abu Ubaida. There are several Turkish accounts on X operating under Abu Ubaida's name, with one account amassing nearly 80,000 followers, illustrating the significant online presence and influence associated with the promotion of Abu Ubaida among Turkish audiences on social media platforms.
The Abu Ubaida campaign in Turkey raises concerns about the potential for increased radicalization in the predominantly Muslim nation of 85 million. The government's open support for such campaigns on behalf of Hamas suggests that there may be no or limited measures taken by law enforcement and criminal justice system in Turkey to counteract this trend.
Compounding matters further, senior officials who had previously investigated and aided in the prosecution of radical Islamist groups were summarily and arbitrarily purged from both the police force and the judiciary by the Erdogan government between 2014 and 2017. This purge extended to the release of imprisoned radicals, including those serving life sentences for serious offenses such as murder. Such actions have sent a chilling message throughout law enforcement and the judiciary, fostering an environment where government-aligned radical groups are perceived as untouchable.
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.