Turkey nabs bombing suspect amid Idlib effort – is it a coincidence?

Turkey’s capture of the alleged mastermind of the 2013 Reyhanli bombing — the biggest Syria-related injury it has suffered — had intriguing timing, coinciding with Ankara’s efforts to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.

al-monitor A man checks an apartment of a damaged building at the site of a blast in the town of Reyhanli in Hatay province, near the Turkish-Syrian border, May 13, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.
Fehim Tastekin

Fehim Tastekin


Topics covered


Sep 20, 2018

While moving military reinforcements to the Syrian border amid lingering tensions over Idlib, Turkey conducted an intriguing intelligence operation. On Sept. 12, Ankara announced that Yusuf Nazik, the accused mastermind of a 2013 twin car bombing in Reyhanli that claimed 53 lives, had been captured in the Syrian province of Latakia and brought to Turkey by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT).

Public broadcaster TRT initially claimed that Nazik, a Turkish national, had been captured in a joint operation with Syrian intelligence. The channel removed the claim from its ensuing bulletins, while the state-run Anatolia news agency emphasized that the operation was accomplished entirely with national resources.

In a confession video released to the media, Nazik said he received the order for the Reyhanli attack from the Syrian intelligence service, known as the mukhabarat. He said he then brought the explosives from Syria and had them planted in the vehicles. He made the following appeal: “I’m calling on my fellows in Syria to turn back while they still can. The Turkish state, our own state, will take care of us. I'm calling also on the Syrian state: The Turkish state is a great state and it will certainly bring you to account.”

During the 2014 trial over the Reyhanli attack, Nazik was indicted in absentia along with eight other suspects. In the final hearing on Feb. 23, nine out of 33 defendants were sentenced to life in prison, while 13 others got jail terms of up to 15 years. Yet, questions over the attack, stirred by some testimonies during the trial, lingered after the convictions. Who was really behind the carnage? And why did the security forces fail to prevent the attack when they had advance intelligence?

The No. 1 suspect, Nasir Eskiocak, claimed that Nazik, who was involved in smuggling activities, had frequently communicated with two MIT operatives and then-Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin via a special telephone line. Eskiocak — captured by the Free Syrian Army in Syria and handed over to Turkey — told the court, “We discussed things with Yusuf Nazik and the two MIT members in his company. I was told that narcotics would arrive by sea and that I should load them on cars and take them to Reyhanli. The two MIT members gave me assurances that nothing would happen to me. I did not know that those were explosives.”

Some defendants claimed they fell into a trap set by Heysem Topalca, a Turkmen commander in the Free Syrian Army who allegedly collaborated with MIT in delivering weapons to militants in Syria. The defendants argued that they had made hidden storage spaces in the minivans for smuggling, unaware they would be used to conceal explosives. In remarks to journalists while in Syria, Nazik also blamed Topalca for the bombings.

Topalca’s name had previously been embroiled in another controversy: the November 2013 seizure of a truck in Turkey’s southern province of Adana that turned out to belong to MIT. He also had links to the Islamic State militants involved in the deadly 2014 attack on Turkish security forces on a road in Nigde. According to a Turkish police report, Topalca entered and exited Turkey 873 times from 2011 to 2014.

Among those who followed the Reyhanli trial closely was Refik Eryilmaz, then a main opposition deputy for Hatay province, where Reyhanli is located. He called for the creation of a parliamentary inquiry commission to uncover who orchestrated the attack and to expose any officials whose negligence allowed the assailants to strike on May 11, 2013. His appeal remained unanswered, although negligence on behalf of the security forces was obvious.

According to the indictment, the Hatay police received a tip about the plot on May 8, 2013, three days before the attack. Judicial procedures began the following day. MIT was able to identify the suspects as well as the license plates of the two minivans laden with explosives. MIT passed that information to the police on May 10. The security forces began to surveil Eskiocak and wire-tapped Nazik, who had already been monitored in 2012 after a similar tip. Roadside checkpoints in the region were set up on May 8, but were halted inexplicably on May 11, the day of the attack. Despite MIT’s May 10 intelligence notice, regional police units received no wireless alert. In short, the circumstances laid out in the indictment suggest that the security forces failed to stop the attack even though the suspects and the explosive-laden vehicles were identified. Moreover, it turned out that the police’s security cameras in Reyhanli were out of order at the time of the attack.

The prosecutor of the case, Ozcan Sisman, is now in jail as part of a crackdown on followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Ankara holds the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, or FETO, responsible for the 2016 coup attempt, among other crimes. In a written response to questions by Cumhuriyet from prison in 2015, Sisman said an MIT official came to him three days before the attack, asking him to launch an operation. But Sisman questioned why the intelligence organization did not use its own prevention authorities. He claimed that MIT’s May 10 intelligence notice was casually left with the policeman on guard at the gate of the police department, without any warning of urgency. Eventually, the negligence charges, along with the case over the arms-laden MIT trucks, turned into a probe into FETO, in which two police officers were convicted and a third officer remains on trial.

The Reyhanli probe proceeded in a climate of pressure emanating from Ankara’s Syria policy. Government officials blamed Damascus right off the bat, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the dead as “53 Sunni citizens of ours,” targeting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite identity Erdogan has often highlighted. Later, pro-government media and Justice and Development Party officials frequently referenced the Reyhanli attack in calls for military intervention to topple the Assad regime.

The Nazik operation comes amid disagreements with Russia over the prospect of a large-scale offensive on Idlib. Ankara apparently sees its military observation posts in Idlib as a shield to armed groups based in the region. “The presence of Turkish soldiers there is probably the only guarantee to prevent any major assault because the Russian jet fighters and the regime ground forces cannot afford attacks while Turkish soldiers are there,” presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin wrote in a Sept. 8 opinion piece in the Daily Sabah. Amid the military buildup at the Syrian border, the resurfacing of the Reyhanli file makes one question whether the Turkish people are being psychologically prepared for a possible “adventure” in Idlib.

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