Image: Al-Saqa
Murad Sezer  /  AP file
Loa'i Mohammad Haj Bakr al-Saqa, center, shouts "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is great," as he leaves a courthouse in Istanbul, Turkey, in August.
updated 2/10/2006 8:21:24 PM ET 2006-02-11T01:21:24

A Syrian was charged Friday with masterminding suicide bombings that killed 58 people in Istanbul, and Turkish prosecutors claimed that Osama bin Laden personally ordered him to carry out terror attacks in this pro-Western country.

Loa’i Mohammad Haj Bakr al-Saqa, 32, was accused of serving as a point man between al-Qaida and homegrown militants behind the series of suicide bombings in Istanbul in 2003, said the indictment. It said al-Saqa gave the Turkish militants about $170,000.

Al-Saqa had cosmetic surgery, according to a medical report, and operated by using an array of fake IDs and employing aliases even with his al-Qaida contacts, according to the indictment. Several accused Turkish al-Qaida suspects recognized al-Saqa’s photos but identified him with different names, most calling him “Syrian Alaaddin.”

He was charged, according to the indictment, with “attempting to overthrow the constitutional (secular) regime.”

The prosecutor’s office demanded life in prison for al-Saqa and identified him as “a high-level al-Qaida official with a special mission.”

Unclear where al-Saqa met with bin Laden
The office released only a summary of the long indictment, which came after a six-month investigation. The summary mentioned bin Laden’s personal order but did not say when or where al-Saqa met with the al-Qaida leader. In the past, prosecutors have said al-Saqa was trained in an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan.

Al-Saqa’s lawyer, Osman Karahan, was not available for comment.

Al-Saqa has already been sentenced in absentia by Jordan, along with al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for a failed plot to attack Americans and Israelis in Jordan with poison gas during millennium celebrations.

He was captured in Turkey in August after an alleged failed plot to attack Israeli cruise ships in the Mediterranean.

The indictment said al-Saqa had bought a yacht for about $7,000 as well as an underwater scooter to be used in that attack. Al-Saqa also bought an apartment for about $350,000 in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya for use as a safe house, it added.

Identifying himself as a guerrilla fighter, al-Saqa admitted to failed plans to make a bomb and stage an attack on Israeli tourist ships.

“I was going to blow up the Israeli ship in international waters,” al-Saqa told Turkish prosecutors in testimony.

Al-Saqa and his Syrian accomplice, Hamid Obysi, were captured after an accidental explosion forced them to flee the safe house in Antalya.

More than 70 others on trial
The Turkish prosecutor’s office demanded that Obysi be convicted and sentenced to up to 35 years in prison for membership in a terrorist group. The two were expected to be tried along with more than 70 other al-Qaida suspects already on trial for carrying out the Istanbul suicide bombings. The next hearing in the main al-Qaida trial is scheduled for March 20.

The November 2003 bombings destroyed a British bank, the British Consulate and two synagogues.

Until recent years, al-Saqa was not well-known in international intelligence circles despite his conviction in absentia in 2002. The Syrian has since emerged as a key al-Qaida operative in Turkey and the Middle East.

The indictment laid out with precision the extraordinary measures al-Saqa allegedly took to keep the plot secret:

  • Two Turkish terror suspects interrogated by Turkish, U.S. and British authorities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq said al-Saqa served as a connection between the Istanbul bombers and al-Qaida.
  • Al-Saqa testified that he sent $50,000 to the bombers with a courier after discussing it with al-Zarqawi.
  • Al-Saqa also said he separately handed over some $110,000 to two Turkish ring leaders in late 2002, adding that he brought the money in euros to decrease the volume of banknotes and had stashed them into a sock. He said he later gave another $10,000 to Akdas in 2003.

Turkish police later came to realize they had captured and deported al-Saqa — without knowing his real identity — in March 2003 for carrying a fake Syrian passport. He even registered at a Turkish language course with a fake ID at the Istanbul University.

Al-Saqa, who is implicated in the execution of at least one Turkish truck driver by insurgents in Iraq, was also accused of bombmaking and smuggling explosives into Turkey. The Syrian also said he arranged for some Turkish militants to meet with al-Zarqawi in Iraq to join the insurgency, the indictment said.

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