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Al-Qaeda’s hand in Istanbul plot

Interrogation tapes provide a rare look at the inner workings of a 2003 al-Qaida-linked terrorist plot.
Burned vehicles are seen after an explosion outside the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey, on Nov. 15, 2003. The blast was one of four truck bombings in Istanbul that month that were linked to al-Qaida.
Burned vehicles are seen after an explosion outside the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey, on Nov. 15, 2003. The blast was one of four truck bombings in Istanbul that month that were linked to al-Qaida.Murad Sezer / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

About a week before Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden sat down to a breakfast meeting in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. His Turkish guests had arrived with a plan for a spectacular terrorist strike, but according to accounts two of the visitors later gave investigators, there was no talk of business over the meal.

Instead, bin Laden held forth for an hour about the injustices Muslims were suffering at the hands of Israel and the United States, standard motivational remarks tailored slightly for the occasion: He told the visitors that one of his grandmothers was Turkish.

Afterward, outside the one-story house guarded by high walls and men with Kalashnikov rifles, it was al-Qaeda's military commander who gave the visitors $10,000 in cash and crucial words of guidance.

So began a plot that ended in November 2003 with the staggered detonation of four powerful truck bombs in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city. The attacks, which killed 58 people and wounded 750, may have been the last terrorist strikes specifically authorized by bin Laden. Two months after breakfasting with the Turks, bin Laden was making for his base at Tora Bora as U.S.-led forces attacked across Afghanistan.

In the fevered days after the Istanbul explosions, Turkish investigators swept up suspects by the dozens. In police interrogation rooms, many spoke at length about the conspiracy and the motivations driving it. Transcripts of those interrogations, as entered into evidence in the continuing trial of about 70 defendants in Istanbul, provide a rare, fine-grained look at the inner workings of a terrorist bomb plot. This report is based on those documents and interviews with those who knew the accused plotters.

"The aim of this organization is to take action against American and Israeli targets and to break their dominance over Islamic countries," said one suspect, explaining a conspiracy conceived long before the United States sent troops to Iraq.

"The Islamic umma are being oppressed," said another, using the Arabic word for the global Muslim community.

According to the transcripts, bin Laden's breakfast guests had already organized themselves into a cell before they approached al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. There they specifically declined to pledge allegiance to the organization, but asked for its help and blessing. The only al-Qaeda operative charged in the case is a flamboyant Syrian, Louai Sakka, who delivered to the conspirators $100,000 rolled in a sock.

But the youthful Turks who stealthily carried the plot forward were hardly international men of mystery. Those who agreed to die in the truck bombings first had to be taught how to drive. "We are different from al-Qaeda in terms of structure," said Yusuf Polat, who told police he served as a lookout at the first target, a synagogue. "But our views and our actions are in harmony."

A written pledge
In 2000, four men gathered on the outdoor terrace of a textile factory in the center of Istanbul. One by one, they vowed to fight what they saw as the international oppression of Islam. Polat, a fair-haired Turk who made a living selling socks and toys at an open-air bazaar, recalled that their written pledge ended with the words "or else there will be punishment."

The setting was fitting. Most of Istanbul's 12 million residents are economic migrants from Turkey's conservative Anatolian heartland. Many find work in textile mills.

Another common thread, at least for the group's leaders, was travel to Afghanistan for military training in the 1990s. Turkey is officially secular. But in the 1980s and '90s, when Turkey was waging a dirty war against ethnic Kurdish separatists, the government secretly encouraged violent religious organizations that opposed the rebels. Officials looked away when Turks traveled to fight alongside Muslim militants in Chechnya or Bosnia, whose populations retained ties to Turkey dating to the Ottoman Empire.

Habib Aktas, black-haired and sturdy, was said to have fought in Chechnya and Bosnia, in addition to attending Afghan training camps. A native of Mardin, an ancient Turkish city where Arabic is still spoken, he became head of the group formed on the terrace of Haksan Co. He hosted study groups dedicated to memorizing the Koran and indoctrinating new members "in how beautiful Osama bin Laden's path was, making jihad," said one attendee. Aktas showed videos excoriating Israel and the United States and charged attendees $3 to attend jihadist picnics in the hills above the Black Sea.

"You don't have to go abroad to fulfill your duties," he declared at one meeting, a suspect recalled. "You can also make jihad here."

The original plan involved no bombs. Aktas's group would stage a spectacular assault on a gathering of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association, a group known as TUSIAD that one suspect noted included "a lot of Jewish bosses."

"The idea," said Baki Yigit, one of the men who met bin Laden, "was to bust into a TUSIAD meeting with 10 or 15 people and ask for ransom for all members, to collect a million dollars, provide a plane and come back to Afghanistan. If anything went wrong, they would kill all the TUSIAD members and martyr themselves."

In Kandahar, al-Qaeda's military chief, Muhammad Atef, who was known to the Turks by his alias, Abu Hafs al-Masri, observed that 15 men would be a lot to lose in one operation. He suggested truck bombs. Aktas deferred to the expert, then hastened back to Turkey after Sept. 11, anticipating the American attack on Afghanistan that would leave Atef dead.

Warehouse full of explosives
By May 2002, the Istanbul plot was underway. After toying with purchasing a quarry as an excuse for buying explosives, Aktas rented an industrial workshop for $850 a month in a part of Istanbul that lies on the European side of the Bosporus Strait. "Rainbow Detergent" read the sign out front. The windows were painted over.

"They were not friendly at all. They were very closed people, " said Ulku Yerlikaya, who tended a shop across the road. "They came to work at night."

Inside, Aktas set up a boiler, cooking down an acid into which he spooned hydrogen peroxide, following a recipe apparently learned in the Afghan training camps. The mixture was spread on the floor to dry, then packed into 100-pound fertilizer bags. Each was fitted with a fuse fashioned from wires and aluminum pipe by Gurcan Bac, another camp veteran, who spent hours on the Internet gathering information "from chats," one confederate told investigators.

The end product was loaded onto four covered pickup trucks purchased with cash Aktas kept in a safe-deposit box. Each truck, registered to relatives of the conspirators, carried two tons of the explosive concoction.

Cell leaders enforced a strict tradecraft. When plot participants gathered for meetings, usually late at night, they turned off cellphones, removed their batteries and unplugged radios against the possibility these devices might be used for surveillance by Turkish intelligence.

"Don't put your nose in other people's business," Fevzi Yitiz said he was told after asking about the cost of the bombs that he slept beside in the warehouse.

There were other precautions. In March 2003, after the capture in Pakistan of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, who investigators say was an architect of the Sept. 11 plot, cell leaders cut off contact with the one Turk who had remained in Pakistan as a contact point with al-Qaeda.

"Secrecy is important," said defendant Adnan Ersoz. "You wouldn't know who studied in which study group. Suicide bombers were approached privately."

The four bombers
Yitiz was approached three times -- first in August 2003 by Aktas, a few days later by Bac, then by both "together, insistently."

"But I did not accept," he said.

Of the four who did, two were from the same town in eastern Turkey. Mesut Cabuk and Gokhan Elaltuntas had traveled together to Pakistan and returned wearing beards and gowns. Before the bombings they told their families they were going to Istanbul to open a computer shop.

In an apartment in Istanbul, a third bomber, Feridun Ugurlu, spent hours underlining passages in what his brother described to police as "radical Islamic books." Since returning from Pakistan in 1996, Ugurlu had been a sullen presence in his parents' home. He spoke little, except to press on his relatives volumes that promoted a purist line of Islam known as Salafism.

"I'm old enough to make the distinction between good and bad," his brother Suleyman recalled Ugurlu telling his father. "Don't put your nose in my life."

The fourth bomber was Ilyas Kuncak, 47, a spice merchant. Bearded and pious, he gave no hint of a secret life. "It's funny, because when he came back from military service, he was a communist," Abdullah Karadag, a family friend, said in an interview. "He had long hair. In these fights, left versus right, he was on the left, fighting against what he became."

In his final days Kuncak ate little, spoke less and laughed not at all, his wife noticed. But "the family is innocent," Karadag said. "The guilt lies only with brother Ilyas, and there's nothing much left of him to blame either."

'The time has come'
"Dress like a groom," Aktas said, pressing the Turkish lira equivalent of $100 in the hand of Yusuf Polat. It was a few days before the first attack. Next, Aktas handed over a new Nokia cellphone, model 3315, gunmetal gray. The speed dial was programmed with three names: Mahmut, Ahmet and Rashit -- coded, like the words the sock salesman was to speak into the phone.

"The time has come," Aktas announced.

Polat's job was to stand outside the Beth Israel synagogue in the busy commercial neighborhood known as Sisli. If the road in front of the temple was clear, he was to hit the speed dial and say, "Mahmut Bey, come and take your 1 billion."

If the road was blocked and the truck was to head instead toward the rear entrance, the amount to mention was "2 billion."

"I got it," Polat told Aktas. Aktas gave Polat another $1,500 for getaway money and a new ID.

On Saturday, Nov. 15, Polat watched as Jewish worshipers arrived for the weekly service. At 9 a.m. the road was clear. He dialed. "Come and take your 1 billion." The voice in his ear replied with a Turkish saying that has a religious overtone: "If we don't see each other again, we're all square."

"We're square," Polat replied.

A moment later, another leader called to say there would be no more contact. Following instruction, Polat opened the Nokia and removed an electronic card containing subscriber information. He broke it and threw it away. Eight minutes later he felt the earth shake, then sirens. The phone he also broke in two on his way home, tossing the pieces into the garden of a bread factory.

At his home, he changed clothes and turned on the television. It showed scenes of carnage created by a second explosion, this one at another synagogue, where a bar mitzvah was underway. "And I started to regret, watching the pictures on TV," Polat said.

Ugurlu phoned him and came to see him, edgy. The police had already broken down the door of his father. Ugurlu talked about the men who had driven the trucks. "He said one of these people was going to be married a month later," Polat later told police. "He said, 'He's married to the angels now.' "

The final two bombs were detonated five days later. Just before 11 a.m. on Nov. 20, with the city still on edge, Ugurlu steered a pickup truck packed with explosives into the front gate of the British Consulate, killing 17 people, including the British consul. Kuncak blew up his truck outside the London-based HSBC Bank, killing 11.

On to Syria, Iraq, and Iran
By then, Aktas was in Syria with other organizers, one of whom crossed the frontier with a load of underwear meant to make him look like a merchant headed to market. They made their way to Aleppo, where Sakka, the Syrian al-Qaeda man, had a house. Hiding in it, they cheered the televised coverage of the bombings. They laid low for five months, then made their way into Iraq, according to evidence from two suspects interrogated in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

In Iraq, Sakka served as a senior lieutenant to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sakka, his features altered by plastic surgery, was captured in the Turkish resort town of Antalya while allegedly making final preparations for an attack on a cruise ship. He apparently planned to survive by escaping on an underwater scooter.

The Abu Ghraib prisoners said Aktas later died in Fallujah, scene of repeated fighting between Sunni insurgents and U.S. troops.

Equipped with a Hotmail address for Aktas and $1,200, Yitiz went by bus to Tehran, where he met another fleeing conspirator. For hours, the two wandered in a park talking about the carnage. Within days, each returned to Turkey to surrender. "I had no idea that innocent people were going to be hurt," Yitiz maintained. "I did not even guess that."

Polat was arrested trying to leave Turkey.

The man whose job it was to awaken the four drivers on the day of their deaths, Harun Ilhan, was captured in southwest Turkey. He told police he had traveled overland, staying with friends along the way.

"In these friendly circles, people were talking about the explosions. Nobody knew anything about them other than me," he said. "People were saying that people who did this could not be Muslims. I did not say anything. I remained silent."