Osama bin Laden proposed attacking a Turkish military base used by the United States, but militants stymied by tight security bombed civilian targets instead, killing Muslims and upsetting al-Qaida leaders, Turkish officials told The Associated Press.
The information came from interrogations of a top suspect in last month’s deadly bombings in Istanbul that authorities believe were carried out by Turkish militants trained by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, according to the officials.
The suspect, Fevzi Yitiz, told interrogators that bin Laden approved attacks in Turkey on condition that Turks were not killed, a top intelligence source told the AP this week.
But the militants instead bombed two synagogues, a London-based bank and the British Consulate, killing 62 people, mostly Muslims.
The attacks appear to be part of a growing trend in terrorism — bombings by al-Qaida trained activists who have returned to their home countries and are maintaining only weak ties with the central group, terrorism experts say.
“They planned and carried out the attack independently after receiving the blessing of bin Laden,” said the Turkish intelligence official who is part of the investigation. The official and others spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Istanbul bombings, simultaneous attacks against two synagogues on Nov. 15 and two attacks against British targets only five days later, bore the signature of al-Qaida, an anti-terrorism police official said. The attacks killed 62 people.
A break in the case came when Yitiz was arrested on Dec. 10 after infiltrating Turkey from Iran, a police official said.
Seeking bin Laden's approval
Yitiz, a bearded man who appears to be about 30, confessed to police that he was trained by al-Qaida in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 1994 and helped make the bombs used in the attacks inside a front workshop called “Rainbow Detergents” that was set up in an industrial section of Istanbul, the police official said.
Yitiz told police that two of his accomplices — Habib Aktas and Ibrahim Kus, who have been identified as key suspects — met with bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2002, the intelligence official said.
The two militants told bin Laden “they wanted to do something in Turkey for the jihad,” the intelligence official said. Yitiz told police bin Laden replied, “I am approving it on condition that it is directed against the Americans and their allies but not the Turks.”
The killing of mostly Muslim Turks led top al-Qaida officials to criticize the attacks, according to Yitiz, the intelligence official said.
Yitiz said he heard from Aktas, who had fled to Iran before the attacks, that al-Qaida “considered the bombings as a failure because it mostly killed Muslim Turks,” the intelligence official said.
The information attributed to Yitiz was based on his meetings with other accomplices in Turkey and recently in Iran, officials said.
Almost all of the world’s terrorist attacks attributed to al-Qaida or groups linked to the terror network since the Sept. 11 terror attacks have taken place in Muslim countries — including Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen.
Bin Laden, during his meeting with Aktas and Kus, first suggested an attack against Incirlik Air Base, a sprawling facility used by U.S. troops, or U.S. or Israeli ships using the Mediterranean port of Mersin, according to the police description of Yitiz’ interrogation.
But security at the air base and the Mersin harbor made the attack too difficult. Coast guard cutters protect the harbor and Turkish forces patrol the base’s perimeters. A high wall also was erected around the base before the Iraq war.
That forced the alleged conspirators, Aktas, Kus and Azad Ekinci — all of whom are believed to have trained in Afghanistan — to change the attack plans, the police official said.
It took a few months for the attackers to pick new targets and recruit four suicide bombers, the police said. Binoculars, wireless radios and cameras were seized in raids after the attacks.
Turkey has been chasing possible links between local Islamic groups and al-Qaida since a notebook containing instructions in Turkish on how to carry out suicide bombings was found in a deserted al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in 2001.
Path to terrorism
Yitiz’s purported path to a bombmaker illustrates how terror groups have been able to recruit disgruntled radical Muslims.
Yitiz is from Van, a poor province bordering Iran, police said. After graduating from high school he attended a university in Pakistan at the prodding of some radical Islamic friends, the intelligence official said.
Broke and far from home, he was drawn to an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan, where he was told that he could study Quran and Islam for free, the intelligence official said.
It was not clear whether Yitiz had other training or maintained direct links with al-Qaida leaders after 1994 in Afghanistan.
He later returned to Van and worked in a restaurant. Then he traveled to Istanbul, where he began to sympathize with Turkish Hezbollah, a radical group not related to the Lebanese group of the same name, the intelligence official said.
Yitiz was briefly detained by police in 1998 and questioned about his ties to Hezbollah, which is not suspected of playing a role in the Istanbul attacks. He reportedly traveled to the Netherlands and to Iran for business.
His brother, Servet, told the Hurriyet daily that Yitiz found himself jobless in Van, and left for Istanbul seven or eight months ago, telling his family that he started selling detergent. The detergent business, however, was allegedly a cover for bombmaking.