x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Turkey arrests 150 suspects accused of plotting attacks on soldiers in Afghanistan

Security forces arrest members of al Qa'eda, some of whom are accused of plotting attacks against Turkish soldiers.

ISTANBUL // In one of the biggest series of sweeps against al Qa'eda cells in Turkey so far, security forces have arrested more than 150 suspected members of the Islamist militant network this week, some of whom are accused of plotting attacks against Turkish soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. The police action came only days before Turkey, which has 1,750 soldiers in Kabul, hosts several high-profile international meetings focusing on the situation in Afghanistan.

On Monday, Turkey's president Abdullah Gul will meet the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari, in a trilateral summit in Istanbul. The summit will be followed by a meeting of Afghanistan's neighbouring countries, also in Istanbul. Turkey's security forces have increased action against suspected Islamist militants since a local al Qa'eda cell, made up of Turkish citizens several of whom attended training camps in Afghanistan, staged attacks on two synagogues, the British consulate and a British bank in Istanbul in November, 2003.

The attacks, seen as the worst acts of terrorism in modern Turkish history, killed 63 people and injured hundreds more. Seven men were sentenced to life in prison three years ago for planning the attacks. Since then, hundreds of suspected Islamist militants have been arrested. Polls say Islamist extremists have little support in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim, but secular republic. A poll published two years ago said around four per cent of voters supported the introduction of a Sharia-based legal system.

Still, the religiously conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, that faces accusations of having secret plans to establish an Iran-style theocracy in Turkey, has been keen to show its determination to fight Islamic extremism. Acting simultaneously in Istanbul and 15 other provinces early yesterday, police arrested 120 al Qa'eda suspects, according to news reports. Several suspected leaders of al Qa'eda in Turkey as well as a university teacher from Van in the east were among those detained, they said. The academic is accused of trying to recruit militants at the university and via the internet.

At least one of the suspects told anti-terror police after his arrest he had received military training in Afghanistan, the CNN-Turk news channel reported. Police also found arms and documents during the raids. The sweep followed similar raids in Ankara and the southern city of Adana earlier in the week. Of 34 people arrested during those raids, 25 have been charged and are now in custody. According to CNN-Turk, the raids in Ankara and Adana uncovered an archive of al Qa'eda in Turkey members that led to the second wave of arrests yesterday. There was no official comment.

Newspapers reported that members of an al Qa'eda cell in Ankara were plotting an attack on Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan. tseibert@thenational.ae