Al-Qaeda's Hand In Istanbul Plot

Truck bombings in Istanbul on Nov. 15 and 20, 2003, killed 58 and may have been the last strikes specifically authorized by Osama bin Laden.
Truck bombings in Istanbul on Nov. 15 and 20, 2003, killed 58 and may have been the last strikes specifically authorized by Osama bin Laden. (Photos By Murad Sezer -- Associated Press)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

ISTANBUL -- 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.

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