ISTANBUL — Posing as passengers and staff of an overland bus rolling through Anatolia, 16 plainclothes police officers in Turkey shadowed a suspected ISIS suicide bomber bent on destroying the U.S. consulate in Istanbul before arresting him in the dead of night.
According to Turkish media reports, a police operation like a scene from an action movie led to the arrest of Muhammed Raghil al-Hardani, a 24-year-old Syrian, in the southern Anatolian city of Kahramanmaras. Police moved in as his overland bus from Samsun, on the Turkish Black Sea coast, pulled into the Kahramanmaras bus terminal.
Al-Hardani, a suspected member of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), denied any wrongdoing but was put into pre-trial detention by a judge in the city, news reports said. A second Syrian man traveling with al-Hardani was released.
With al-Hardani’s arrest, which happened shortly before 4 a.m. local time on Dec. 8—and which became public only this week—Turkish law enforcement agencies might have foiled a plan by the ISIS member to blow himself up inside the U.S. consulate building in Istanbul.
The consulate was closed on Dec. 9 for unspecified security reasons. This week, the U.S. embassy in Ankara provided “limited services” for two days because of an unspecified security threat. It is not known whether the shutdowns were connected to the al-Hardani case.
Turkish news reports said Turkish and American security officials were concerned that ISIS members were preparing attacks to coincide with the Christmas season.
Al-Hardani might have been planning just such an attack. Turkish security agencies received word that the Syrian had been seen in Samsun and shared that information with U.S. security officials. When al-Hardani and his companion bought bus tickets from Samsun to the city of Gaziantep near the Syrian border, a trip of more than 13 hours, police officers got their own tickets and took their seats. Even the two drivers on the bus were members of a special police unit.
They watched al-Hardani during the journey and during a break at a highway restaurant close to Kahramanmaras. When police found out that al-Hardani was on his way to an ISIS safe house in Gaziantep to plan the Istanbul attack, they decided to arrest him before the bus would reach that city, according to news reports. Shortly afterward, the bus stopped in Kahramanmaras.
Fearing al-Hardani could trigger a bomb he might have hidden on the bus, police in Kahramanmaras used jamming equipment to knock out mobile phone signals around the bus terminal. The suspect was whisked to police headquarters for questioning in a dilapidated civilian car to avoid attention.
U.S. interests in Turkey have been on the target list of the Islamic State ever since American fighter jets started pounding ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq last year. The Milliyet daily reported al-Hardani’s plan was to inflict maximum damage on the consulate and on American citizens by detonating a suicide vest during a meeting inside the building. The paper said al-Hardani wanted to make sure that no Turks would be hurt.
Some reports said the hunt for al-Hardani, whose mother reportedly works for ISIS in the Iraqi province of Anbar, began when intelligence services determined he had entered Turkey from Syria on Nov. 28. News reports said U.S. intelligence officials informed their Turkish colleagues about the case. Milliyet described al-Hardani as a former bodyguard of Marwan al-Iraqi, a high-ranking ISIS member in northern Syria.
Turkey’s security services came under severe criticism when Turkish ISIS supporters killed a total of more than 130 people in suicide attacks on the Syrian border in July and in the capital, Ankara, on Oct. 10. Back then, critics said police and intelligence agencies ignored warnings about a Turkish ISIS cell planning deadly attacks.
This time, Turkish agencies tracked down al-Hardani and kept a close eye on him. It remains unclear what he did before he boarded the bus from Samsun to Gaziantep on Dec. 7 or how he got to Samsun. Milliyet reported that intelligence services distributed a physical description of al-Hardani, which included the fact that he has a scar on one of his hands.
But al-Hardani’s arrest does not mean the threat of ISIS attacks against U.S. interests in Turkey has ended. Turkish newspapers reported this week that the country’s intelligence service, MIT, warned police about six potential ISIS suicide bombers planning attacks against U.S., Israeli, or British missions and against Turkish government institutions in Ankara and Istanbul.
No official statement has been made about the reported warning, but Turkish police tightened security around the U.S. consulate in Istanbul again this Wednesday. On Thursday, Turkish media reported that another suspected ISIS suicide candidate, 18-year-old Iraqi Abdulaziz Ameen Mojbil, had been arrested in an apartment housing Syrian refugees in Istanbul along with 10 suspected accomplices.
Turkey’s 900-kilometer border with Syria is a key transition area for ISIS fighters traveling to and from the group’s self-styled caliphate. Critics say the Turkish government, which has been accused of turning a blind eye to ISIS activities in recent years in the hope that the militants contribute to the end of the rule of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is not doing enough to seal the border, but Ankara denies this.
Interior Minister Efkan Ala told the official news agency Anadolu on Thursday that Turkish authorities had so far detained and deported 2,783 foreign ISIS fighters from 89 countries. Another 33,746 foreigners have been blacklisted and are subject to an entry ban, he said.