ISTANBUL, Turkey – Lomali left his job in a Turkish factory and headed for Chechnya, where he volunteered as an Islamic fighter and fought alongside al-Qaida militants in pitched battles against Russian infantry.
Lomali — or Ali the Lion, the name his Chechen comrades gave him — is one of hundreds of Turks who fought in Chechnya, Afghanistan or Bosnia, some as members of al-Qaida. Turkish police are focusing on these Islamic warriors as key suspects in a string of Istanbul suicide bombings that have left 57 dead.
Police fear Turks who fought abroad were trained or influenced by radical groups like al-Qaida and may have been behind the Istanbul bombings, which shocked police in their sophistication.
Lomali, a 28-year-old Turk, says he fought in Chechnya in 1996 alongside Chechen separatists seeking to break Chechnya away from Moscow, learning to use a heavy machine gun and plant land mines. He was captured by Russians when he attempted to sneak into Chechnya to fight again in 2001 and was sent back to Turkey, he said.
Like many Turks who went overseas to fight, Lomali said he was motivated by both Islam and nationalism. Like some 5 million Turks, Lomali traces his ancestors to the Caucasus, which includes Chechnya.
“I went there to help the struggle of our Muslim brothers against occupiers,” said Lomali, a soft-spoken, athletic man.
Although Lomali is deeply religious and wears a beard, common among Islamic radicals, he had little to do with al-Qaida fighters he met in the area, who he said criticized him, saying he was not religious enough.
In 2001, Lomali met al-Qaida militants on the Chechen-Georgia border, where many radicals were gathering to enter Chechnya.
“There were small cells of al-Qaida giving training” after Quran classes, he said.
At one point, Lomali and fellow Turkish fighters had dinner at a wedding in the Georgian village of Duisi. Their Chechen hosts introduced them to several al-Qaida militants who wore long shirts over baggy pants, a style common in Afghanistan. The turbaned al-Qaida militants were the guests of honor at the wedding.
“We had dinner together, but when we lit cigarettes, they began chiding us as if they were going to declare us infidels. They told us that smoking was a sin,” he said.
The militants also criticized Lomali and others for dancing at the wedding, saying it was un-Islamic.
Lomali said, however, that the al-Qaida fighters were well trained and were admired for their fighting skills.
“I remember one day we engaged in a fierce fight against Russians in Sercen Yurt,” east of Grozny, he said. “They fought like real professionals. We survived, but many, many were killed.”
Lomali spoke on condition his real name and certain details of his background not be used. He was contacted by The Associated Press through members of Istanbul’s Chechen community.
When asked about the Istanbul bombings, Lomali said it was a “pity that several civilians were killed.”
Like many Islamic fundamentalists, he said he believes that Israel and the United States were behind the blasts and were trying to manipulate the tragedy to draw Turkey closer to the West and distance Turks from Islamic groups.
On Tuesday, an Istanbul court charged nine people with involvement in the suicide attacks.
Ankara police detained 10 suspected members of a little-known militant group, Warriors of Islam, the daily Hurriyet reported Tuesday. The suspects are believed to have links with one of the suicide bombers. Police said the 10 underwent military training in Afghanistan and Iran and were planning attacks, the newspaper said. Police refused to confirm the report.
Lomali, however, said he has seen no evidence of a police crackdown against militants.
“If there were such a crackdown, I would hear about it,” Lomali said.
He hinted some of his fellow warriors were sympathetic to radical groups in Turkey like the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front, which jointly with al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the Istanbul blasts. Two other groups also claimed responsibility in al-Qaida’s name. Lomali grew up in western Turkey and left his job at a milk packaging factory in 1996 to volunteer to fight in Chechnya.
He refused to give details on how he reached Chechnya or trained for combat. He said, however, that the second time he traveled to Chechnya in 2001, he went with eight other Turks to Georgia’s Pankisi valley, where the group underwent military training with Islamic Chechen warriors.
The training mainly involved physical exercises. The group did not use weapons to avoid a crackdown by Georgian forces under pressure from Russia.
“We were only having theoretical training on guns, otherwise, we were complete soldiers. We were getting up early running, doing sit-ups and push-ups every morning,” he said.
After several weeks of training, Lomali was called to battle by fighters of Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev, but was caught by Russian soldiers near the Chechen border. The Russians deported him and gave his name to Georgian authorities, to bar him entering the country.
That makes it almost impossible for him to enter Georgia and Chechnya again, which frustrates Lomali.
“If it was possible, I would not hesitate a second,” he said.