The full moon rises behind the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Turkey.
The full moon rises behind the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Sept. 1, 2020.

WASHINGTON - The Turkish police said they have arrested Mahmut Ozden, a major Islamic State (IS) figure in Turkey suspected of planning an attack on the newly converted Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul.

“Daesh’s so-called emir of Turkey had been caught and remanded in custody with important plans,” Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said in announcing the arrest on Twitter Tuesday, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

Ozden and three others were detained in southern Adana province on August 20. An Istanbul court ordered his official arrest on Monday.

According to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, Ozden’s arrest came as a result of an operation last month by Istanbul Police Department based on some intelligence that the IS was planning an attack on the Hagia Sophia and several other institutions. During the August 18 operation, police captured a suspected IS member, Huseyin Sagir, in a hotel in Istanbul with an AK-47 and five cartridges.

Turkish officials said information discovered during Sagir’s investigation led police to Ozden, who had received orders from high-ranking IS militants through encrypted messaging apps.

Interior Minister Soylu said that several digital materials seized by the police during Ozden’s house search indicated that he was planning to carry out his attacks through groups of 10 to 12 people.

“Police also seized plans to kidnap politicians and statesmen to take them to Syria and for acts against groups that could harm the Turkish economy,” Soylu said to reporters Tuesday during inspection in Giresun, a city in the Black Sea region recently hit by deadly floods.

‘Turkey emir’

Turkish local media reported that since 2017 Ozden has been detained at least three times on different charges. He allegedly identified himself as Turkey’s southern province of Adana “emir,” an Islamic title used by IS to refer to its top leaders.

Dogu Eroglu, the author of “ISIS Networks: Radicalisation, Organisation, Logistics in Turkey,” said that despite the Turkish government’s claim that Ozden was an IS emir, it remains uncertain whether the title can be applied to the suspected militant.

“I can say that the term has been used wrongly in most instances because being the Turkey emir of the Islamic State definitely means some sort of network, hierarchy and a chain of a command structure,” Eroglu said, adding that the group in the past has labeled the entirety of Turkey as a “wilayat” or province with no reference to Adana.

In a propaganda video released by Islamic State’s al-Furqan media in April 2019, the terror group’s then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared holding notes referring to Turkey as a “wilayat.” In another propaganda video in July 2019, the group showed a group of militants from “Turkey wilayat” pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

“Do not think that the swords of the soldiers of the caliphate are far from you or from those who stand on your side,” an IS militant identified as Abu Qatada al-Turki threatened Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

In a report released in June, the International Crisis Group reported that the 16 attacks perpetrated by the IS terror group in Turkey between 2014 and 2017 killed nearly 300 civilians.

FILE - Muslims offer their evening prayers outside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, July 10, 2020.

The group only claimed the 2017 New Year's shooting attack at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub that killed 39.

Berkay Mandiraci, a Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group, told VOA that security measures by Turkish authorities following the 2017 shooting have prevented the militant group from conducting any successful attacks in recent years.

“It seems that what is left of ISIS networks now is that they are getting organized in smaller groups of five or six people who may not be connected to each other even,” Mandiraci said, adding that the networks consist mostly of IS Turkish and foreign members who crossed the border from Syria and Iraq.

“It is different groups that are in Turkey, and that makes it also very challenging for the security forces because it's such a large pool of people that they need to track and keep under check,” he said.

In a report released by the U.S. Defense Department’s Lead Inspector General last month, U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) called Turkey a major facilitation hub for IS, and a target for high-profile IS attacks. The report said Turkish security forces have increased their counter-IS operations while improving their presence along the border with Syria and Iraq.

However, USEUCOM warned that safeguarding the Turkish borders with Iraq and Syria was difficult, allowing IS fighters to continue to move supporters and family members.