In an apparent crackdown on support for al Qaeda in Syria, Turkish authorities conducted simultaneous raids in seven provinces today against an Islamic relief organization and arrested at least 23 people, including senior al Qaeda operatives. The organization, Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH), reportedly the biggest Turkish provider of aid to Syria, is protesting its innocence. The operation has reportedly netted several senior al Qaeda operatives, including al Qaeda’s Middle East deputy leader İbrahim Şen, who is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, and the terror group’s Turkey representative, Halis Bayancuk.
So far the antiterror operation has resulted in the arrest of 19 people in Van, three in Istanbul, and one in Kayseri, as well as the dismissal of Devlet Çıngı, the chief counterterrorism officer in the border city of Kilis, Hurriyet Daily News reported. An account in Today’s Zaman said numerous al Qaeda operatives were arrested raids in the provinces of İstanbul, Adana, Kilis, Gaziantep, and Kayseri, and that helicopters were deployed in case clashes erupted.
Reuters cited reports by the Turkish news outlet Dogan that police were also conducting raids against al Qaeda suspects in the cities of Gazientep and Adana, near the border with Syria.
IHH General Secretary Yaşar Kutluay protested against the government crackdown, claiming that”[t]hey are trying to show the İHH as if it is related to terror organizations.”
Today’s raids, which took place during the runup to the Geneva II peace talks on Syria set to begin on Jan. 22, also come amid recent events raising questions about the Erdogan government’s position on al Qaeda forces in Syria.
On Jan. 1, security forces seized a purported IHH truck in Hatay province carrying arms and ammunition that was headed for the Syrian border. The Hatay governor tried unsuccessfully to take the truck from the soldiers, and the Hatay public prosecutor opened an investigation. The IHH denied any connection to the intercepted truck.
Immediately after the incident, the police who had stopped the vehicle, as well as Hatay counterterrorism officers, were relocated. The Adana prosecutor filed a criminal complaint alleging obstruction of justice by government officials, including the Interior Minister and Turkish intelligence, for preventing a search of the truck. The governor of Hatay province had allegedly claimed that the truck’s mission involved a “state secret.” The UN said it wants inspections of all trucks entering Syria from Turkey, and the Turkish opposition revived accusations that the government is sending arms to al Qaeda in Syria.
In addition to confronting allegations that his government has allowed and even facilitated the operations of al Qaeda fighters along Turkey’s border with Syria, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been battling fallout from a corruption probe involving his family’s longstanding ties to a wealthy al Qaeda-linked Saudi businessman, Yasin al-Qadi, who is said to have made several illegal trips to Turkey in 2012.
And there have been reports in diplomatic circles that Turkey has begun quietly supporting the Islamic Front along the Syrian border in an effort to stave off the more violent incursions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, an al Qaeda affiliate. The Islamic Front, which with an estimated 45,000 fighters is the largest Islamist fighting group in Syria, has recently battled the ISIS for control of border crossings into Turkey, even though the Islamic Front previously took over a border crossing from the Free Syrian Army. The Islamic Front is currently being courted by Western diplomats as a more palatable alternative to the ISIS, but in fact the large Islamist organization shares the same goals as the two al Qaeda affilates in Syria, the ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front.
Whether today’s raids constitute a genuine effort to stem the flow of jihadist fighters and weaponry into Syria from Turkey, or are simply attempts to deflect attention from claims that Turkey is turning a blind eye to jihadists, remains to be seen.
The IHH organization a significant actor in the global jihadist movement
The IHH organization, which is based in Turkey and officially named the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, has long supported the global jihadist movement. According to a March 2010 report by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IHH is active in over 120 countries, including in Turkey, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, the Balkans, Central and South America, Central and South Asia, and the Caucasus, on an annual budget of approximately $100 million. IHH operates in conflict zones, and is known to have provided logistical support to fighters in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In addition, the IHH was a prime mover of the Gaza flotilla in May 2010 and the operator of the ship Mavi Marmara.
Although the IHH has not been designated as a global terrorist organization by the United States, a German branch was banned in Germany in 2010 for links to jihadist activity. Israel banned the IHH in 2008 and designated it a terrorist organization in 2010.
Established in Istanbul in 1992, the IHH is an affiliate of the Union of Good (‘I’tilaf al-Khayr), a Saudi-based organization founded in May 2001 that serves as an umbrella group for some 50 Islamic charities. The US designated the Union of Good as a global terrorist organization in November 2008, stating that it was formed for the purpose of transferring funds to the terrorist group Hamas. The chairman of the Union of Good is Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, an advocate of suicide attacks on Israeli citizens. Also serving on the Union’s board is Abdulmajid al Zindani, a radical Islamist cleric with close ties to both al Qaeda and the Yemeni government; Zindani has been designated a terrorist financier by the UN’s 1267 Committee and labeled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the US in 2004 for serving as a spiritual adviser to bin Laden and as an al Qaeda financier and recruiter.
The ICT report elaborated further on IHH in commentary regarding trial proceedings on al Qaeda’s millenium bomb plot. Testifying in the proceedings, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the former head of the French judiciary’s counterterrorism unit and the head of the US’ Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, said that the IHH played important logistical roles in obtaining bogus passports and other counterfeited documents, the trafficking of weapons, the recruitment of jihadists, and their insertion into conflict zones.
The ICT report continued: “[Bruguiere] also stated that the IHH was ‘basically helping Al Qaeda when (Usama) bin Laden started to want to target US soil.’ Importantly, Bruguiere affirmed: ‘It’s hard to prove, but all elements of the investigation showed that part of the NGO served to hide jihad-type activities … I’m convinced this was a clear strategy, known by IHH … it was clearly proven that some of the NGO’s work was not charity, it was to provide a facade for moving funds, weapons and mujahedeen to and from Bosnia and Afghanistan.'”
Amid the news of today’s counterterrorism raids, another item also appeared in the Turkish press. An article in Today’s Zaman noted that six police officers from the antiterrorism branch of the Adana Police Department were removed from their duties for allegedly releasing photos to the press of ammunition found during a search of two passenger buses in Adana near the Syrian border.
The depth of Turkey’s commitment to the struggle against al Qaeda will become clearer in the coming weeks, and reports of official attempts to squelch news of operations linked to suspected al Qaeda activities continue to raise questions. Today’s report of the arrests of senior al Qaeda leaders in Turkey comes at an opportune time.
For background on al Qaeda in Turkey, see LWJ report, The al Qaeda threat in Turkey.