When I first published a research paper four years ago with the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) on the Turkish Muslim charitable group Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), I didn't imagine it would get much of a response outside the academic conference in which it was presented in Copenhagen. However, as a result of this weekend's tragic Israeli raid on an IHH-sponsored flotilla of vessels attempting to break the ongoing blockade on Gaza, the group has suddenly jumped into the headlines, and has become a focus of intense debate over the intentions of the flotilla organizers and the controversial killing of at least 9 would-be participants by Israeli commandos.
Though my DIIS paper made no mention of IHH's activities in Gaza or in support of suffering Palestinian refugees, some of those angered by the Israeli flotilla raid have instead turned their emotional animus on past critics of IHH, such as myself. While I certainly can't speak with any authority on what took place on the Gaza flotilla boats, I'm rather mystified why the flotilla killings--whether right or wrong--would have any bearing on the factual question of whether the IHH has engaged in illicit financing and episodic support to extremist groups. The evidence in this regard is fairly weighty, and much of it comes directly from the Turkish government -- not the United States, nor the Israelis.
On December 5, 1997, Turkish police raided the IHH headquarters office in Istanbul and arrested its principal leaders. Following their preliminary inquiry, on April 27, 1998, Turkish investigators launched a formal legal case against the IHH. According to a report produced by French counterterrorism magistrates, the inquiry was spurred by the sale of an AK-47 assault rifle to an IHH leader by "a member of the illegal organization VASAT." Turkish police reported seizing a series of disturbing items from the IHH in Turkey, including an explosive device, two sticks of dynamite, bomb making instructions, and a "jihad flag." The French magistrates report noted that:
"It appears that the detained members of IHH were going to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya... The essential goal of this Association was to illegally arm its membership for overthrowing democratic, secular, and constitutional order present in Turkey and replacing it with an Islamic state founded on the Shariah. Under the cover of this organization known under the name of IHH, [IHH leaders] acted to recruit veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war. In particular, some men were sent into war zones in Muslim countries in order to acquire combat experience. On the spot, the formation of a military unit was assured. In addition, towards the purpose of obtaining political support from these countries, financial aid was transferred [from IHH], as well as caches of firearms, knives, and pre-fabricated explosives."An official review of the phone records from the IHH's office in Istanbul revealed two calls to the Bosnian Mujahideen Brigade unit headquarters in Zenica, five phone calls to a member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) based in London, and at least one call to Anwar Shaaban's notorious Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy. The IHH's connections to international terrorism have even surfaced in sworn witness testimony in the U.S. federal court system. During the trial of attempted Millenium bomber Ahmed Ressam, noted French counterterrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere took the stand and testified that IHH had played “[a]n important role” in Ressam's bomb plot targeting LAX. Under repeated questioning, Bruguiere insisted that “[t]here’s a rather close relation”: "The IHH is an NGO, but it was kind of a type of cover-up… in order to obtain forged documents and also to obtain different forms of infiltration for Mujahideen in combat. And also to go and gather[recruit] these Mujahideens. And finally, one of the last responsibilities that they had was also to be implicated or involved in weapons trafficking."
None of this information is considered sensitive or secret, nor is it particularly difficult to come by. Turkish government officials have openly acknowledged as much in major Western media outlets. In August 1999, the governor of Istanbul was interviewed in the Washington Post after he personally ordered local IHH bank accounts frozen because of suspected criminal activity. He explained at the time, "All legal institutions may have some illegal connections. This might be the case here. If they don't like it, they can appeal in court."
To his credit, the former Istanbul governor here underscores another critical point. Contemporary terror finance networks are most effectively curtailed using accepted legal sanctions and transnational cooperation between regional allies. Incidents such as the deadly Gaza flotilla raid ultimately undermine the battle against illicit financing, and weaken shared international resolve to punish those who manipulate humanitarian relief as a cover to fund terrorism. The Israeli government must be more mindful in the future of the wider political repercussions its attempts at punitive actions can have, whether technically justified or not. Those repercussions impact not only the state of Israel, but also carry implicit costs for the United States and its European allies.(h/t Barry Simon)