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Bulent Yildirim (president of the I.H.H.) meeting with Ismail Haniyeh

At the heart of Israel's deadly raid of the Mavi Marmara on May 31 is the Turkish charity Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (I.H.H.), the "Free Gaza" flotilla's lead organiser. But the extent to which I.H.H. has been enabled and underwritten by the Turkish government has been increasingly scrutinized by international observers over the past several months and for good reason. In the aftermath of the violent showdown on the high seas, which left nine Turkish passengers dead and a number of Israeli commandos critically injured, Turkey's parliament passed a resolution to "reconsider economic and military relations" with the Jewish state, a decades-long ally. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, returning to Istanbul after an emergency meeting with Hillary Clinton, blamed Israel alone for the confrontation and accused it of committing a "crime against humanity." But the most incendiery rhetoric came from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. 

Recent months have seen a weakening of the once assured Israeli-Turkish relationship almost to the point of dissolution and in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara clash, Erdogan has not only depicted Israel as an anathema, worse than "bullies and pirates," but also full-throatedly endorsed its main clerical enemy in the Levant. "Hamas are resistance fighters who are struggling to defend their land," he told an ecstatic anti-Israel rally a few weeks ago in the Turkish city of Konya. "They have won an election.  I have told this to US officials... I do not accept Hamas as a terrorist organization.  I think the same today.  They are defending their land."

Most of Turkey's independent political class see domestic and international calculation behind this bluster, a way for Erdogan to shore up Islamist credibility in advance of an upcoming election and reposition Ankara as a renascent power broker in the Middle East - Iran's chief competiton for that role. One writer for the Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet observed that, it's "almost as if [Erodgan] was waiting for a new crisis with Israel to be able to work the streets in order to regain some of the political ground his ruling Justice and Development Party has been loosing over bread and butter issues at home."

But this raises the fundamental question of why a country that is both an ally of the United States and Nato as well as an aspiring member of the European Union would brazenly declare its solidarity with a terrorist group outlawed by both. The answer lies in the increasingly Islamist nature of Erodgan's regime as well as the complicated relationship his party AKP has enjoyed with I.H.H., a suddenly infamous non-governmental organisation that acts more like a governmental one. Its evolution has been from a rogue and highly suspect charity into the advance guard of a new Turkish foreign policy.

I.H.H. was established in 1992 and registered as a charity in Istanbul in 1995.  Its declared purpose was performing Muslim social services (helping orphans, building mosques, monitoring human rights abuses) but it swiftly came under the suspicion of the Turkish authorities for the alleged involvement of its senior leadership in global terrorism. In 1997, Turkish police raided its headquarters in Istanbul and arrested a number of its top men after they uncovered weapons, explosives, and bomb-making instructions as well as a "jihadist flag." According to the investigating authorities, "detained members of I.H.H. were going to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya." At this time I.H.H. was labelled a "fundamentalist organisation" by Ankara and even banned as a registered charity from contributing to the relief effort of an devastating earthquake that struck the city of Izmit in August 1999.  The governor of Istanbul froze the NGO's bank accounts, telling the Washington Post: "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."

However, the most comprehensive indictment of I.H.H. has come from the former French counterterrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière, who now oversees the U.S. Treasury Department's Terrorist Finance Tracking Program. In a report he co-authored with Jean-Francois Ricard, Bruguière observed that:  "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 I.H.H., [its leaders] acted to recruit veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war."

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