ONLINE Only: Ankara’s Proxy

“Why would a country that is both an ally of the United States and Nato as well as an aspiring member of the European Union 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.”

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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.”

Bruguière and Ricard also accused I.H.H. of making numerous phone calls to a known al-Qaeda safe house in Milan and of allying with Abu Ma’ali, a former member of al-Qaeda’s shura, or command council, who is sometimes referred to as a “junior Osama bin Laden.”  Bruguière later testified at the 2001 federal U.S. trial of Ahmed Ressam – the convicted al-Qaeda agent in Canada who tried to import over 450 kilograms of explosives into the United States in 1999 in order to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium – that I.H.H. played an “important role” in this potentially catastrophic terrorist attack.

I.H.H. has spent the bulk of the last decade fundraising for Hamas.  It is now an affiliate of the larger, Saudi-based umbrella organisation known as the Union of Good, which was founded by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has been barred from both the United States and Great Britain for inciting terrorism. The express aim of the Union of Good is to fill Hamas’ coffers via a network of international Islamic fronts. In 2008, the same year that Israel banned I.H.H. from operating inside the country, the Union was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department a front for “strengthen[ing] Hamas’ political and military position in the West Bank and Gaza, including by: (i) diverting charitable donations to support Hamas members and the families of terrorist operatives; and (ii) dispensing social welfare and other charitable services on behalf of Hamas.” All of I.H.H.’s U.S. holdings were subsequently frozen and American citizens prohibited from engaging in any transactions with the NGO.

About a month after the Mavi Marmara incident, Philip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs chided Ankara for its recent vote against a U.S-backed United Nations Security Council resolution on sanctions against Iran – Turkey having preferred a toothless deal with Brazil for dealing with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program – as well as the country’s increasingly belligerent anti-American posturing.  On June 21, an open letter in support of Israel signed by 87 US senators was sent to U.S. President Barack Obama and recommended that the administration consider putting I.H.H. on  the list of foreign terrorist organisations. And earlier this month, Germany banned I.H.H.’s European headquarters in Berlin and German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière accused the charity of “support[ing] a terrorist organisation with money supposedly donated for charitable purposes.”

Remarkably, I.H.H. has been quite candid about the purpose of its philanthropy. According to Ahmet Emin Dag, one of its senior officials, the charity donates around $20 million each year to Palestinians, equivalent to 40 percent of its total spending.  Half of theses funds are used in the West Bank and Jerusalem and the other half in Hamas-ruled Gaza. Mehmet Kaya, I.H.H.’s Gaza representative, gave an interview with the New York Times following the flotilla raid in which he admitted, “We only work through Hamas, although we don’t limit our aid to its followers… We consider Israel and the United Nations to be the terrorists, not Hamas.”

Since Erdogan’s AKP won Turkey’s national election in 2002, I.H.H. has been systematically rehabilitated. All legal investigations into the charity were cancelled and, according to Svante Cornell, a Swedish security expert who works for the Stockholm-based Central Asia-Caucus Institute, “I.H.H. operates joint projects with the Turkish Agency for International Development, and is reported to have been used by the government in order to shore up Turkey’s position in northern Iraq by distributing aid to populations there.”

What accounts for this affinity between AKP and I.H.H. is their shared ideological history. Both organisations are offspring of the Turkish Milli Görüş movement, which took hold in the late 1960‘s and was designed to alter the socio-political dynamics of the Kemalist state by undermining its core secularism. Milli Görüş literally means “National View” and its architect was Necmettin Erbakan who, in 1969, published a manifesto that sought to revivify Turkey’s Islamic identity and trafficked in much conspiracy theory by way of justification. Erbakan was violently opposed to Turkey’s admittance to any pan-European project; he claimed that the Common Market was a joint Zionist-Catholic project for “de-Islamifying” the nation. Milli Görüş believes that the former metropole of the Ottoman Empire should cooperate with other Muslim countries to the diminishment of its dealings with the West.  Indeed, Erbakan was modern Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, serving only from 1996-1997 after his support for religious education and his attempt to align Ankara with Tehran and Tripoli fomented his ouster by the Turkish military, long held as a state protector of Kemalism.  Although his Welfare Party was subsequently banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, the hydra-headed network of parties that it has spawned have all competed with one another as the standard-bearer of Milli Gorus.  Of these, the more traditionalist Virtue Party (SP), which has the formal backing of Erbakan, has tried to undercut the “reformist” AKP by ostentatious displays of religiosity and Islamic solidarity – for instance, organising protests of the Danish cartoon satires on the Prophet Mohammed as well as against the 2004 coalition assault on Fallujah.

AKP’s political presentation has been cannier. Its electoral legitimacy rests on a mixture of anti-corruption governance, conservative economic planning and occasional reassurances of its core compatibility with Kemalism. After winning the premiership in 2002, Erdogan told voters, “We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that.”  It hasn’t. 

Erdogan’s three targets for the introduction of Islamism into Turkish society have been education, the judiciary and the media.  He has made it easier for Saudi Wahhabism to be taught in Turkish schools both by lowering the standards for acceptable religious curricula and ending the penalties against questionable religious academies. A madrassa graduate is now equal to a secular high school graduate under Turkish law. Most starkly, in 2006, Erdogan instructed his representative to the European Union to eliminate all references to secular curriculum in a position paper on Turkish education – a nose-thumbing to the E.U. accession process guaranteed to raise eyebrows in Brussels.  

Erdogan also has lowered the retirement age for judges in an effort to allow himself to appoint more of them to the judiciary. The country’s Supreme Court of Appeals has publicly complained about AKP’s attempt to interfere with its personnel and proceedings. As of now, Erdogan is responsible for appointing a quarter of the judges on the Constitutional Court, the chief public prosecutor and confirming the top general of the Supreme Military Council.

As for the media, Erdogan’s in-roads here have been similar to what Vladimir Putin has done in Russia: nationalising nosy outlets and then naming cronies and fellow travellers to helm them. In 2005, the government took over Sabah-ATV, a conglomerate which controls 20 percent of the Turkish media market; Erdogan then chose his own son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as CEO of the company Sabah-ATV was eventually sold to.  AKP also levied an outlandish $3.2 billion tax fine against Dogin Yayin, owner of another media giant that controls 50 percent of the country’s news, strictly for political purposes: Yayin is a vocal opponent of AKP and the fine exceeded his net worth.

With these factors in mind, it makes perfect sense for Erdogan to align himself with the ablest and most battle-tested exponents of Islamism both at home and abroad.  I.H.H.’s president Bülent Yildirim has publicly telegraphed his fealty to Milli Görüş, referring to Erbakan, for instance, as ‘hoca’, which in Turkish means revered teacher, while also retaining soft language for Erdogan himself. At a February 2009 Hamas rally in Gaza, Yildirim said, “All the peoples of  the Islamic world demand their leaders to be like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” a view that’s been seconded by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Last January, when a land convoy led by I.H.H. delivered aid directly to the regime in Gaza, Haniyeh hailed Erdoğan at a ceremony for convoy participants: “Mr. Erdoğan has become our voice and won hearts of all Palestinians. We began naming our children after Tayyip Erdoğan. The name of Erdoğan has been immortalized in Palestine.” (This speech, not coincidentally, was later posted to I.H.H.’s website.)

Although AKP has formally disavowed any association with I.H.H. – it even ordered around 45 of its deputies not to participate in the flotilla – there is striking evidence to suggest that the party and the charity are more in synch than they let on. Many Turkish observers have noted that AKP’s aim prior to May 31 was to construct a defence of plausible deniability in case things turned ugly off the coast of Gaza but also exploit the occasion after the fact.  At the very least, an informal partnership exists between AKP and I.H.H., if only to judge by their common members. Many of the people on the 21-strong board of I.H.H. are also in AKP or have worked in a major capacity on the party’s behalf. These include Ali Yandir, a trustee of I.H.H. who is also the senior manager at the Istanbul City Municipality Transportation Corporation, the public entity that through one of its subsidiary companies sold the Mavi Marmara to the charity for $1.8 million (US).  Yandir ran for public office in Istanbul on the AKP ticket. Other board members include Zeyid Aslan, an AKP member of Parliament and the head of the Turkey-Palestine Interparliamentary Friendship Group; Ahmet Faruk Unsal, a former AKP member of Parliament who did in fact sail with the Mavi Marmara;  and Mehmet Emin Sen, a former AKP mayor for the township of Mihalgazi. The New York Times recently reported on the infiltration of I.H.H.’s upper echelons by AKP members and cited Turkish terrorism expert Ercan Citlioglu of Bahcesehir University in Istanbul who told the newspaper that the government “could have stopped the ship if it wanted to, but the mission to Gaza served both the I.H.H. and the government by making both heroes at home and in the Arab world.”

There are other revealing conjunctures. In mid-May 2010, for example, Faruk Çelik, Turkey’s minister of work and social security and a member of the AKP, spoke up for I.H.H. at a meeting of Palestine Platform, a Turkish anti-Israel campaign group. Çelik chose to mischaracterise the flotilla as an unarmed ‘humanitarian’ aid mission: “Israeli hawks have threatened to attack ships that will not carry even a jackknife and will be loaded with humanitarian conscience. What kind of ignorance could this be, what kind of hatred is this, how can you call this ‘humane’?”

Even prior to the flotilla, the AKP and Erdogan had come to the rescue of this troublemaking NGO.  In April, Israel arrested Izzet Sahin, an I.H.H. employee who had been sent to the West Bank and thus defied Israel’s 2008 ban on the organisation’s activities in the Occupied Territories. Sahin was subsequently released without charge and deported from Israel. However, his arrest drew a sharp response from Erdoğan who suggested without proof that Sahin had been mistreated in Israeli custody.

Yet there was also a dress rehearsal for the Mavi Marmara affair earlier in the year in which Erdogan and I.H.H. appeared indistinguishable. In December 2009 and January 2010 a convoy organised by I.H.H. and the British charity Viva Palestina, founded by former British MP George Galloway, travelled overland to Gaza during which they engineered a violent clash with Egyptian authorities. Cairo had informed Viva Palestina and I.H.H. weeks before their trip got underway that if they were to pass through Egyptian territory  as planned, they must use the Mediterranean port of El Arish. The convoy disregarded this instruction, proceeded to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, and demanded that Egypt allow them to cross the Red Sea into Sinai. Erdogan this time publicly supported the aid mission and dispatched his Foreign Minister Davutoğlu to the Egyptian embassy in Ankara lobby on its behalf.  Yildirim was defiant as ever, threatening to “besiege” Egyptian embassies around the world if his organisation’s demands were not heeded: “Up until now the world thought only Israel was a war criminal. But Egypt has proved it is also complicit in this crime. By preventing us Egypt has proved it is an Israeli-guided state. We will not remain silent against Egypt and besiege Egyptian embassies and consulates for days if needed.”

Viva Palestina and I.H.H. backed down after a five day stand-off, eventually agreeing to return to Syria and re-route themselves, via plane and ship, to El Arish. However, the Egyptian government made it clear that some of their vehicles, which were carrying sedans, pickup trucks, generators and other items proscribed by Egypt’s blockade, would have to enter Gaza through Israeli checkpoints rather than the Egypt-controlled Rafah crossing. The convoy’s response was a riot. Participants tried to break out of the El Arish port compound before being subdued by Egyptian riot police. To mark the stand-off and demonstrate solidarity with their patrons, Hamas staged a violent protest at Rafah near the Egypt-Gaza border. Nine Egyptian border guards were injured in the melee and one was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper.

The riots in El Arish and at the Gaza border were plainly designed to humiliate Egypt in the Muslim world by depicting it as an oppressive tool of Israel. Tellingly, five Turkish AKP parliamentarians – Hüsnü Tuna, Cemal Yılmaz Demir, Mehmet Nil Hıdır, Secarettin Karayağız and Hasan Murat Mercan — joined with Viva Palestina and I.H.H. in El Arish. Murat Mercan is no mere bench-filler: he holds the sensitive post of being the head of the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission.

The AKP pols helped negotiated the release of compounded vehicles and arrested participants, backed to the hilt by Ankara.  (For its part, Egypt deported all the convoy activists once they returned to Egypt and banned them from taking part in any future aid missions in the country.)  Once in Gaza, the AKP contingent were among those ceremoniously feted by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, along with other Turkish VIPs such as Temel Karamollaoglu, vice president of the Felicity Party, and Ahmet Faruk Unsal, the former AKP MP and I.H.H. trustee.

Gone, evidently, were the days of Turkey’s invigilation of this “fundamentalist organisation.”

Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s minister for European affairs, recently told the New York Times, “The I.H.H. has nothing to do with the AK Party, and we have no hidden agenda.” He was half right: the agenda has been conspicuously advertised for anyone paying attention.