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[OPINION] Is Qatar Charity funding al-Qaeda in Turkey?

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Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkish Islamists and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government have hastily rallied for Qatar in Doha’s recent row with Gulf and Arab states not only because they share similar ideological zealotry rooted in politicized Islam but also because of the irresistible appeal of Qatari cash funneling through Turkish governmental and nongovernmental groups under charitable works that at times have ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda militants and other jihadists in Syria. 

Qatar Charity, a controversial nongovernmental entity that was funded by the government in Doha to support Qatar’s political initiatives, has been actively operating in Turkey with the full backing of the Erdoğan government. It has been channeling funds to groups like the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH in Turkish), which was identified as a conduit for providing arms and logistical supplies to jihadist groups in Syria and Libya. 

When the confidential investigation into al-Qaeda cells in Turkey that were operating out of the eastern province of Van near the Iranian border was made public with sweeping raids on IHH offices in Kilis near the Syrian border, computers that belonged to Qatar Charity and IHH were hauled away. The raid came after investigators found out that a man working for the IHH was working with an al-Qaeda Turkish cell and using the charity as a cover to move supplies to militants in Syria. However, before the investigators dug further into the seized evidence, Erdoğan stepped in and hushed up the probe to protect his associates who were running logistical lines to jihadists across the Turkish-Syrian border.  

Thanks to monitoring by police intelligence since 2012, we now know a great deal about this particular al-Qaeda cell led by İbrahim Şen (37), a convicted al-Qaeda terrorist who was running a recruitment and trafficking drive between Turkey and Syria and using the IHH, among others, to cover this terror network. Şen was detained in Pakistan on alleged al-Qaeda links and transferred to Guantanamo where he was kept until 2005, before US officials decided to turn him over to Turkey. According to the investigation file in Turkey, he has been working with the Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), led by Erdoğan’s confidante Hakan Fidan, since the Syrian crisis started in 2011. Apparently due to his political cover from the government and a secret contract with MİT, Şen was saved from legal troubles. He was arrested in January 2014 and indicted in October 2014 but let go at the first hearing of the trial in October 2014. 

According to the investigation file, the incriminating evidence against the IHH and by extension its partners such as Qatar Charity was collected when police surveilled and wiretapped operatives working in Şen’s al-Qaeda cell. In addition to the Kilis branch, al-Qaeda militants also used the Kayseri branch of the IHH to send funds and medical and household supplies to jihadists in Syria.

Investigators believed that Şen used these NGOs when he wanted to conceal illegal shipments to jihadists, and the conclusion was that these NGOs took part in this scheme deliberately, knowing well what they were into. Three people identified by the police as partners of Şen in smuggling goods to Syria are Ömer Faruk Aksebzeci (works out of the IHH Kayseri branch), Recep Çamdalı (a member of the IHH in the Kayseri branch) and İbrahim Halil İlgi (working out of the Kilis IHH branch). The transcripts of wiretaps between Şen and these operatives showed how they planned to use ambulances to transport goods to jihadists when the border governor prohibited pick-up trucks from crossing into Syria. 

Qatar Charity dodged the bullet when the Erdoğan government not only swept the investigation under the rug but also dismissed and arrested dozens of judges, prosecutors and police chiefs who probed one of the most important al-Qaeda cells in Turkey for two years before taking legal action to bring them to justice. This botched investigation confirms the US assessment of Qatar Charity as well. According to leaked US cables, the US government flagged Qatar Charity in March 2008 as “a priority III terrorism support entity (TSE) by the Interagency Intelligence Committee on Terrorism (IICT), after having demonstrated intent and willingness to provide financial support to terrorist organizations willing to attack US persons or interests, or provide witting operational support to Priority I-II terrorist groups.” The money flow to jihadists in Syria through Qatar Charity’s controversial Turkish partner is a smoking gun showing this shady business conducted under the guise of charitable works. 

According to US prosecutors, Qatar Charity acted as a major financial conduit for funding al-Qaeda attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In a 2002 federal terrorism case it was noted that Osama bin Laden allegedly used Qatar Charity to fund al-Qaeda’s activities in the 1990s. French intelligence noted in 2013 that Qatar Charity was involved in funding a group in Mali connected with al-Qaeda. A Saudi Arabian-led Gulf and Arab state bloc listed the charity as terrorism linked because of what they alleged was its financial support for terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Looking at the track record of both Qatar Charity and the IHH, there seems to be a perfect match as they both fund militant groups. The ties between the IHH and Qatar Charity have deepened since Erdoğan helped the IHH and its Qatari partners avoid legal troubles in January 2014. The two signed a strategic memorandum of understanding (MoU) agreement in August 2014 in Doha with the attendance of IHH head Bülent Yıldırım and Qatar Charity CEO Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Kuwari. The agreement was renewed in December 2016 in Istanbul when the IHH and Qatar Charity signed a five-year joint cooperation agreement. Attending the signing ceremony, al-Kuwari said his charity had provided 350 million Qatari riyal for Syria thus far, and the agreement with the IHH covers another 3.5 million riyal. Moreover, Qatar Charity has funded the IHH’s operations in other countries such as Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar and the Balkan countries. 

By the way, Qatar Charity is not the only one that the IHH is in bed with. The Foundation Sheikh Thani Ibn Abdullah for Humanitarian Services (RAF), a Qatari foundation established by the al-Thani family, also worked with the IHH in the Iraqi cities of Anbar, Fallujah and Ramadi in projects worth 20 million Qatari riyal ($5.5 million) in 2014. The IHH sent hundreds of truckloads of aid to Idlib, Aleppo and Hama in 2014 with the support it received from, among others, the RAF and Qatar Charity. To open up in Latin America, the IHH partnered with Qatar’s Eid Charity Foundation and organized programs in June 2017 in Bogota. More is planned in Ecuador and Peru. 

Responding to a parliamentary question on the activities of Qatar Charity, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on July 17, 2017 that the government allowed Qatar Charity to open a regional representative office in Ankara on Dec. 18, 2015. When the official inauguration of the office took place on May 9, 2016, Turkish Minister Süleyman Soylu (then labor and now interior minister) attended with Qatar’s minister Hamad bin Nasser bin Qasim Al-Thani. Many senior government officials as well as IHH head Yıldırım were among the invited guests. In his speech Soylu bashed the West and promised to give the full support of the Turkish government to Qatar Charity, which is planning to open new offices in Istanbul and the border province of Gaziantep. 

Qatar Charity also signed a five-year cooperation agreement with the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), the government’s lead agency on emergency response and refugee management, in November 2016. A similar five-year MoU was signed between the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) and Qatar Charity on Dec. 12, 2016, and TL 23.7 million ($6.8 million) had been provided to Kızılay by Qatar Charity by April 2017 to cover expenses in Syria. The agreement sees a $10 million contribution to Kızılay. 

It is clear that Qatar Charity’s funds aid and abet Erdoğan’s project of moving Turkey away from being a parliamentary democracy by pumping funds to controversial groups like the IHH that are bent on undermining the secular structure of the country. As long as the Erdoğan government keeps protecting these shadowy networks, it is impossible to investigate how much money is actually going to charity work and how much is being diverted to finance terrorism and armed conflict. But there are a lot of red flags out there that point in a direction where things do not appear to be what they seem.

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