Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Gaza flotilla sponsor under investigation for allegedly funding al-Qaeda

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Bülent Yıldırım, President of the Turkish aid organisation Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which sponsored the ill-fated and controversial "Mavi Marmara" flotilla to Gaza in 2010, is under investigation in Turkey for allegedly providing financial support to al-Qaeda. As reported in the Turkish Hürriyet Daily News,

"The probe, led by an Istanbul specially authorized prosecutor, accuses Yıldırım of ‘providing financial aid to al-Qaeda via his foundation' with absolute secrecy, reportedly without official numbering and identification."

Details surrounding the nature of and motivation behind the investigation are still emerging, but these developments, which the Turkish Habertürk Daily newspaper first reported last week, puts the charity's activities under new scrutiny. IHH is affiliated with Hamas along with the Union of Good, "an organization created by Hamas leadership to transfer funds to the terrorist organization." Indeed, IHH is no stranger to allegations that it aligns itself with Islamist extremist groups. In 2006, the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) issued a report on the group, reporting that they established connections with such organizations almost immediately after it was founded:

Turkish authorities began their own domestic criminal investigation of IHH as early as December 1997, when sources revealed that leaders of IHH were purchasing automatic weapons from other regional Islamic militant groups. IHH's bureau in Istanbul was thoroughly searched, and its local officers were arrested. Security forces uncovered an array of disturbing items, including firearms, explosives, bomb-making instructions, and a ‘jihad flag.' After analyzing seized IHH documents, Turkish authorities concluded that ‘detained members of IHH were going to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.'"

Bülent Yıldırım's personal role in these activities was at the centre of these allegations, and the same appears to be true today, nearly 20 years after the first investigations were conducted. The DIIS report notes that

"IHH President Bulent Yildrim had directly conspired in the mid-1990s to ‘recruit veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war [jihad]. In particular, some men were sent into war zones in Muslim countries in order to acquire combat experience.'
Furthermore, in the hopes of ‘obtaining political support from these countries, financial aid was transferred [on behalf of IHH], as well as caches of firearms, knives, and pre-fabricated explosives.' An examination of IHH's phone records in Istanbul showed repeated telephone calls in 1996 to an Al-Qaida guesthouse in Milan and various Algerian terrorist operatives active elsewhere in Europe - including the notorious Abu el-Ma`ali, who has been subsequently termed by U.S. officials as a ‘junior Osama Bin Laden.'"

IHH's involvement with anti-Western organisations and causes continued through the 1990s and 2000s, including inciting massive anti-American protests in Turkey in response to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The organisation gained worldwide notoriety in 2010 when it was one of the main organisers of the Gaza flotilla, in which Israeli commandos killed 9 pro-Palestinian activists - all Turkish citizens - when they came under violent attack upon boarding the ship to prevent it from reaching its destination. The incident put immense strain on the Israeli-Turkish relationship, which is still tense to this day.

While the Gaza flotilla incident strained relations between Israel and Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been vocal in his support of Bülent Yıldırım and of IHH's participation in the flotilla. What's more, Erdoğan's connections to other alleged funders of terror organisations are themselves not new. As Michael Rubin recently noted,

"This would not be the first time a prominent Turk has sought ways to finance al-Qaeda. Cuneyd Zapsu, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has enriched himself tremendously off his political connections to Erdoğan, donated tens of thousands of dollars to Yasin al-Qadi, designated by both the United Nations and U.S. Treasury as a financier for al-Qaeda."

This most recent investigation is notable because it appears to be the first time that Yıldırım has been investigated for his al-Qaeda links in Turkey - other investigations have taken place elsewhere, in countries such as the US, Denmark, France and Israel. Moreover, news of the investigation into Bülent Yıldırım's connections to al-Qaeda come at the same time that Turkish authorities detained eight people in western Turkey for alleged ties to the al-Qaeda network.

What will come of this investigation is unclear. All that can be certain is that Bülent Yıldırım and IHH's alleged terror connections are becoming increasingly difficult to hide or ignore.

Andrea Nadel