Why Is Turkey Harboring Terrorists?

Turkey’s connections to Hamas and al-Qaida have been a strain on U.S.-Turkish relations.

Turkish protesters confront police forces during riots in a restaurant district of Ankara June 5, 2013.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
Feb. 6, 2014, midnight

Tur­key is ar­gu­ably Amer­ica’s most im­port­ant ally on is­sues in the Middle East — it’s a strong NATO mem­ber, it rep­res­ents the in­terests of the United States in sev­er­al area con­flicts, and it’s a ma­jor part­ner in glob­al coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts. But for a coun­try that so pub­licly at­tacks vi­ol­ent ex­trem­ism, it has also in sev­er­al in­stances har­bored and as­sisted ter­ror­ists with­in its own bor­ders.

Sus­pec­ted con­nec­tions to lead­ers of the ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion Hamas and re­la­tion­ships with fin­an­ci­ers of al-Qaida have put strains on the re­la­tion­ship between the U.S. and Tur­key, and threaten fu­ture co­oper­a­tion on se­cur­ity is­sues.

There are two ma­jor ex­amples of ex­trem­ist act­ors giv­en pro­tec­tion and ac­cess to lead­ers in Tur­key. The first is Saleh al-Arouri, the founder of Hamas’s armed wing in the West Bank, known as the Qas­sam Bri­gades. He lives in Tur­key and has, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, been in­volved in the fin­ance and lo­gist­ics for mil­it­ant op­er­a­tions in the re­gion.

The second is Saudi busi­ness­man Yasin al-Qadi, who ac­cord­ing to the U.S. gov­ern­ment, is an al-Qaida fin­an­ci­er. Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­dogan’s pro­tect­ive de­tail es­cor­ted him after he entered the coun­try re­cently without a pass­port or visa. (Er­dogan pre­vi­ously said, “I be­lieve in him as I be­lieve in my­self.”) He also sup­posedly met with Er­dogan’s son in Janu­ary. The Treas­ury De­part­ment has lis­ted him as a “spe­cially des­ig­nated glob­al ter­ror­ist” since 2001.

These con­nec­tions with Tur­key and its lead­ers, in­clud­ing Er­dogan, have some for­eign policy ana­lysts con­cerned.

“It looks like you’ve got a guy that’s off the rails there,” said Jonath­an Schan­zer, the vice pres­id­ent of re­search at the Found­a­tion for De­fense of Demo­cra­cies. “It’s an im­port­ant ally for the United States. They have been man­aging our Syr­ia policy. They were man­aging our Ar­ab Spring policy. We’ve got a prob­lem that’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to ig­nore.”

What makes this situ­ation worse is that Tur­key co­chairs a glob­al coun­terter­ror­ism ef­fort with the United States to go after ex­trem­ism at its root. To have a coun­try so pub­licly in­ves­ted in coun­terter­ror­ism but also har­bor­ing ex­trem­ist act­ors goes against the core of the ef­fort, es­pe­cially giv­en the part­ner­ship with the U.S.

“We’ve got a prob­lem that’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to ig­nore.”

This ef­fort, called the Glob­al Coun­terter­ror­ism For­um, was an­nounced by the State De­part­ment in Septem­ber and con­sists of 29 coun­tries and the European Uni­on. The group goes after rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion by pro­mot­ing loc­al or­gan­iz­a­tions and pro­jects that tar­get at-risk people in coun­tries where ex­trem­ism is com­mon. It uses funds raised by both gov­ern­ment and non­gov­ern­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tions around the world, with a goal of rais­ing more than $200 mil­lion over the next 10 years. Of­fi­cials hope for the ef­fort to be fully op­er­a­tion­al by the middle of this year.

The State De­part­ment did not re­spond to spe­cif­ic Turk­ish ter­ror con­nec­tions, but re­af­firmed its long­stand­ing part­ner­ship with Tur­key, cit­ing its coun­terter­ror­ism as­sist­ance to the Turk­ish na­tion­al po­lice.

Tur­key has un­doubtedly be­come one of the most stra­tegic al­lies of the U.S. in that part of the world in re­cent years, serving as a cush­ion and in­ter­me­di­ary with the volat­ile Middle East. The coun­try can be seen, though, as play­ing two sides. It has, in­deed, been a mod­el for com­bat­ing rad­ic­al­ism in the re­gion and an ex­ample of how mod­ern Is­lam, cap­it­al­ism, and demo­cracy can work to­geth­er. And Tur­key has em­braced these roles.

Pres­id­ent Obama praised the part­ner­ship between the U.S. and Tur­key in May when the Turk­ish prime min­is­ter vis­ited the White House. The two men have spoken fre­quently about the un­stable situ­ations in Egypt, Syr­ia, and oth­er na­tions. In the af­ter­math of the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks, Tur­key and the U.S. co­oper­ated ef­fect­ively against ter­ror­ism.

But the re­la­tion­ships with people con­nec­ted to Hamas and al-Qaida is such a prob­lem, ar­gues Schan­zer, that it might even qual­i­fy Tur­key as a state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism. Now, there are only four coun­tries cur­rently on that list: Cuba, Ir­an, Su­dan, and Syr­ia. All four na­tions provide sup­port for acts of ter­ror­ism, both do­mest­ic­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. For ex­ample, Ir­an has pre­vi­ously sent people to Ar­gen­tina to blow up syn­agogues in Jew­ish com­munity cen­ters, among oth­er in­stances.

Such a des­ig­na­tion from the U.S. gov­ern­ment would be quite drastic and is highly un­likely to hap­pen, con­sid­er­ing that it threatens an al­li­ance that has, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials, helped many Amer­ic­an ef­forts in the re­gion. Tur­key is crit­ic­al in over­throw­ing the As­sad re­gime in Syr­ia and con­tain­ing Ir­an. A ter­ror des­ig­na­tion, which hasn’t been giv­en since 1993, would mean sanc­tions and polit­ic­al isol­a­tion.

However, that is not say­ing Amer­ic­an of­fi­cials have not dir­ectly gone to Turk­ish of­fi­cials and ex­pressed their con­cern in this area. They have done so to “the highest levels,” ac­cord­ing to former U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to Tur­key James Jef­frey, who served from 2008 to 2010.

Dur­ing his ten­ure, the U.S. asked Tur­key on sev­er­al in­stances to de­tain people as­so­ci­ated with al-Qaida who were trav­el­ing through Tur­key. And on many of those oc­ca­sions, the Turks did not act di­li­gently enough and failed to de­liv­er.

“This does cause prob­lems with the United States,” said Jef­frey, who is cur­rently serving as a dis­tin­guished vis­it­ing fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Policy. “We deal with this all the time all over the Middle East”¦. You just keep on go­ing back and ask­ing them.”

These in­cid­ents have either been de­lib­er­ate on the part of the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, giv­ing ex­trem­ist act­ors a pass, or have of­ten been just be­cause of the por­ous leg­al sys­tem in the coun­try. When ter­ror­ists slip through, the U.S. will con­tact Tur­key, and ex­press its dis­ap­point­ment to the chag­rin of the Turks.

Pre­vi­ously, the Treas­ury De­part­ment has also called out Tur­key for let­ting al-Qaida fund­ing travel through the coun­try in­to Syr­ia, which sup­ports mil­it­ants fight­ing against the As­sad re­gime. But Tur­key has also gone after al-Qaida in its coun­try. Just in Janu­ary, Turk­ish law en­force­ment raided the of­fices of a hu­man­it­ari­an NGO, claim­ing they had ties to al-Qaida and were fun­nel­ing weapons in­to Syr­ia.

“Gen­er­ally, Tur­key will close a blind eye to groups that use ter­ror if Tur­key sees their polit­ic­al goals as com­mend­able.”

Hamas has also been a del­ic­ate sub­ject between the two coun­tries. Dur­ing the Rose Garden press con­fer­ence, Er­dogan de­fi­antly main­tained that he would travel to the Ga­za Strip and the West Bank, des­pite ob­jec­tions from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. At the time of Er­dogan’s vis­it to the U.S., the State De­part­ment re­peated its claim that Hamas is a “for­eign ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion.”

Tur­key, though, sup­ports Hamas polit­ic­ally as a le­git­im­ate, demo­crat­ic­ally elec­ted or­gan­iz­a­tion, which in their eyes will help lib­er­ate Palestine. Tur­key does re­cog­nize Is­rael and main­tains dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions, des­pite ma­jor policy ten­sions. They’d point out that Hamas lead­ers travel to coun­tries around the world. Tur­key just so hap­pens to be one of them.

So, while the U.S., like Is­rael, might view Hamas as a ter­ror­ist group, “Gen­er­ally, Tur­key will close a blind eye to groups that use ter­ror if Tur­key sees their polit­ic­al goals as com­mend­able,” Jef­frey said.

But it is not like Tur­key doesn’t deal with ter­ror­ism in­side its own bor­ders. To the con­trary, just be­fore Er­dogan’s vis­it to Wash­ing­ton, two car bombs killed dozens of people in his coun­try. And for dec­ades un­til last year, PKK mil­it­ants car­ried out at­tacks against Turks on be­half of minor­ity Kur­ds in the coun­try.

However, for a part­ner­ship as crit­ic­al as the one between the U.S. and Tur­key, the trouble­some Hamas and al-Qaida con­nec­tions con­tin­ue to serve as a point of ten­sion. Ter­ror­ism is a part of the mo­sa­ic of the Middle East, and some­times it’s used as a polit­ic­al tool by some coun­tries. In this in­stance, that coun­try is Tur­key.

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