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How extremist is the IHH, really?

When I flipped open Evan Kohlmann’s 2006 report on Insani Yardim Vakhi (IHH), the Turkish organization that helped organize the Gaza-bound flotilla raided by Israel on Monday, I was half-expecting a series of thinly-sourced allegations that attempted to tie the group to Islamic extremist movements. After all, Kohlmann’s credentials have been raked over the coals ...

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

When I flipped open Evan Kohlmann’s 2006 report on Insani Yardim Vakhi (IHH), the Turkish organization that helped organize the Gaza-bound flotilla raided by Israel on Monday, I was half-expecting a series of thinly-sourced allegations that attempted to tie the group to Islamic extremist movements. After all, Kohlmann’s credentials have been raked over the coals in recent days, in an attempt to discredit the report. Surely, the source document would be equally thin on facts?

It isn’t. Kohlmann’s report is a relic from a time when one could express concern over an obscure Turkish NGO’s connection to terrorists without the issue becoming hopelessly entangled with one’s loyalties in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And Kohlmann convincingly describes the group’s extensive ties to jihadist groups in Europe, Turkey, and North Africa.

Drawing on a French intelligence report, Kohlmann describes how the group fell under the scrutiny of Turkish security forces in the late 1990s, who "uncovered an array of disturbing items, including firearms, explosives, [and] bomb-making instructions" in the organization’s Istanbul offices. The Turks determined that the IHH’s members were planning to join the mujahideen in Bosnia and Chechnya, and that the president of the organization had worked to send men to Muslim countries for "jihad," and trasferred weapons to those countries. An analysis of the group’s telephone records also revealed phone calls to an al Qaeda guesthouse in Milan, and Algerian terrorist networks in Europe.

Overall, Kohlmann paints a picture of an organization that maintains close working relationships with extremist organizations, and which has often run afoul of Turkish authorities. In 1999, following the disastrous earthquakes that struck northwestern Turkey, the Turkish government eventually banned the IHH from distributing aid, naming it as one of several "fundamentalist organizations" that refused to provide information on its activities. It is not Israeli PR flacks that provide the damning facts about IHH, but French and Turkish authorities. In today’s New York Times, Henri Barkey, no hard-line Kemalist himself, also refers to the IHH as a "quite fundamentalist" organization that has dabbled in inflammatory rhetoric against Jews.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that Israel’s actions aboard the flotilla on Saturday constituted a tragedy, and a disaster for international peace. The Israel Defense Forces are tasked every day with confronting people who despise them, and Israel can only be truly protected by not killing them. Still, the IHH’s history does shed light on the challenges that the IDF likely faced aboard the Mavi Marmara, and why it failed so spectacularly in its mission.

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