Argument

Will the Turkish Flotilla Group Be Named as Terrorists?

With Congress urging action, and the legal case extremely strong, it’s only a matter of time before Turkey’s IHH makes the list.

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

It’s not every day that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and Ed Royce (R-CA), the ranking member of terrorism subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, agree on anything. But, when it comes to the terrorist connections of one particular Turkish charity, there’s no daylight between them. These legislators recently sent a letter to Stuart Levey, the under secretary for terror finance at the Treasury Department, stating that evidence "strongly supports" designating the Turkish charity IHH (Insan Haklari Ve Hurriyetleri Vakfi) under Executive Order 13224 for its support of terrorist groups, and urging Levey to take action.

IHH, by way of background, sponsored the ill-fated flotilla designed to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in late May. And though the Israeli military has come under intense fire for a confrontation that led to nine deaths on the high seas, legislators are increasingly convinced, based on a growing body of evidence, that IHH could meet the Treasury’s legal criteria for terrorist designation.

Other influential members of Congress are getting in the act, too. Representative Ron Klein, a Democrat from Florida, has also asked the government to scrutinize IHH. He sent a letter to the State Department last month asking its counterterrorism department to consider a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) listing. Last week, Richard Verma from State’s Office of Legislative Affairs responded with a letter indicating that the Turkish charity may not qualify as an FTO, but that "U.S. government agencies are taking a close look at IHH" for Treasury designation because "serious questions of support to terrorist organizations have been raised."

The congressional demand for a designation of IHH may actually be coming at a bad time. Treasury’s terrorism designation team, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, is working overtime. On June 16, Treasury announced the designation of dozens of targets tied to the Iranian nuclear program, as part of the Obama administration’s larger Iran sanctions strategy.  Treasury followed up again on Aug. 3 with a new tranche of targets tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Indeed, Levey and his team have been forced to take analysts off of their regular portfolios to produce these Iran designations, which often entail months of research, not to mention bureaucratic navigation.

This is not to say that IHH isn’t worthy of a Treasury designation. Indeed, it is puzzling that IHH has not already been designated. The group advertises the fact that it is a participating member of the Saudi-based umbrella organization Union of Good (Ittilaf al-Kheir in Arabic). On November 12, 2008, Treasury listed the Union as a terrorist entity, stating that the group was "created by Hamas leadership to transfer funds to the terrorist organization."

The fact that IHH voluntarily belongs to the Union automatically qualified it for designation. Indeed, if IHH has provided any funds to the Union of Good over the years, Treasury can build the case that the Turkish charity has provided financial support to a designated terrorist organization.

In 2008, based on declassified intelligence, Treasury announced that the Union of Good and its network was "facilitating financial transfers … to Hamas — and Hamas-controlled organizations," including the al-Salah Society, which was also designated by Treasury in 2007. The Treasury press release estimated that the funds amounted to "tens of millions of dollars a year."

IHH, of course, could argue that it has never contributed funds to the Union of Good. But even if this is true, the Turkish charity is not out of the woods. Union of Good’s top officials include Hamas members, as well as Yemeni national Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, who was designated by the U.S. Treasury as a terrorist in 2004 for providing support to al Qaeda. In this way, IHH could be viewed as "owned or controlled" by Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) — further grounds for designation.

We are also catching a glimpse of what foreign intelligence sources have reported about IHH. French magistrate Jean-Louis Brougière testified in 2001 that IHH had an "important role" in Ahmed Ressam’s failed "millennium plot" to bomb the Los Angeles airport in late 1999. Brougiere added that the Turkish IHH was "basically helping al-Qaida when [Osama] bin Laden started to want to target U.S. soil." So, IHH could also be tagged for providing financial or material support to a designated terrorist group.

Germany banned its IHH affiliate in July, noting the group’s close and continuing ties to Hamas, which the European Union classifies as a terrorist organization. We can presume that Germany has shared its findings with the U.S. intelligence community.

The Israelis, who make important contributions to U.S. intelligence, also have their own cause for concern. They banned IHH for its terrorist ties in 2002 and again in 2008. In the aftermath of the skirmish in May, an Israeli military spokesman announced that one of the flotilla passengers was Hussein Urosh, a Turkish IHH member who was trying to smuggle al Qaeda operatives via Turkey to Gaza.

Finally, Treasury’s legal team may need to at least mull the tricky question of whether IHH, in its effort to provide various items to the Hamas government in Gaza, was attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. While Hamas is the de facto government in Gaza, it is also a designated terrorist group, and has been since 1995.

According to a June Supreme Court decision, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, material support charges can be made even when the support is not financial or military. As Chief Justice John Roberts remarked, when such support lightens the financial burden of a terrorist group, it makes it easier for the group to allocate resources for terrorist activities. Indeed, Roberts stated that such support "helps lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups — legitimacy that makes it easier for those groups to persist, to recruit members and to raise funds."

Does all of this mean that IHH is destined for a terrorist designation? Not necessarily. Treasury will need to gather enough reliable intelligence to meet the Justice Department’s legal criteria for designation. Indeed, many lawyers will pore over this case before it is through.

Moreover, an interagency working group that includes the CIA, State Department, and the National Security Council will also need to grant its blessings. This can make the process painfully political.

The State Department is particularly good at encumbering the designations. It’s a good bet that State will get involved in this one. A designation of IHH would undoubtedly put additional stress on U.S.-Turkish relations, which have been already damaged by the ruling Justice and Development Party’s steady drift into the Iranian orbit.

In this case, however, State may not have the upper hand. With the involvement of Representative Berman — whose House Foreign Affairs Committee oversees State Department operations — as well as Representatives Royce and Klein — it is likely that the facts of the case alone will ultimately determine the administrative fate of the Turkish IHH.

Jonathan Schanzer is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @JSchanzer

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