A terror-linked charity closely linked to the Turkish government is organizing human shields in the Gaza Strip and pledging to “erect the flag of Islam everywhere.” Prime Minister Erdogan is a top backer of Hamas and allows this charity, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), to operate.
IHH’s website has a photo of the sign-up event in front of the Israeli embassy. The website refers to the Hamas terrorists targeted by Israel as “resistance fighters.” CNN Turkey reports that IHH has signed up at least 73 volunteers to act as human shields in Gaza, with 38 being women.
Another page on the website talks about an IHH press conference where its president, Bulent Yildirim, openly talked about its organizing of human shields. Its press release was endorsed by the Association of Muslim Scholars, a body led by the spiritual leader of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We, as IHH started the human shield project,” Yildirim said.
He said that it is negotiating safe passage with the Syrian government and if the Assad regime refuses, they will arrive by boat. He also called on Muslim countries to “provide weaponry support for self-protection.”
Shockingly, Yildirim said the objective of sending the human shields is to spark a war between Israel and Turkey and the broader Muslim world. He explained:
“[W]e will tell Turkey that they will have to protect us. When we are passing by sea, if Israel fires at the Turkish ships protecting us, they will come face to face with the Israel and Turkey alliance. We are looking at how this war will end up. We are ready.”
The long-term goal of IHH is to create a caliphate, as Yildirim stated matter-of-factly:
“Israel has done what we could not do. Israel has laid the foundation of an Islamic Union by attacking Gaza. I believe that soon, all Muslim countries will unite to become members of the establishment of the Islamic Union,” Yildirim said.
IHH is also organizing protests in Turkey. At one event, which registered people to be human shields, Yildirim said, “Witness the enthusiasm of people gathered here to go to Gaza. We Muslims may show up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem one day unannounced and we will erect the flag of Islam everywhere.”
IHH is headquartered in Istanbul but operates in 135 countries, including the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. It is best known for its role in the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when IHH sent a ship to break the Israeli weapons blockade on Gaza.
According to the UN, the blockade was legal. It was set up to prevent Hamas from importing weapons through the sea. Yildirim said at the IHH press conference that the Mavi Marmara will soon sail to Gaza again.
IHH members on the Mavi Marmara were armed. When Israeli soldiers boarded the vessel, nine IHH members were killed attacking the Israelis. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan used the opportunity to confront Israel and elevate his stature among Islamists. IHH Deputy Director Huseyin Oruc said he was warmly embraced by the Deputy Prime Minister after the incident and “we have good coordination with Mr. Erdogan.”
Up to 10 MPs from Erdogan’s AK political party planned to board the ship but were told by the government not to. At least 21 people on IHH’s board of directors at the time were involved with Erdogan’s AK party. One IHH official was the chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
According to its website, the Turkish parliament bestowed IHH with an “Award of Honor” in 2007. In 2009, Yildirim spoke at a Hamas event and declared, “All the peoples of the Islamic world would want a leader like Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
IHH is reacting to the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas with extremist incitement, just as Erdogan is. Erdogan says Israel has “surpassed Hitler in barbarism” and has launched a campaign of "systematic genocide." IHH falsely claims that Israel is firing missiles randomly into Gaza “without considering women and children.”
IHH’s links to Hamas would only encourage Erdogan to embrace the group. In 2010, Erdogan declared that Hamas is not a terrorist group. His government supports Hamas politically and financially and even harbors Hamas leaders. Erdogan is also an unshakeable friend of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas.
Germany, the Netherlands and Israel have all banned IHH as a terrorist organization. The U.S. has not, even though 87 Senators have requested it, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and prominent leaders of both political parties.
The U.S. government has indirectly admitted that IHH is linked to terrorism. In 2008, the Treasury Department sanctioned the Union of Good, a network of charities, because it was “created by Hamas leadership to transfer funds to the organization.” IHH is a member of the Union of Good.
In 2009, a senior Treasury Department official addressed IHH’s terrorist ties with Turkish officials. A leaked State Department document records that the official mentioned how IHH is “providing material assistance to Hamas.”
In 2010, the State Department said it could not prove links between IHH and Al Qaeda but is “greatly concern[ed]” about IHH’s meetings with Hamas leaders. The State Department earlier said it was considering labeling IHH as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It never happened.
The links of IHH to Hamas, labeled by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, are irrefutable. The two lavish praise upon each other. IHH sponsored a funeral for a Hamas leader named Mohammad Said Heyam. IHH’s campaign coordinator in Europe, Muhammad Sawalha, used to be a senior Hamas leader before moving to the United Kingdom.
French counterterrorism magistrate Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere has documented links between IHH and Al Qaeda as well. For example, he has referred to phone calls between IHH and an Al Qaeda safe house in 1996. Turkish police raids on IHH in 1997 found strong evidence of its involvement in violent jihad.
The Danish Institute for International Studies quotes from his report:
It appears that the detained members of IHH were going to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya … The essential goal of this Association was to illegally arm its membership for overthrowing democratic, secular, and constitutional order present in Turkey and replacing it with an Islamic state founded on the Shariah.
Under the cover of this organization known under the name of IHH, [IHH leaders] acted to recruit veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war. In particular, some men were sent into war zones in Muslim countries in order to acquire combat experience. On the spot, the formation of a military unit was assured. In addition, towards the purpose of obtaining political support from these countries, financial aid was transferred [from IHH], as well as caches of firearms, knives, and pre-fabricated explosives.
In 2001, federal prosecutors called upon the magistrate as an expert witness in the trial of Al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Ressam. He was involved in the “Millennium Bomb Plot” to attack the Los Angeles International Airport.
Bruguiere testified that IHH had an “important role” in the Al Qaeda plot. He referred to phone calls from the terror cell’s apartment to IHH in Istanbul.
In 2011, two IHH members were arrested in Somalia after meeting with Al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate there. They traveled to an area known to be under the control of the terrorist group; IHH says they were delivering humanitarian aid to refugees.
The Erdogan government clashed with its own law enforcement earlier this year when it took action against IHH and Al Qaeda. In early January, Turkish police stopped an IHH truck that was suspected of transferring weapons to Syria. The officers involved were retaliated against and moved to new jobs. The public prosecutor filed a complaint against the government for obstructing justice.
About two weeks later, Turkish police raided six IHH offices as part of a terrorism investigation and arrested 23 people for allegedly having links to Al Qaeda. It was reported that two were senior Al Qaeda operatives. The lead police officer was immediately fired and the raids were condemned by the Deputy Prime Minister. The eight involved prosecutors had their bodyguards reassigned and a second police chief was fired.
IHH operates in Turkey without any interference from Erdogan as it supports Hamas and recruits human shields. Yet, the U.S. hasn’t followed Germany, the Netherlands and Israel in listing IHH as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Erdogan’s government would erupt in anger if the U.S. treated IHH like the terrorist entity it undoubtedly is, but that is the action required to counter the organization's terrorist activities. At the same time, the U.S. needs to initiate a reevaluation of Ankara's membership in NATO member since this is just the latest in a string of actions taken by the Turkish government in support of extremists and terrorism.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.