Serbian news agencies reported this week that a Turkish charity, best known for organizing a 2010 flotilla to Gaza that led to conflict with Israeli commandos on the high seas, is under investigation in Bosnia-Herzegovina for exporting weapons to jihadis in Syria. Reports (see here and here) suggest that the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) may have been working with several local charities and businesses, and even the Bosnia-Herzegovina Ministry of Defense.
The IHH has long-standing ties to Bosnia. As early as 1996, the CIA reportedly noted that the charity was one of fifteen NGOs sponsoring terrorist activities in Bosnia. Esad Hecimovic, a Bosnian investigative journalist, asserts that the IHH was linked to jihadist activity and arms trafficking during the Bosnia conflict. French magistrate Jean-Louis Brougiere further notes that the IHH played a role in Ahmed Ressam's failed plot to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999.
The IHH came under considerable scrutiny following the 2010 flotilla to Gaza. The Dutch and German governments both issued designations of purported IHH branches for their ties to Hamas (the Turkish IHH denied any connection to them). U.S. agencies also began examining whether the IHH deserved a terror designation. A leaked classified cable reveals the Treasury Department's concerns that the IHH has provided Hamas with material assistance. To date, no designation has been issued.
More recently, concerns have surfaced regarding the IHH's support for extremists in Syria. A March 2013 McClatchy report suggests that the IHH provides aid to fighters in Syria, including the Salafist faction Ahrar al-Sham, which fights alongside al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In December 2013, Abu Khalid al-Suri (Mohamed Bahaiah), a senior al-Qaeda operative, was identified as a leading figure in Ahrar al-Sham. According to the Treasury, al-Suri is al-Qaeda's representative in Syria and received at least $600,000 in 2013 from a Qatar-based al-Qaeda financier for operations in Syria.
The IHH came under additional scrutiny on January 1, 2014, when Turkish media alleged that the charity was transporting weaponry to Syria. The IHH denied the allegations. Two weeks later, however, Turkish anti-terror units conducted raids in six cities against people suspected of financing, arming, and fighting on behalf of al-Qaeda and other jihadists in Syria. Among the locations targeted was an IHH office near the Syrian border. At least one suspect was arrested at the IHH office in Kilis. Another IHH employee was detained in Kayseri after the police raided his home.
The IHH enjoys significant support from the Turkish government. These recent reports out of Bosnia-Herzegovina raise new and troubling questions about the charity's activities and why Ankara continues to lend its support.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.