Turkey's flirtation with terrorists is falling apart

Saleh al-Arouri hamassocial mediaSaleh al-Arouri

A key Hamas official who operated out of Turkey for years was sanctioned by last week by the US Treasury Department for his role in organising and inciting terrorism in the West Bank and Israel.

Given Ankara’s history for working with US-designated terrorists — and some of the disastrous implications by those connections — the most recent designation shows how Turkey’s quiet dance with terrorism finance is falling apart.

Saleh Al-Arouri, commander of a powerful arm of Hamas known as the West Bank Qassem Brigades, found refuge in Turkey after Hamas abandoned its Damascus branch due to the Syrian civil war.

Al-Arouri built an infrastructure for his operations in Turkey, finding sympathy from Turkish President Recep Erdogan who has long advocated that the international community recognise Hamas as a legitimate political entity.

Ankara has provided at least $US300 million to Hamas, effectively sponsoring a US-designated terrorist organisation.

The US only got around to sanctioning Arouri last week, but his presence in Turkey from 2012-2105 and his relationship with Erdogan was an open secret.

As Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, has pointed out, Arouri’s diplomatic ties to high-level Turkish officials beginning in 2012 was well documented, and the US expressed “concerns about Turkey’s relationship with Hamas” as far back as 2013.

‘Erdogan’s Hamas policy … has collapsed’

If Turkish officials were warned of the designation, it speaks to the Obama administration’s hesitance to rock the boat with Ankara off the heels of an anti-ISIS deal struck in July, in which the US was finally given permission to use Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to strike ISIS in northern Syria.

“Because of the way this unfolded, Erdogan is off the hook for allowing al-Arouri to operate from within Turkey all those years,” Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Treasury, said.

“What it does indicate, however, is that Erdogan’s Hamas policy — this idea that Turkey could be an external headquarters for senior Hamas figures — has collapsed.”

While the designation likely won’t have a significant negative impact on Hamas, which will stay based out of Gaza and maintain an external headquarters in Qatar, the sanctions against al-Arouri have “hamstrung” Erdogan, Schanzer noted.

“Internally, for those who are aware of it, the sanctions do appear to be a blow,” Schanzer noted.

The US Treasury’s decision to sanction al-Arouri now might have something to do with the administration’s desire to appease Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, Schanzer said, and demonstrate to Congress that officials are taking the threat of Iran-sponsored terrorism seriously.

“Still, I’m not sure that the Israelis will say, ‘This is wonderful,'” Schanzer said. “Al-Arouri may be out of Turkey, but he’s been moved to another country, and the sanctions likely won’t have a significant impact on his finances.”

Al Qaeda, ISIS, and bin Laden

Turkey is no stranger to having relationship with US-designated terrorist organisations: Ankara has maintained a relationship of convenience al-Qaeda in Syria, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and earlier this year a Western diplomat said that the links between ISIS and Erdogan’s government were “undeniable.”

Anakara’s ISIS policy — facilitating a transit point for cheap oil, weapons, foreign fighters, and pillaged antiquities — is largely seen as a disaster as the Syrian war has dragged on and ISIS has gotten stronger.

A Western diplomat, speaking to The Wall Street Journal in February, asserted that “Turkey is trapped now — it created a monster and doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

Erdogan has also defended Yasin al-Qadi — a Saudi billionaire who was listed as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the U.S. Treasury in October 2001 for allegedly funding Osama bin Laden, Hamas, and other terrorist groups — for more than a decade.

The prime minister’s security detail has also escorted al Qadi into Turkey without a passport or visa. A list of people due to be arrested in a late 2013 corruption probe included al Qadi, who was reportedly linked to the prime minister’s son Bilal, but the orders were not carried out.

“When [al-Qadi] was first designated, his front companies were all based in Turkey … and he had quite a bit of operations on Turkish soil,” Schanzer told Business Insider in January 2014.

“We don’t know exactly what the relationship is with al-Qadi, but we know that his problems started in Turkey,” Schanzer added at the time. “It’s very hard to look at this right now without remembering that and asking the question: Has he remained active in Turkey through this time?”

A Senior Hamas official in a NATO country

Erdogan’s flirtation with the terrorist organisation prompted two dozen members of Congress to write a letter to the Treasury Department in December asking that Turkey be designated a state sponsor of terror and sanctioned accordingly.

As a member of NATO and potentially important ally in the fight against the Islamic State, however, the sanctions were never imposed.

“Nobody really wanted to acknowledge that a senior Hamas military figure was based in a NATO country,” Schanzer said.

“But a few weeks ago, we started to see reports that Arouri had fled Turkey, so Erodgan must have been given warning to get him off Turkish soil.”

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