Turkey’s Intelligence Agency (MIT) was the “midwife” that helped the birth and rise of ISIS

Turkey’s Intelligence Agency (MIT) was the “midwife” that helped the birth and rise of ISIS –

By David Phillips


Now that U.S. forces are engaged in combat operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq, the Obama administration must press ISIS on all fronts, targeting its financing, logistics, and weapons providers. Turkey — America’s ally and NATO member — is allegedly involved. Clarifying Turkey’s role would serve U.S.-Turkey relations. 

During my visit recent to Turkey, members of Turkey’s parliament and prominent personalities described connections between Turkey, Turks and militant Sunni organizations, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They allege a prominent role for Turkey’s Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), an Islamic charity with a history of assisting extremist groups. Bilal Erdogan, President-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son, has ties to the IHH board, and allegedly uses his father’s political network to raise funds for the organization. Some sources say Bilal has served on the IHH board, but the IHH web site does not currently list him as a board member.

Cengiz Candar, one of Turkey’s most respected journalists recently wrote that Turkey’s Intelligence Agency (MIT) was the “midwife” that helped birth the Sunni armed movement. Beginning in 2012, according to Candar, Turkey provided weapons and logistical support to jihadis fighting the Syrian regime and to abort the birth of an autonomous Kurdistan in Syria.

President-elect Erdogan was outraged by atrocities committed against Sunni Muslims in Syria. He became the chief critic of Syria’s President Bashar al- Assad, hosting opposition groups and the Free Syrian Army’s headquarters in Gaziantep. The West’s failure to support the Free Syrian Army further incensed Erdogan. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates provided funds, while Turkey coordinated the travel, payments, and weapons supplies for ISIS, Al-Nusra, and the Islamic Front.

According to a March 2010 report of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IHH had an annual budget of $100 million with field operations in 120 countries. IHH works with Muslim Brotherhood affiliates worldwide. The first known shipment of weapons to “Brothers” in Syria occurred in September 2012. Free Syrian Army commanders learned that a boat loaded with weapons docked in Syria. It was registered to members of IHH.

Major contributors to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party are “encouraged” to make contributions, lest they fall from favor and lose government contracts. IHH also receives money from international sponsors. IHH is financed by Yasin Al-Qadi, a wealthy al Qaeda-linked Saudi businessman with close ties to Erdogan. IHH is an affiliate of the Saudi-based “Union of Good.” Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, an advocate of suicide attacks in Israel, chairs the “Union of Good.” Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a radical cleric and “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the United States in 2004, serves on its board. In 2010, the German branch of IHH was banned for links to jihadist activity. The U.S. Department of State listed the Union of Good as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

Israel banned IHH in 2008 for money laundering funds to Hamas. IHH became known to the international community for organizing the 2010 Gaza flotilla, a stunt to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians and provoke the Israeli Defense Forces.

President-elect Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tried to diversify Turkey’s alliances in the Middle relying on Muslim Brotherhood chapters around the region and surrogates like IHH. From the West, Turkey looks like a Middle Eastern country. But from the Middle East, Turkey appears decidedly Western. Erdogan’s outreach to ISIS was a fool’s errand. Turkey thought it could control ISIS, but Erdogan was mistaken.

In May 2013, twin bombings in Reyhanli, a Turkish town in Hatay Province near the Syrian border, killed 52 people and injured 146. The Turkish government accused Syria of plotting the attack. But ISIS claimed 

After Reyhanli, Turks grew wary of entanglements in Syria’s civil war. They also resented the $1.5 billion cost of providing for 800,000 Syrian refugees. Ankara tried to distance itself from ISIS. Suspending support was easier said than done.

Former President and seven-time Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel said, “It is fundamental principle that there is one state. In our country there are two.” He was referring to the so-called “Deep State,” a shadowy network of bureaucrats, intelligence and security officials, and members of organized crime who are involved in arms and drug smuggling and have a history of targeted killings and political assassinations. With or without Erdogan’s knowledge, the ISIS gravy train continued.

An IHH truck was stopped by the gendarmerie near Adana in Hatay on January 1, 2014. It was loaded with arms and ammunition headed for Syria. The Hatay public prosecutor tried to launch an investigation, but was blocked. When he filed a criminal complaint alleging obstruction of justice by Turkey’s Interior Minister and MIT, he was dismissed. Police who stopped the vehicle were fired. The Hatay governor said the operation was a “state secret.”

Ammunition was also found on two passenger buses heading to Syria. Officers from the antiterrorism branch of the Adana Police Department released photos of ammunition on the buses to the media. They, too, were fired.

In an effort to clear Turkey’s name, the government cracked down on IHH in early January 2014. Turkish authorities arrested 23 people, including senior al-Qaeda operatives, associated with IHH, including al-Qaeda’s Middle East deputy leader İbrahim Şen, who is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, and Al Qaeda’s Turkey representative, Halis Bayancuk. The move against IHH came just weeks before Geneva II, a major international conference aimed at stopping Syria’s civil war, where Turkey was envisioned to play a leading role.

Members of Turkey’s parliament allege that the government still supports jihadis — facilitating their travel at border crossings between Turkey and Syria, providing truckloads of weapons, and offering health care at Turkish state hospitals to wounded warriors.

Parliamentarians wrote President-elect Erdogan and Davutoglu asking for an official explanation of government ties to ISIS, and its knowledge about IHH activities. The letters were conveyed through Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek. The government did not respond.

Deputies report the steady flow of unmarked trucks in Adana, Kilis, Gaziantep, and Kayseri – towns near the border with Syria. They believe the trucks are transporting weapons. Residents of Kilis describe routine interaction between Turkish officials on one side of the border and ISIS on the other.

According to a Turkish doctor, Turkish ambulances deliver war-wounded to Turkish hospitals on the border with Syria. They have no papers or identification. The Ministry of Health covers their expenses. The notoriousISIS commander, Abu Muhammed, was photographed receiving treatment at Hatay State Hospital in April 2014.

Not all ISIS fighters are foreign fighters. About 10 percent are Turkish citizens, according to a well-known Turkish scholar.

Some Islamist Turks sympathize with ISIS and support its conservative values. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc recently said, “A woman will know what is haram [forbidden] and not haram. She will not laugh out loud in public.”

Devotion to Islam is one thing. Assisting Islamists to commit genocide in the name of God is another.

Instead of excuses and denial,Turkish officials should condemn the Islamic State. To show the world it is serious about fighting terrorism, Turkey should establish a joint border monitoring mechanism with the UN to make sure no weapons are transferred to ISIS.

Bilal Erdogan should disassociate from the IHH. IHH’s Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council should be suspended, pending an investigation into its activities.

To this end, the U.S. Congress should hold hearings on Turkish ties to ISIS. If IHH is implicated, it should be listed as an FTO. Listing would freeze IHH assets and impose travel bans on IHH principals.

Turkey has stood side by side with the United States in the fight against terrorism. At this critical juncture, Turkey must play a helpful role stabilizing Iraq and protecting Iraqi Kurdistan. It is important that Turkey rejoin the coalition of nations in good-standing who oppose violence and extremism.


Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. He is also author of the forthcoming book, “The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East” (Transaction Publishers).


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