Turkey is a problematic ally for the US and Europe
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
By Thomas Joscelyn
Washington, August 4, 2021
New US sanctions against Syria aim to restrict cash flow to those committing atrocities in a civil war now almost one decade old.
The financial restrictions, announced July 28, by the US Treasury and State Departments target multiple groups in the Syrian War. Nobody has killed and imprisoned more Syrians than the regime under Bashar Al Assad. The US sanctions target Syrian officials overseeing Assad’s mass murder and torture machine.
“More than 14,000 detainees have died after being tortured at the hands of the Assad regime, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, while 130,000 Syrians are still missing or detained,” the State Department points. These prisoners are held in a network of facilities run by the Assad regime’s intelligence arms, which were targeted in the most recent measures.
The US financial sanctions target more than Assad’s henchmen. Others aim to limit the resources of extremists and jihadists backed by Turkey, a NATO ally who has developed a web of connections in the terrorist underworld.
Consider the case of Ahrar Al Sharqiya, an extremist group that has played a key role in Turkey’s military incursions into northern Syria.
Ahrar Al Sharqiya isn’t ISIS, but its Islamist agenda is obviously close enough to the former caliphate’s that ISIS cadres quickly found a new home inside the group.
Ahrar Al Sharqiya is hardly the only extremist group to garner Turkey’s favour. In a separate designation, the US Treasury Department identified Hasan Al Shaban as an Al Qaeda bag man. While working on Turkish soil, Al Shaban has overseen a financial network that moves “money from associates across North Africa, Western Europe, and North America.” This Al Qaeda financing is transferred through accounts in Turkey to support the “mujahideen” in Syria.
Another money man based in Turkey, Farrukh Furkatovitch Fayzimatov, works for the Al Qaeda offshoot Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS). He is allowed to recruit and “solicit donations” for HTS inside Turkey, even though the US, UN and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has designated HTS as a terrorist organisation.
The truth is none of this is surprising. US government departments have documented Turkey’s permissive attitude towards Al Qaeda and ISIS figures for years.
In January 2021, the Treasury Department reported that ISIS continues to rely on “logistical hubs” in Turkey. These hubs connect ISIS’s financial network in Iraq and Syria to other points globally.
In November 2019, the Treasury Department designated two brothers – Ismail and Ahmet Bayaltun – for their roles as “procurement agents” for the Islamic State. The brothers are based in Turkey and own businesses along the Syrian border. These businesses allegedly act as fronts for ISIS to move money and secure supplies.
Earlier in 2019, the US government designated members of the Rawi Network operating in Turkey. The Rawi Network originally helped Saddam Hussein’s regime evade sanctions, but became a core financial apparatus for the Islamic State.
In 2017, the Treasury Department said that another jihadist, Salim Mustafa Muhammad Al Mansur, had relocated to Turkey after serving as the Islamic State’s “finance emir” in Mosul, Iraq.
Erdoğan’s security forces often announce raids on jihadist cells, but it appears Turkey is a haven for terrorists.
In April 2016, the US killed in Syria Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, a well-known Al Qaeda-linked terrorist. Musa had worked with Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri since the 1980s. He had been tied to several international terrorist plots. US intelligence closely tracked Musa as he crossed the border from Turkey into Syria’s Idlib province. As it turned out, Musa’s decision to leave Turkey proved to be fatal, as he was quickly struck down after stepping foot on Syrian soil.
Had Musa stayed in Turkey, he’d likely still be alive today. Before his death, photos of Musa with his long-time comrade-in-arms, Mohammed Islambouli, circulated on social media. The two were pictured in shopping areas with Turkey. Islambouli is the brother of the assassin who killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Islambouli is also a well-known Al Qaeda leader. Before relocating to Turkey, he spent years living inside Iran. At one point, Islambouli even maintained a Facebook page that documented his trips to various civilian spots within Turkey. Unlike Musa, Islambouli is likely still alive today.
As the examples above demonstrate, Turkey is a deeply problematic ally for the US and Europe. Some have likened it to Pakistan, another nation nominally allied with the West that also harbours extremists. Like Pakistan, the challenges posed by Turkey’s duplicity are not going away soon.
Hevrin Khalaf was a Kurdish-Syrian politician and civil engineer. She served as the Secretary General of the Future Syria Party after working for many years in Rojava. She was killed by Turkish-backed Ahrar Al Sharqiya on October 12, 2019.
The US sanctioned Ahrar Al Sharqiya for engaging “in abductions, torture, and seizures of private property from civilians,” while also “barring displaced Syrians from returning to their homes.” The group “controls a large prison complex outside Aleppo where hundreds have been executed since 2018.” The group planned a string of kidnappings for ransoms, “targeting prominent business and opposition figures from the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.” Among the group’s victims is Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish political figure who was assassinated in October 2019.
Turkey sponsoring Ahrar Al Sharqiya is well known. The group became a refuge for former Islamic State (ISIS) fighters after the so-called caliphate crumbled is also well known. “Ahrar Al Sharqiya has “integrated former ISIS members into its ranks,” the US Treasury Department notes. Ahmad Ihsan Fayyad Al Hayes (aka ‘Abu Hatem Shaqra’), the leader of the group, has overseen their integration. A “number of former ISIS officials” swore allegiance to Al Hayes and then worked on his “ransom and extortion efforts.”
Other former ISIS goons serve Raed Jassim Al Hayes, Ahrar Al Sharqiya’s military commander. Among his fighters is a former member of an ISIS unit “known for frequent torture of civilians.”
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies published this article July 30, 2021. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow and Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.