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Keep Relief Efforts from Terrorists' Hands

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*This blog was co-authored by Danny Eisen

War, natural disasters and political instability ensure that the issue of foreign aid remains at the forefront of Canadian policy and public debate. It is a complex and sometimes controversial arena that speaks to the deepest values of many Canadians.

But it is also a theatre that has attracted the interest of some of humanity's most sinister elements. These players see opportunity in the suffering of others to further their ideological agendas. Ironically, these agendas are committed to the propagation of the very violations of human rights that our foreign aid efforts seek to mitigate.

Indeed, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Tamil Tigers and al-Qaeda have utilized social service networks to educate, recruit, fundraise, and ultimately legitimize a philosophy that openly espouses hatred and violence. Until 9/11, many "aid" organizations affiliated with these groups successfully established bulkheads in Western countries, raising enormous sums of money to win hearts through food and minds through education -- and to inflict death through terror and violence.

To its credit, Canada has sanctioned some of these front organizations by designating them as terrorist organizations, depriving them of charitable status, or freezing their assets. But the Turkish-based IHH has managed to avoid a terrorist designation in North America -- a disconcerting fact that Canada would be wise to remedy.

Otherwise known as Insani Yardim Vakfi or the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the IHH has long had ties to al-Qaeda and Hamas. Registered in Istanbul in 1995, the organization's original mission included the provision of aid to Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslavian civil war. They deny any terrorist affiliations and their stated objective has since broadened to deliver humanitarian aid to distressed areas throughout the world.

It seems, though, that they deliver more than food and medical supplies. On January 1, an IHH-connected truck was stopped by Turkish security forces at the Syrian border and discovered to be loaded with weapons. Two weeks later, Turkish police raided an IHH office as part of a crackdown against individuals with alleged links to al-Qaeda. Most recently, Serbian news agencies have reported that the IHH is being investigated in Bosnia-Herzegovina for exporting weapons to jihadists in Syria.

These incidents are neither aberrations nor the work of freelance elements within the IHH. The organization has been on the radar screen of counterterrorism specialists for well over a decade. As early as December 1997, Turkish authorities were investigating the IHH. A search of the organization's Istanbul office yielded the discovery of firearms, explosives and bomb-making instructions. It was determined on the basis of seized documents that IHH members were contributing to jihadi causes in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.

According to French counter-terrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere, IHH president Bulent Yildrim conspired in the mid-1990s to recruit conscripts for jihad in foreign conflicts, sending fighters, money, and arms into war zones in Muslim countries. Bruguiere's examination of IHH's phone records also revealed a series of telephone calls in 1996 to an al-Qaeda guesthouse in Milan and to Algerian terrorist operatives active in Europe. Counted among these operatives was Abu el-Ma`ali, described by US officials as a "junior Osama Bin Laden."

The IHH is also believed to have played an important role in the al-Qaeda "Millennium" bomb plot. In 1999, on the eve of the millennium, authorities arrested Ahmed Ressam, a senior al-Qaeda agent in Canada who entered the U.S. in a car that carried 600 kilograms of explosives intended for detonation at the Los Angeles International Airport. Bruguiere was called as an expert witness in Ressam's trial, and testified to his IHH connection.

This bond with Al-Qaeda has stood the test of time. Twelve years after the failed LAX bombing, Bulent Yildrim was investigated for financing the terrorist group through IHH in his capacity as the organization's president. And a report from March 2013 maintains that the IHH has been providing aid to rebels in Syria, including the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, which fights alongside al-Qaeda affiliates.

The relationship between IHH and Hamas is even more explicit. The IHH is a member of the Union of the Good, an umbrella organization of more than 50 Islamic funds and foundations around the globe. It was designated by the U.S. Treasury in 2008 as an organization created by Hamas to "transfer funds to the terrorist organization." The department stated, "In addition to providing cover for Hamas financial transfers, some of the funds transferred by the Union of Good have compensated Hamas terrorists by providing payments to the families of suicide bombers."

None of this has impeded Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's public embrace of the IHH, which was described in a Turkish editorial as a "governmental-non-governmental-organization." As noted by The New York Times, the IHH has "extensive connections with Turkey's political elite." It is affiliated with the Prime Minister's office and has been regularly praised and honoured by the Turkish government.

The IHH, then, is essentially a state-sponsored NGO, and the recent raid of the IHH office by Turkish authorities does not suggest otherwise. Erdogan's government made this clear by promptly dismissing the two police chiefs responsible for the operation, and reassigning others.

The IHH and its foreign branches are affiliated with terrorist organizations that have murdered Canadians. The organization meets the legal threshold to be banned as a terrorist entity under Canada's Criminal Code, and elected officials within several Western countries have already urged their governments to make a similar designation. (Germany and the Netherlands have actually done so, although the Turkish IHH insists it has no relationship with the groups bearing its name in those countries.)

If Canada and like-minded countries do ban the IHH, it will be interesting to watch Erdogan's response. Will his government follow suit, or at least distance itself from the charity? Or, as Soner Cagaptay, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has mused, will it "ignore the...designation, doing something quite unfitting a NATO ally"?

As Western concern grows over the direction Erdogan is taking his country, a terrorist designation of IHH may prove to be an effective test of the Turkish government's true alliances and priorities.