Islamic charity at center of flotilla clash known for relief work and confrontation

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 10, 2010

ISTANBUL -- Across from a car-repair shop in this working-class city sits the home of IHH, an Islamic charity. One side of the building is painted with wistful-looking orphans; the other is surrounded by banners celebrating the group's recent effort to challenge the blockade of Gaza. One reads: "Israel, murderers, hands off our boats!"

The dual message of aid and confrontation defines the charity, which has grown in nearly two decades from a handful of Muslim students to a multimillion-dollar operation.

The group is under unprecedented scrutiny after a bloody clash May 31 involving Israeli soldiers trying to stop an IHH-led aid flotilla. Israel accused one of the charity's leaders this week of being connected to al-Qaeda, a charge the group denies.

Analysts in Turkey said it is unlikely that authorities would permit an organization linked to al-Qaeda to operate in Istanbul. IHH reflects something else, they said: the rise of a powerful religious middle class in a country where secularism was once strictly enforced.

With an Islamic-rooted party in power, Muslim organizations "have found a more congenial and welcoming atmosphere in which to work," said Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University.

Terrorist links denied

IHH, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, was formed during the war in Bosnia, when Turks were horrified by televised images of massacred Muslims. For years, the Istanbul-based charity has battled allegations of extremist ties.

French counterterrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière wrote that the charity's members planned in the 1990s to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, according to a 2006 paper by Evan Kohlmann, a U.S. terrorism investigator. Calls were made in 1996 from IHH's headquarters to an al-Qaeda guesthouse in Milan, according to the report. And Bruguière testified during a 2001 trial related to a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport that IHH was involved in weapons trafficking, Kohlmann wrote.

An IHH board member, Murat Yilmaz, denied in an interview that the group was involved with terrorism. As for the phone calls, he said, "Our organization had people from all over the world coming in and out" at the time.

A think tank with ties to Israel's Defense Ministry, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, said recently that there was no known evidence of current links between IHH and "global jihad elements" but that "its activities in the past may indicate its nature."

Not so, IHH says.

"We are for humanitarianism. Nothing else," Huseyin Oruc, the group's vice president, said in an interview.

Israeli authorities accused Oruc this week of planning to smuggle al-Qaeda operatives into the Gaza Strip through Turkey. They presented no evidence, and Oruc said he was not asked about that allegation when Israeli authorities questioned occupants of the Mavi Marmara ferry after the clash. "It is a big lie," he said.

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