An Islamic group that was widely characterized as a “humanitarian” charity during the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident is now in the crosshairs of Turkish anti-terror police who raided their offices on Tuesday and detained 28 over suspicions of involvement in smuggling weapons to Al-Qaeda-linked jihadi rebels in Syria.
In an unusual twist, a leading Turkish news site reports that at least two senior police officials involved in the raids were dismissed from their positions after leading the searches of the Islamist group that is reported to be close to the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
According to Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News, offices of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) were searched simultaneously in six separate provinces by police, including in Istanbul and in Kilis near the Syrian border.
The group’s vice president Huseyin Oruc denied any involvement in equipping terrorists, telling the French news agency Agence France-Presse, “We see this as part of a dirty plot.”
Last week, a truck filled with weapons which reportedly belonged to the Turkish group was stopped en route to Syria.
AFP reported that a “significant quantity of ammunition and weapons” were found in the truck and that its drivers claimed they were transporting aid on behalf of the IHH. In that incident, three were arrested, including a Syrian.
IHH called the allegations that it is shipping weapons to terrorist groups “slanderous.”
Turkey’s Interior Minister Efkan Ala echoed the group’s denials, suggesting instead that the truck was shipping aid.
Hurriyet reported that hours after Tuesday’s raids of the offices, the heads of two anti-terror police units involved in the investigation were dismissed.
The Turkish publication reported that they were “relocated by a sudden decision from the respective Governor’s Office with which they are affiliated.”
“This is a phenomenon we also witnessed after arrests and raids were made in the ongoing corruption probes,” Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told TheBlaze on Wednesday. “The Turkish government has been trying to mitigate damage by purging those involved. It’s a deeply troubling trend.”
AFP cited reports in the Turkish media last month quoting UN and government documents which claimed that Turkey had shipped 47 tons of arms to the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad during the second half of 2013.
An IHH spokesman, Serkan Nergis, told AFP that Tuesday’s widespread search was launched by counter-terrorism units.
“Police forced our staff out and wanted to confiscate our documents and computers,” he said.
IHH Secretary-General Yasar Kurtluay called a press conference on Tuesday where he said that the operation was designed to tie his group to Al-Qaeda, and “to link IHH with a structure of terrorist organization in Turkey and create such a perception on public opinion.” He called the raid “unlawful.”
“IHH shall never give up helping Syrian people and standing by the side of the oppressed,” he said.
Kurtluay also laid blame on Israel. “Following [the] Mavi Marmara event, IHH was targeted by Israel, Neo-cons and those who wish [to] help [the regime in] Syria,” he said according to quotes reported in the Jerusalem Post.
IHH was one of the main groups behind the 2010 Gaza flotilla whose stated aim was to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. But Israeli Navy commandos were attacked by members of the self-professed humanitarian group after boarding the ship to enforce Israel’s blockade of Gaza aimed at keeping weapons from being shipped to Hamas.
Nine passengers on the Mavi Marmara were killed in the ensuing battle on the deck of the ship.
A Turkish newspaper later reported that one of the IHH activists, 19-year-old Furqan Dogan, wrote in his diary that he wanted to be a martyr, providing strong evidence his intentions were not peaceful. “These are the last hours before I join the sweet experience of being a shahid (martyr). Is there anything more beautiful than this?” he wrote before he was killed.
When he was visiting Israel in March, President Barack Obama took steps to try to improve relations between Turkey and Israel following a major chill since the 2010 flotilla incident.
Obama encouraged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue an apology for the deaths of the nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists on the ship and arranged a telephone call between the Israeli and Turkish leaders.
Netanyahu expressed regret, acknowledged “operational mistakes” and agreed to compensate the families of the victims in the incident.
“The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security,” Obama said after the telephone call.
Secretary of State John Kerry in May had breakfast with slain IHH activist Dogan’s father and posed for a picture with him.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who attended the meeting referred to Dogan as a “martyr” in a Twitter message about the meeting. “This morning I had breakfast with my American colleague John Kerry. Ahmet Dogan, the father of Furkan Dogan, one of the Mavi Marmara martyrs, also attended,” he wrote.