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Turkey Continues to Harbor and Sponsor Extremists
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Turkey Continues to Harbor and Sponsor Extremists

New sanctions on Turkey remind us of the country's unsavory connections to the terrorist underworld.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury and State Departments announced a series of designations and sanctions targeting multiple bad actors in the Syrian war. The financial restrictions are intended to restrict the flow of cash to those parties responsible for committing atrocities in a war that is now nearly a decade old. 

No actor has killed and imprisoned more Syrians than Bashar al-Assad’s regime. And the U.S. government sanctioned multiple Syrian officials who are responsible for overseeing Assad’s mass murder and torture machine. “More than 14,000 detainees have reportedly died after being tortured at the hands of the Assad regime, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, while 130,000 Syrians are reportedly still missing or detained,” the State Department pointed out. And 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. 

However, the U.S. government’s financial sanctions don’t just target Bashar al-Assad’s henchmen. Others are intended to limit the resources of extremists and jihadists backed by Turkey, a NATO ally that has developed a web of unsavory 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 was sanctioned by the U.S. 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 of Aleppo where hundreds have been executed since 2018.” And it has also planned a string of kidnappings for ransoms, “targeting prominent business and opposition figures from the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.” Among Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s victims is Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish political figure who was assassinated in October 2019. 

Turkey’s sponsorship of Ahrar al-Sharqiya has long been known. As has a troubling fact about the group: It became a refuge for former Islamic State (ISIS) fighters after the so-called caliphate crumbled.

Ahrar al-Sharqiya has “integrated former ISIS members into its ranks,” the U.S. Treasury Department notes. Ahmad Ihsan Fayyad al-Hayes (a.k.a. “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.” 

Still 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.”

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 favor. In a separate designation, the U.S. 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 U.S., U.N. and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s own government has designated HTS as a terrorist organization. 

The truth is that none of this is surprising. Branches of the U.S. government have been documenting Turkey’s permissive attitude towards both al-Qaeda and ISIS figures for years.

In January, for instance, the Treasury Department reported that ISIS continues to rely on “logistical hubs” in Turkey. These hubs in Turkey connect ISIS’s financial network in Iraq and Syria to other points around the globe.

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 U.S. 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. Other facilitators in Turkey have been officially sanctioned as well.

Erdoğan’s security forces often announce raids on jihadist cells. But more often than not, it appears that Turkey is a safe haven for terrorists. 

In April 2016, for example, the U.S. killed a well-known, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist named Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa in Syria. Musa had worked with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri since the 1980s. He had been tied to a number of international terrorist plots. U.S. 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 a costly one, 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 longtime 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 U.S. and Europe. Some have likened it to Pakistan, another nation nominally allied with the West that also harbors extremists. And just like Pakistan, the challenges posed by Turkey’s duplicity are not going away anytime soon.     

Thomas Joscelyn is a Dispatch contributor.