Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Closer Look at Israel's Terror Accusations

Speigel Online

Were they peaceful activists or supporters of terrorism? Israel claims that some participants and organizers of the Gaza aid convoy attacked by the Israeli navy on May 31 had links with terrorist groups -- but they have offered no evidence. SPIEGEL ONLINE takes a closer look at the accusations.

The Israeli government, which has faced a storm of international criticism for its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship on May 31, has accused individual participants and organizers of the Gaza aid flotilla of having links with terrorist organizations, a charge those accused vehemently deny.

Initially the accusations focused on the Turkish aid organization IHH which had purchased three of the six ships in the convoy. Most of the nine Turkish activists killed in the raid appear to have been IHH members. But Israel has since then also accused five individuals who appear to have no connection with IHH of having links with al-Qaida, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.

The accusations are almost impossible to verify because the Israeli government appears to be basing them on secret intelligence information, if indeed there is a foundation for their claims. In a statement released on Monday, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) released a list of five passengers on board the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara that the army claimed were "known to be involved in terrorist activity." The people named are:

  • US-Iranian Fatimah Mahmadi, accused of having tried to smuggle "forbidden electrical components" to Gaza;
  • Ken O'Keefe, a former US citizen with Irish and Palestinian citizenship, internationally known because he travelled to Baghdad as a human shield at the start of the Iraq war in 2003, accused by the Israeli army of being an operational member of Hamas. The IDF claimed he was a "radical anti-Israel activist and operative of the Hamas terror organization." It alleged he tried to reach the Gaza Strip to set up and train an elite unit for Hamas. Responding to the allegations, O'Keefe told the Irish Times: "Who the hell came up with that one?" He said he was considering taking legal action because the accusation could put him in danger;
  • Hassan Iynasi from Turkey, alleged to have channeled money to the terror group Islamic Jihad;
  • Hussein Urosh, also from Turkey, accused of having been traveling to Gaza to help smuggle al-Qaida operatives into the Gaza Strip via Turkey;
  • Ahmad Umimon, a French citizen, accused of being an operational member of Hamas.

The list lacks any references to sources. "The following passengers on board the Mavi Marmara are known to be involved in terrorist activity," the statement says at the beginning. The Israeli army provides no evidence to back up its claims.

Publicly available sources contain no information that could back up the accusations. The fact that all five activists have since been released might be due to US diplomatic pressure, Israeli diplomats have suggested. But releasing terrorism supporters runs counter to normal Israeli practice -- that alone implicitly casts doubt on the veracity of the allegations.

Three Sources

The accusations levelled at the Turkish aid organization IHH are similarly complicated. It is certain that the NGO founded in the early 1990s is active around the world, conducts numerous aid projects, sympathizes with Hamas and is clearly anti-Israeli and is sympathetic to Islamist ideology.

But Deputy Israeli Defense Minister Danny Ayalon said on May 31 that the organizers of the convoy had links with international Jihadism and with al-Qaida, a much more serious allegation. Israeli embassies sent background briefing papers to journalists about IHH's supposed links with terrorism, an accusation that was also made by the spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry. The Israeli ambassador to Denmark said there were "rumors" about an IHH link with al-Qaida, the British daily Independent wrote.

The sourcing regarding accusations levelled against IHH is a little clearer. But there are question marks here too. Virtually all of the accusations that IHH has links with terrorists are based on a small number of sources:

  • After the 9/11 attacks, the CIA declassified a 1996 report about the terrorism links of Islamic welfare organizations. The report mentioned IHH. But the allegations are rather vague. In an (apparent) excerpt from the CIA paper which was distributed by the Israeli organization Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) on May 30, IHH is accused of having "extremist links" with Iran and Algerian groups. The director of IHH's Sarajevo office is accused of having links with "Iranian operatives," but no sources are cited. The full name given for IHH in the CIA report -- International Humanitaire Hilfsorganization -- an evident misspelling that doesn't correspond with the organization's name (Insani Hak ve Hürriyetler Vakfi) -- doesn't inspire confidence in its reliability. In addition, the report says IHH has its headquarters in Germany, which is not the case.

  • The second main source is a study by the Danish Institute for International Studies from 2006 which says Turkish investigations found that IHH members had trained for armed combat in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya and that guns and explosives had been found in a raid on a building in Istanbul. The study also refers to telephone calls with alleged al-Qaida contacts and weapon shipments to militants. The report also contains a summary of testimony given by France's former top anti-terrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, at a US trial in April 2001 in which he said there was a link between IHH and the defendant in the trial, who was later convicted of having plotted to attack Los Angeles International Airport for al-Qaida in 1999.

  • Bruguiere's testimony itself is the third main source. The transcript contains a statement by him that IHH members were involved in weapons smuggling and document forgery for militants. In addition, the Associated Press interviewed the Frenchman last week about IHH. He told the news agency that he could not say if IHH still had links with terrorism today, but that it did when he investigated it in the late 1990s. "They were basically helping al-Qaida when (Osama) bin Laden started to want to target US soil," he said. The former judge said that at that time, IHH was infiltrated by Jihadists -- and that he didn't believe the IHH could have been infiltrated by terrorists without its knowledge.

The three documents indicate that, at least in the 1990s, individual IHH members may well have had links to terrorism. But it remains unclear just how this might apply to the whole organization, and whether it is true today.

IHH Denies Accusations

The IHH vehemently denies all allegations against it. It says that contrary to claims by Bruguiere, no weapons were found in the raid in Turkey. It says it is fundamentally peaceful and that it condemns terrorism. It also says it has no knowledge of the the IHH members that Bruguiere identified as being terrorist helpers.

IHH has been banned in Israel since 2008 due to its links with Hamas. Neither the US State Department nor European governments classify it as a terrorist group. A US State Department spokesman said last Wednesday the US could not "validate" that IHH has connections to al-Qaida, but added that the US was concerned about IHH's links with Hamas.

The picture remains confusing. What is clear that there was a wealth of incriminating indications concerning IHH members in the 1990s, but that there have been no fresh accusations in recent years apart from the Hamas connection.

Evan Kohlmann, a US terrorism analyst and the author of the 2006 Danish study, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "On one side, you have the Israelis insisting that everyone on board is a terrorist. On the other side, you have the Turks insisting that everyone on board is an innocent peaceful humanitarian."

He added that "it doesn't take much insight to recognize that neither side is being very straightforward."

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