U.S. blacklist raises questions about Turkey’s commitment to war on terror

The United States blacklisted four Turkish companies for allegedly funnelling money to the Islamic State, raising questions about Turkey’s commitment to fighting the terror group.

Turkey, which claims to share the United States’ goal of defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), was a transit point for many foreign fighters as they travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and was frequently visited by former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s brother and courier to relay messages, said Iraqi intelligence officials cited by the National newspaper.

Baghdadi was living in a compound in Azaz, Syria, less than 5 km from the Turkish border when he was killed in a U.S. operation October 26.

The U.S. sanctions, imposed under the executive order, targeted Turkish businesses Sahloul Money Exchange Company, Al-Sultan Money Transfer Company and ACL Ithalat Ihracat. Turkish nationals Ismail Bayaltun and his brother Ahmet Bayaltun were also sanctioned.

Turkish media said Ismail Bayaltun, whom the U.S. Treasury said is chairman of ACL Ithalat Ihracat’s board of directors, was detained in 2015 in an anti-ISIS operation by Turkish police in Şanlıurfa, where the company has its headquarters. It is unclear when he was released.

Turkish newspaper Habertürk reported that, after the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad was captured from ISIS by US-backed Kurdish forces in 2015, its correspondent there “saw a cargo package with the surname 'Bayaltun,' which was sent to an ISIS fighter.”

In August this year, a report by the Investigative Journal alleged that the Turkish government was involved in the creation and funding of al-Qaeda and ISIS cells.

The investigation included testimony from Ahmet Yayla, who served in the counterterrorism department of the Turkish National Police for 20 years before going into self-exile in Washington, where he teaches at the Georgetown University Law Centre.

Yayla had resigned in protest over the alleged involvement of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government in funding tens of thousands of jihadist fighters, smuggling them into Syria and buying oil from terrorist organisations for hundreds of millions of dollars. He told the Investigative Journal that Erdoğan saw the beginning of the 2010 “Arab spring” “as a great opportunity for the materialisation of his international politics as he wanted to be the leader of Sunni Islamic world.”

Yayla referred to Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman plans and said the Turkish president “realised that support for terrorist and Salafi organisations in Syria would eventually lead to Turkey’s control of the country."

He added he witnessed Turkish intelligence protection for ISIS fighters, whom, he said, were given free passage to and from Turkey and provided with medical treatment. He confirmed to the Investigative Journal that the government transferred military supplies to the organisation through humanitarian aid agencies.

Ankara used NGOs and humanitarian relief campaigns, Yayla said, to transport weapons, medicine, food and equipment under the supervision of Turkish intelligence.

Other targets of US sanctions were the Afghanistan-based Nejaat Social Welfare Organisation and two of its senior officials, Sayed Habib Ahmad Khan and Rohullah Wakil.

In a statement, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin characterised the move as a follow-up pressure tactic on ISIS after US special forces operations killed Baghdadi.

“Following the highly successful operation against Baghdadi, the Trump administration is resolved to completely destroy ISIS's remaining network of terror cells,” Mnuchin said.

U.S. officials said the United States would increase its partnership with the anti-ISIS global coalition to disrupt ISIS's financial networks.

“The United States is increasing pressure on ISIS’s resources and networks with new sanctions on nine individuals and organisations,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter. “ISIS remains a threat to global security and stability."

The sanctions freeze U.S. assets held by those targeted and prohibit Americans from doing business with individuals and companies named.

The piece, penned by its staff, first published at The Arab Weekly.