The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) has backed down from the claim that forty activists in the Gaza flotilla, who had resisted the ship’s interception by Israeli commandos in international waters on Monday, are "al Qaeda mercenaries."
Some participants in the Gaza convoy are members of Insan Hak ve Hürriyetleri İnsani Yardım Vakfı –the Foundation for Human Rights, Liberties, and Humanitarian Relief– IHH, a Turkish non-governmental organizaion (NGO) established in the early 1990s. Its mission is to provide humanitarian relief in regions of conflict or that have experienced natural disasters. For the past six years, IHH has held Special Consultative status as an NGO (non-governmental organization) in the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
According to Max Blumenthal, when he and Lia Tarachansky, an Israel-based freelance journalist fluent in Hebrew, called the IDF requesting more conclusive evidence of al Qaeda affiliation than possession of bullet-proof vests and night vision goggles, they were each told, "We don’t have any evidence." The IDF press release had been based on information emanating from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Council.
The next day, Blumenthal notes with satisfaction, the IDF’s press office changed the headline to Attackers of the IDF Soldiers Found Without Identification Papers, although the browser retains the original accusation of a link with al Qaeda. The rewritten story, which still bears yesterday’s date and the original time it was posted, omits any mention of a connection of the group with al Qaeda.
But the condemnation of IHH participants now ricocheting around the blogosphere isn’t about to go away anytime soon. The sad truth, with all due respect to Max (and a great deal is due!), is that the IDF gave in on the paltry evidence gleaned from photos of night vision goggles and bullet proof vests because they believe they a weapon much more powerful–a pro-Israel blogosphere where no Israeli Jew can do anything wrong, and no Muslim can do anything right. And the claim that there is a link between "Islamic terrorism" and the participants in the Gaza flotilla doesn’t need any pictures–a thousand words will do.
The link goes back to a strategy crafted in the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center and an attack on the Pentagon by Islamic extremists, Israelis expressed the hope that Americans might view their plight more sympathetic. Israeli leaders anticipated that that they would be invited not only to join, but to be in the forefront of the impending war against Muslim fundamentalism. The US priority, however, was enlisting and involving "moderate Arab states" in the "coalition of the willing" in the global fight against terrorism.
The timing was not particularly auspicious for Israel.
Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was struggling to keep his own coalition together. Its right wing partners were demanding that he get tought with terrorist, expel Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, and reject once and for all the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli aims and actions were on a collision course with the dynamics of US foreign policy.
Israel’s Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres (now Israel’s president), proposed that Israel affirm its agreement with US aims in the "war on terror." Several cabinet ministers agreed with the ingenious suggestion that the Palestinian Authority (PA) be presented as "Israel’s Taliban," and Sharon announced that the PA would be considered as a state that harbors terrorists.
The fairly rapid routing of the Taliban (with unacknowledged cooperation from Iran) and a spate of suicide bombings in Israel occurred in the weeks leading up with Sharon’s "working visit" to the White House on Nov. 21, 2001. According to the statement by the White House Press Secretary on that date, the topic of the meeting between Sharon and Bush was to be "the international campaign against terrorist and the pursuit of peace in the Middle East." Analysts expected little from the meeting. They were surprised. Sharon came away not only with the inclusion of Israel in the frontline of the "war against terror," but the unprecedented American affirmation of Israel’s right to act both defensively and proactively in dealing with terrorists–a right that has gone almost unchallenged for nearly nine years. "Link to terror" became an elixir, believed to possess the almost magical property of being able to immunize Israeli policies from criticism.
So it’s not surprising that, as the Gaza debacle unfolded on Monday, a link between the IHH and al Qaeda was discovered. Appropriately perhaps, it was announced by the Israeli Ambassador to Denmark, the land of fairy tales. The French news agency AFP reported:
Israeli Ambassador to Denmark Arthur Avnon said on Monday that his country only attacked the Gaza-bound aid flotilla earlier in the day after receiving reports that it had links to Al-Qaeda.
"The people on board were not so innocent… and I can not imagine that another country would react any differently," the ambassador added. Avnon lamented the loss of life, but said that Israeli soldiers were attacked when they boarded the ship.
It is worth noting that anti-terrorism expert. His mentor Steve Emerson, produced the 1994 Frontline television special "Jihad in America" and he is the author of, among other anti-terrorism tracts, Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the United States, both of which have been recognized as unfairly profiling Muslims. Spinprofiles points out that Kohlmann had been dubbed "the Doogie Howser of terrorism, at the outset of his career, and provides a useful litany of objections to both his qualifications and his methods. Among them:
Like other ‘terrorism experts’ Kohlmann tends to demonise Islamists groups, and to link disparate groups and individuals into an encompassing narrative of international terrorism. His ‘expertise’ are therefore very useful to prosecutors who seek to demonstrate the malevolent intent of a defendant in the absence of convincing evidence of their preparation or planning of acts of terrorism. As Kohlmann himself explains: “There are a lot of people who know a lot about the world, but they don’t know what every terrorist group represents…I am able to bring this to life for the court.” What in particular Kohlmann tends to "brings to life" is connections linking defendants to Al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden. This, in the political climate of the United States greatly increases the prosecution’s chances of a conviction.
This makes him a perfect "white knight" for Israeli hasbarah, trying to calm the stormy seas surrounding the Gaza convoy fiasco.
According to Kohlmann, IHH is an example of an Islamic charity which diverted funds intended for humanitarian relief and used them to buy weapons:
Turkish authorities began their own domestic criminal investigation of IHH as early as December 1997, when sources revealed that leaders of IHH were purchasing automatic weapons from other regional Islamic militant groups. IHH’s bureau in Istanbul was thoroughly searched, and its local officers were arrested. Security forces uncovered an array of disturbing items, including firearms, explosives, bomb-making instructions, and a “jihad flag.” After analyzing seized IHH documents, Turkish authorities concluded that “detained members of IHH were going to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.”
Kohlmann cites a a French intelligence report which claimed that the terrorist infiltration of IHH extended to its most senior ranks. The report, written by famed counterterrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere, charged IHH President Bulent Yildirim with having conspired in the mid-1990s to “recruit veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war [jihad]," and transferring cash, firearms, knives and explosives, parenthetically on behalf of IHH. Furthermore, an examination of IHH’s phone records in Istanbul showed repeated telephone calls in 1996 to "an al-Qaida guesthouse in Milan."
Kohlmann’s copious footnotes for each sentence dealing with these accusations all cite a single page of one report. It is in French and written by France’s "first anti-terrorism judge," Jean-Louis Bruguiere, and Jean-Francois Ricard. Its hefty title is “Requisitoire Definitifaux aux Fins de Non-Lieu. De Non-Lieu partiel. De Requalification. De Renvoi devant le Tribunal Correctionnel, de mantien sous Controle Judiciaiare et de maintien en Detention.” Cour D’Appel de Paris; Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris. No. Parquet: P96 253 3901.2. Kohlmann’s accusations against IHH all come from page112.
Bruguiere had been called as an expert witness at the Seattle trial of Ahmed Ressam, the would be "Millenium bomber" who targeted LA Airport 1999, and testified that IHH had played an important role in the plot. Under "repeated questioning" from federal prosecutors, according to the trial transcript as rendered by Kohlmann (one can’t help wondering why the questioning would need to be repeated) Bruguiere depicted IHH as an NGO whose humanitarian work served as a cover for more nefarious activities.
Not surprisingly, as Kohlmann’s report began circulating earlier this week in support of Israeli charges that the Gaza flotilla was linked to terrorism in general and al Qaeda in particular, Alfred de Montesquiou of the Associated Press interviewed Bruguere by telephone. Yahoo News published it under eye-grabbing headline "Interview: Turkish Aid Group Had Terror Ties. Bruguiere, currently EU’s coordinator in a joint EU-US terrorism finance tracking program, is quoted as saying, "Elements within the charity supported jihadi operations in the 1990s." Nonetheless, he added that he didn’t know whether they continued to do so. No mention appears to have been made of Bulent Yildirim. All Bruguiere apparently said was, "Some members of an international terrorism cell known as the Fateh Kamel network then worked at the IHH." Kamel was an Algerian-Canadian who Bruguiere claimed had ties to then nascent al-Qaida.
As an aside, it’s ironic–but never even hinted at by Kohlmann– that Bruguiere also ordered the raids on the Mujehidin e-Kalk (MEK) in Paris in June 2003. An odd hybrid of Marxism and radical Islamism at the time of the Iranian revolution, MEK broke with the Khomeini regime after the latter gained control of Iran in 1979. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, MEK fought on the side of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. Although it has engaged in terrorist acts and has the status of a quasi cult centered on its leader, Maryam Rajavi, it has nonetheless been championed as a possible instrument for regime change in Iran by many pro-Israel neoconservatives. Many MEK members are presently detained at Camp Ashraf in Iraq, US policymakers debate how useful these terrorists might be in achieving American strategic goals Unlike IHH, MEK is indeed considered to be a terrorist organization by the US government, despite the repeated efforts of the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, to rehabilitate MEK’s reputation. At the time of the 2003 raid, Bruguiere said he had uncovered a ”criminal conspiracy with the intent to prepare acts of terrorism and financing of a terrorist enterprise." Shouldn’t pro-Israel neocons supporting the MEK should also be exposed for their own "links to terrorism."
Back to IHH: In a rejoinder to Bruguire’s accusations which Montesquiou allowed him to offer about links between the IHH and terrorism, IHH Board member Omer Faruk Korkmaz insisted IHH was a legal organization: "We don’t know Ahmed Ressam or Fateh Kamel," Korkmaz told AP. "We don’t approve of the actions of any terrorist organization in the world." Fatma Varol, an IHH volunteer at its Istanbul headquarters challenged Bruguiere’s Seattle testimony about the organization to CSM’s Iason Athanasiadis: “IHH was not related to jihadis but formed to help people who need help, such as the Muslims of Bosnia who were suffering from the Serb genocide,” she says. “It’s only a humanitarian aid foundation bringing help to needy people wherever there’s conflict.”
Whatever a French anti-terrorism judge may have testified about IHH, the French government doesn’t consider it a terrorist group. Despite rumblings in the right wing blosgosphere that the CIA is hinting at members of Gaza flotilla’s terrorist ties, it’s not on the US State Dept.’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations either, nor on Great Britain’s. As Athanasiadis points out in the Christian Science Monitor, Israel is the only country in the world to ban the IHH as a terrorist organization–and only since 2008– primarily because of its sympathy for the Palestinian cause and Hamas. Athanasiadis also notes that "The current Turkish government has publicly supported the organization and hinted that it might send an armed escort with the next ship or ships running the Israeli blockade of Gaza."
Bulent Yildirim himself was among the participants in the Gaza convoy and was inteviewed by BBC News on Thursday. BBC reported that the activists, speaking on their return home, saod that in addition to the nine deaths caused by shots fired by the IDF, the Israeli commandos had also administered electric shocks and beaten passengers during their assault on the Mavi Marmara. Yildirim was identified as "head of the Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), which organised the flotilla" as well as an eye witness to the events on the Turkish vessel:
Upon his arrival back in Turkey, he admitted some of the activists had grabbed the guns off soldiers in self-defence.
"Yes, we took their guns. It would be self-defence even if we fired their guns. We told our friends on board: ‘We will die, become martyrs, but never let us be shown… as the ones who used guns’. By this decision, our friends accepted death, and we threw all the guns we took from them into the sea."
He described how a doctor and a journalist were both shot at close range, and said another activist was shot as he was surrendering.
"I took off my shirt and waved it, as a white flag. We thought they would stop after seeing the white flag, but they continued killing people," he said.
The English language Turkish news site Zaman also interviewed Yildirim upon his return to Istanbul.
In his initial statements upon landing back home at İstanbul Atatürk Airport, Yıldırım said everyone was shocked when the Israeli navy attacked the ship from the air and the sea using all kinds of equipment. “We thought maybe they were putting on a show for us. If we were in their waters, under Palestinian jurisdiction, then we would have imagined that they would attack us. They suddenly dropped people onto the ship. Our friends only put up civilian resistance. The entire press corps was there.”
He said he told Israeli authorities during his interrogation that they were managing the process badly. “Then they asked us, ‘Didn’t you attack us with iron bars and axes?’ I told them what I did was only self-defense. This was defense against helicopters and assault boats, against well-trained commandos. They lie when they say they were given permission to use real bullets after the 35th minute. They threw in gas bombs, which injured our friends. Only two of the initially fired bullets were rubber. The others were nail-like bullets. Our friend Cevdet was martyred. He is a member of the press. He was only taking pictures as the Israelis fired on us. They smashed his brain into pieces from exactly one meter away.”
Perhaps the least likely statement to come from an alleged "al Qaeda" sympathizer or "anti-Semite" or operative comes at the end of Yildirim’s Zaman interview:
Yıldırım vowed to fight the blockade of Gaza until it is lifted, “or we will come with bigger fleets from Egypt and from the sea. Let statesmen figure out what will happen then. We will pay a price, but so will you. All the conscientious people of the world stand united. We are not afraid of anything,” he said.
He also responded to allegations that the flotilla attacked by Israel was of an “Islamist nature.” Yıldırım said: “Had it been Muslims killing Jews, I would again go with a flotilla. We are against all cruelty.”
The 600-700 participants–and the thousands behind the movements they represent–are a remarkably diverse, if unlikely, melange. It’s not just Turks like Bulan Yildrim, who probably attracted the attention of the CIA and US military intelligence because he has been an outspoken critic of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The "Free Gaza" movement in Britain– its co-founders and its legal communications team, are English women between 65 and 85–including a Jewish holocaust survivor named Hedy Epstein– according to the Guardian. The Gaza flotilla has brought together Greeks and Turks, who for over a century have viewed one another as enemies: only from the Greek press does one learn that two of the six Gaza ships and three dozen activists in the convoy are Greek.
Not unlike the FBI’s attempts to discredit the American civil rights movement as a tool of Soviet "communism" half a century ago, the Israeli government’s hasbarah (justification) network is branding the global outcry against Israeli policies and actions as a manifestation of "terrorism." But in an age of very real terror threats, the vague and vacuous "link to terror" elixir–a drink-me brew Israel believes makes it appear more powerful or more vulnerable, but always in the right and beyond censure–may finally have reached its expiration date.
Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. She currently holds the position of Lecturer in the Master of Arts in International Administration (MAIA) Program of the University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline’s Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue.