İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu from the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on Monday visited a jihadist foundation known for its fanatical support of Turkey’s Islamist government and shady operations overseas including arms smuggling, sparking criticism from his supporters.
Interestingly, people who support the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İHH) and who exerted great efforts to prevent İmamoğlu from being elected in 2019 also said on social media that they did not approve of the visit, claiming the CHP is an anti-religious party.
It seems that neither side wants to talk much about the visit. The İHH tweeted about the visit : “The İstanbul Metropolitan Mayor, Mr. Ekrem İmamoğlu, visited our foundation. During the visit, we informed him about the work carried out by our foundation in Turkey and around the world.” While every visit to the foundation is reported on the İHH website, İmamoğlu’s was not.
On the other hand, İmamoğlu, who is active on social media and whose communications are handled by a professional team, did not share anything about the visit. Media outlets supporting the mayor, which seem to be afraid of the negative reaction of his supporters, did not publish any news about the visit.
Another noteworthy detail about the visit is that İmamoğlu received a low-level welcome. Osman Atalay, a member of the İHH board of trustees, saw to the mayor during the visit. The fact that foundation president Bülent Yıldırım was not present is a breach of Turkish protocol. Yıldırım may have been absent to avoid having pictures taken with İmamoğlu, which would have sparked protests by government supporters.
It is therefore a matter of curiosity why a visit that was not very pleasing to either the visitor or the host took place. Undoubtedly, İmamoğlu’s efforts to show that he is the mayor for all lies behind this. After defeating the candidate of the Islamist government that had ruled Istanbul for 25 years, İmamoğlu announced that he would end the privileges of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters and treat everyone the same, regardless of party.
It was revealed that many AKP members and pro-government journalists received exorbitant amounts of money thanks to the work of foundations and associations supported by the municipality. That’s why there is always negative coverage about İmamoğlu in the media close to the government.
In addition, the fact that İmamoğlu is a potential presidential candidate and that the possibility of him defeating incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the polls is high is paid close attention to by the government. Investigations are underway at the Ministry of Interior in an effort to prevent İmamoğlu from legally becoming a presidential candidate. İmamoğlu is accused of hiring members of terrorist organizations at the municipality.
Kurdish journalist Fehmi Işık is among those who criticized İmamoğlu’s visit. Işık wrote on Twitter: “I don’t understand what he expects from the İHH. According to court files it took part in the ‘Ankara Station Massacre’ [a terrorist attack outside Ankara’s central train station that killed 109 civilians in 2015], for which the İHH, a part of AKP intelligence, provided logistical support to ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria].”
Nordic Monitor found that Imamoğlu had attended a send-off ceremony for an İHH aid convoy to Syria while he was mayor of the Beylikdüzü district of Istanbul in 2015. The İHH is accused of carrying weapons to Syria for Turkish intelligence. Sedat Peker, a former ally of Erdoğan, admitted that they were transporting weapons in aid trucks to Turkish-backed jihadists fighting in Syria.
The İHH is a front charity that is known as a tool of Turkish intelligence agency MİT and has been under investigation by the Turkish police. It was accused not only of smuggling arms to al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Syria but also of involvement in the transport of wounded ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters by ambulance from Syria to Turkey.
The Erdoğan government helped save the İHH from legal troubles in Turkey while mobilizing resources and diplomatic clout to back the İHH in global operations.
Nordic Monitor previously released a Turkish police intelligence report explaining how the jihadist Libyan Ben Ali group was conducting its illegal activities with help of İHH Vice President Hüseyin Oruç and its then-South and East Anatolian Coordinator Selahattin Ozer. According to the report, the Ben Ali group moved between Turkey and Syria to provide logistical support, purchase arms and transport wounded fighters for al‐Qaeda‐affiliated terrorist organizations in Syria.
The Turkish police also investigated the İHH’s links to al-Qaeda, but President Erdoğan halted the case in 2014. According to the investigation into al-Qaeda cells in Turkey, İbrahim Şen (37), a convicted al-Qaeda terrorist who was detained in Pakistan and transferred to Guantanamo, where he was kept until 2005, was running a recruitment and trafficking drive between Turkey and Syria and using the İHH to cover the terrorist network.
Due to his political cover from the government, Şen was saved from his legal troubles. He was arrested in January 2014 and indicted in October 2014 but let go at the first hearing of the trial in October 2014. Turkish police officers were then dismissed and the investigation was hushed up.
The İHH had also been flagged by Russia as an organization that smuggled arms to jihadist groups in Syria, according to intelligence documents submitted to the UN Security Council on February 10, 2016. Russian intelligence documents even furnished the license plate numbers of trucks dispatched by the İHH loaded with arms and supplies bound for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups including the Nusra Front.
The leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, a son-in-law of President Erdoğan and former finance and treasury minister, also implicated the İHH in arming Libyan factions. The secret document found in leaked emails tells the story of how the owner of a bankrupt shipping and container company demanded compensation from the Turkish government for damage his ship sustained while transporting arms between Libyan ports at the order of Turkish authorities in 2011. The document revealed all the details of a Turkish government-approved arms shipment to rebels in a ship contracted by the İHH.