Terrorism cost the global economy $84 billion in 2017, according to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) produced by a consortium of international institutes, including the US Department of Homeland Security and the University of Maryland. The countries that most suffer from this blight are struggling to rid themselves of terrorist groups fostered and supported by a number of nations, foremost among which are Turkey, Qatar and Iran, which utilise terrorist groups and illegal militias to secure footholds and carry out their agendas in countries suffering from social and political upheaval. Those agendas are driven by various motives, such as the thirst for revenge against countries opposed to their agendas, the desire to expand their influence and territorial control beyond their borders by threatening the national security of neighbouring countries and, of course, the thirst for natural resources and expanding markets in target countries.
Last week, the National Interest website published a report that describes Turkey and Qatar as “brothers in arms” involved in illicit finance, promoting extremist ideologies and providing safe havens to terrorists and terror financiers in glaring violation of US and UN sanctions. The report urged Washington to take action to compel Ankara and Doha to curb their “malign conduct”.
As the report observes, the Qatari-Turkish axis is waging a campaign for primacy in the Middle East from Iraq to Libya, “adding another level of complexity to this already volatile region”. This campaign intensified after a number of Arab countries severed relations with Doha because of its support for terrorism and collaboration with Iran in destabilising the region.
“Islamism, particularly the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the heart of the Turkish-Qatari axis,” the authors write, noting how close Turkey and Qatar had become after the Turkish strongman, Erdogan, came to power in Ankara at the head of the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP), which “has a long history with the [Muslim] Brotherhood”. As this alliance’s “destabilising Islamist agenda” was particularly worrisome for Washington, the US should pursue “a multi-pronged response that involves its transatlantic allies and regional partners”. Among the recommended options were “conditioning future high-level dialogue with Qatar on concrete and verifiable steps taken on terror finance” and “continuing to sanction Turkey- and Qatar-based individuals and entities involved in terror and illicit finance”.
A report published by the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD) in December 2019 takes a closer look at the destructive role the Turkish-Qatari axis plays across the region. A major arena for their battle is Libya, where both countries support extremist militias. As the report notes, when the revolution against the Gaddafi regime erupted in 2011, Qatar was the first Arab country to formally recognise Libya’s rebels. It sent in hundreds of troops to support them and sent in advisers to train Libyan fighters in various parts of the country. Qatar’s role in the rebellion was so great that in some areas Libyans flew the Qatari flag alongside the Libyan flag. A March 2013 report by the UN Panel of Experts on the UN arms embargo to Libya concluded that Qatar blatantly violated the embargo in 2011 by sending arms to anti-Gaddafi forces.
Turkey soon followed suit. A subsequent Panel of Experts report found that Turkish companies had delivered weapons to the Libyan Dawn coalition (a grouping of militias led by the Muslim Brotherhood that attacked Tripoli International Airport and seized large parts of the capital in 2014). The FDD report also cites Libyan sources claiming to have evidence of Turkey’s “direct military support” to Islamist militias in violation of the UN embargo. In 2016, the Libya National Army (LNA) claimed to have “witnesses and satellite pictures proving that Turkey provides weapons, ammunition, vehicles and even Turkish combatants in the area of Misrata”. The claim is supported by more recent footage of Turkish-made weapons being unloaded at Libyan ports. Then, in a culmination of this role, as 2019 drew to a close, the Turkish president signed a maritime border MoU and security cooperation agreement with the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The agreements — widely denounced, especially by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus — caused tensions to soar in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Qatari-Turkish axis has also set its sights on Somalia. About six months ago, The New York Times revealed that Qatar was furnishing arms and military training to Somali factions allied with Doha. The newspaper published excerpts of an audio recording of a mobile phone conversation between the Qatari ambassador in Mogadishu and a businessman close to the Qatari emir in which they discussed a recent bomb attack against the Somali port city of Bosaso. The port is operated by a firm based in the UAE. In the recording, the businessman, identified as Khalifa Kayed Al-Muhanadi, said: “The bombings and killings, we know who are behind them ... [They were] intended to make Dubai people run away from there. Let them kick out the Emiratis, so they don’t renew the contracts with them and I will bring the contract here to Doha.” According to the New York Times, neither Al-Muhanadi nor Doha disputed the authenticity of the recording, but both insisted he was speaking in a private capacity and was not a government official. In the recording, the Qatari businessman referred to the people behind the attack as “our friends”. The ambassador responds, “so that’s why they are having attacks there, to make [the Emiratis] run away.” A few months before the Bosaso bombing, which occurred in May, two gunmen shot and killed the manager of an Emirati company involved in running the port. Three other employees were wounded in the attack.
It is one thing if Qatar uses Bosaso for commercial activities. It is a totally different thing when it uses it or other ports to smuggle weapons and extremist operatives to terrorist groups such as Al-Shabab or Al-Qaeda or Islamic State affiliates, gravely jeopardising stability in the Horn of Africa and the safety of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. That Qatar’s ally, Turkey, has a major military base in Mogadishu has raised concerns that the two are increasing their support to terrorists in order to further their agendas in the Horn of Africa, concerns heightened following reports that Qatar was involved in smuggling uranium aboard Qatari civilian airplanes to Iran from areas in northwest Somalia controlled by Al-Shabab.
TURKEY AND QATAR: OUT TO DESTROY LIBYA: Erdogan infuriated the international community when he sent Turkish military “advisers” and jihadist mercenaries from Syria into Libya as part of his ongoing meddling in the internal affairs of this Arab country. This comes as little surprise to those familiar with leaked intelligence documents that reveal close links between Erdogan and Al-Qaeda leaders dating back to 2012. Despite the international outcry, Turkey has continued to transfer Syrian jihadists to Libya to join the ranks of the militias aligned with the GNA. Some sources estimate that around 4,000 of these mercenaries are now in Libya.
Observers believe that by providing a safe haven to terrorist leaders and financiers, including many on international terrorist watchlists, Ankara managed to forge a powerful pressure group to serve its interests in Libya, because the individuals it harbours run the militias that control the political authorities in Tripoli. In an interview with alarabiya.net, Libyan lawmaker Ali Tekbali said that the Turkish regime’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and Libyan terrorist leaders is based on mutual interests. Turkey gives them shelter and helps them smuggle cash and gold into Turkish banks, and in return they help Turkey carry out its expansionist designs in Libya and elsewhere in the region.
One of the more notorious individuals Ankara harbours is Abdelhakim Belhaj, former emir of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Belhaj, who has been listed as “dangerous” and is wanted by police in Libya for his involvement in terrorist attacks against public facilities, and other crimes, has also been accused stealing large quantities of gold and money from Libyan banks following the fall of the Gaddafi regime. The LNA said it has proof that Belhaj has billions of dollars in Turkish banks.
According to LNA Spokesman Al-Mismari, Qatar and Turkey have long played a subversive role in the Libyan crisis. In an interview with Sky News Arabia, he said: “After 2011, we realised that Qatar had become a key player in Libya. It was the first country to recognise the Libyan Transitional Council and it sent the first planeload of weapons to the so-called Coalition of Benghazi Revolutionaries, which is an extremist militia. The shipment was received by the terrorist Ali Al-Sallabi, currently residing in Qatar, who transferred it to his brother, Ismail, an international terrorist with an Interpol arrest warrant out for him.”
The Qataris also sent military trainers to train the Libyan fighters they supported, mostly in use of sniper rifles, Al-Mismari said, adding: “The Qatari role is still present in Libya, militarily, materially and politically. The Qatari emir uses every political forum to attack the Libyan National Army as though it were an enemy threatening Qatar’s border.”
Ankara’s meddling in Libya since the battle to liberate Benghazi from Islamist militias in 2014 has been no less pernicious, according to Al-Mismari in the same interview. “The LNA has found pictures showing terrorists who fought against the army during Operation Dignity in Benghazi receiving medical treatment in Turkish hospitals. After the liberation of Benghazi, soldiers found Turkish made explosives, weapons and ammunition. Turkey at the time was fighting the LNA from behind a Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda mask. That mask fell during the battle for Tripoli that began in April when the army found that it was fighting Turkish officers who controlled the drones and Turkish experts who trained the gunmen in the militias in Tripoli.”
According to the LNA spokesman, what set the battle for Tripoli apart from its predecessors was the Turks’ direct involvement. Another Libyan government official said that Turkey deployed a large number of drones in Libya to help the Tripoli-based government which has no air force.
Ali Al-Qatrani, a former member of the Libyan Presidency Council, is certain that the security agreement that Fayez Al-Sarraj signed with Erdogan will include arrangements for transferring weapons and for transferring terrorist elements from Idlib in Syria to Libya in order to support the GNA militias because the LNA was on the verge of liberating Tripoli.
Leaked documents disclosed by the Swedish-based Nordic Monitor website offer a glimpse into how far back the Erdogan regime’s connections with Libyan jihadists go and how long it has been in the business of transferring jihadist fighters between Libya and Syria. Whereas in the past, his regime facilitated the introduction of Libyan jihadists into Syria after the uprising in 2011, “today, the transfer of jihadist fighters has been reversed, and Turkey has accelerated its operations to send President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s private paramilitary units (SADAT) and Syrian jihadists, who were previously trained by Libyan commanders, to fight for the GNA.”
Intelligence submitted by Russia to the UN Security Council in February 2016 reveals the extent of the collaboration between Turkey and extremist groups in Libya, including the Al-Somood Front, the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The Nordic Monitor, citing The Daily Telegraph, relates that former LIFG leader Abdulhakim Belhaj met with Free Syrian Army leaders in Istanbul and on the border with Turkey in 2011. Belhaj sent Libyan fighters to train troops and transferred money and weapons to the opposition groups against Bashar Al-Assad. Soon, “dozens of jihadist Libyan fighters joined opposition groups in Syria, and Libya became a transit point for fighters from Western Europe and the Maghreb headed to Syria,” the Nordic Monitor writes, adding that now Erdogan is sending to Libya the Syrian mercenaries who Libyans had trained in Misrata and Benghazi.
ERDOGAN CRONY PLUNDERS $70 MILLION FROM SUDAN: Just because Turkey and Qatar’s expansionist drives sustained a major setback with the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir regime in Khartoum, this does not mean that Ankara and Doha are going to stop their meddling in Sudan. Most likely they will exploit the current instability in order help the remnants of Al-Bashir’s regime and his militias make a comeback. Perhaps, too, they will fuel rebel movements in Darfur, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and other Sudanese states in order to pressure the new civil leadership in Sudan to end the freeze on the agreements signed between Al-Bashir and Erdogan, especially that involving the Turkish lease of Suakin which Ankara, with Qatari funding, wants to refurbish as a military base and commercial centre to serve as hub for its expansionist designs in the region. The new civilian government in Khartoum has demanded that Ankara halt all activities in Suakin.
In 2017, Turkish state media reported that chiefs-of-staff of the Turkish, Sudanese and Qatari armies met in Khartoum on the fringes of a visit by Erdogan during which they signed military and security cooperation agreements. “We signed agreements concerning the security of the Red Sea,” said the Sudanese foreign minister at the time, Ibrahim Ghandour. Erdogan said the Suakin deal, one of several signed with Khartoum, was worth $650 million, adding: “There’s an annex I won’t talk about now.”
Under the Suakin deal, Turks would be allowed visa-free entry into that part of Sudan. In light of Ankara’s established record of jihadist transfer operations, this was tantamount to an unrestricted license to infiltrate terrorist operatives into the area to undermine Red Sea security, for example, if that served Erdogan’s interests. The agreement also gave Turkey the right to build port facilities for civilian and military vessels, which raises even more suspicions regarding Erdogan’s designs on Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.
Al-Bashir’s Muslim Brotherhood regime visited countless crimes of corruption on the Sudanese people before the grassroots uprising that overthrew him last April. Interpol’s recent arrest of a Turkish businessman close to Erdogan threw into relief a significant dimension of such crimes. In December, the Sudanese Prosecutor’s Office for Illicit Gains issued an arrest warrant for Oktay Ercan, a Turkish citizen whom Al-Bashir had awarded Sudanese citizenship and who changed his name to Oktay Shaban Hosni Ali, for having embezzled around $70 million from a single business deal. With the help of his connections with Al-Bashir’s regime, a company he owns was given the right to oversee expenditures using a $120 million loan granted by the Islamic Development Bank. However, he allegedly used the money to buy equipment that was cheaper than listed and upped operational costs. Ercan, aka Shaban, also won a contract through a spurious bidding process to import uniforms for the Sudanese army and, by virtue of an agreement between Al-Bashir and Erdogan, his company obtained a license to market 60 per cent of Sudanese cotton. He faces corruption charges in Sudan for other illicit dealings in oil and minerals.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.