The Turkish organizers of the Gaza Strip-bound flotilla that was boarded this morning by Israeli commandos knew well in advance that their vessels would never reach Israeli waters. That's because the organizers belong to a nonprofit that was banned by the Israeli government in July 2008 for its ties to terrorism finance.
The Turkish IHH (Islan Haklary Ve Hurriyetleri Vakfi in Turkish) was founded in 1992, and reportedly popped up on the CIA's radar in 1996 for its radical Islamist leanings. Like many other Islamist charities, the IHH has a record of providing relief to areas where disaster has struck in the Muslim world.
However, the organization is not a force for good. The Turkish nonprofit belongs to a Saudi-based umbrella organization known to finance terrorism called the Union of Good (Ittilaf al-Kheir in Arabic). Notably, the Union is chaired by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, who is known best for his religious ruling that encourages suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. According to one report, Qardawi personally transferred millions of dollars to the Union in an effort to provide financial support to Hamas.
In 2008, the Israelis banned IHH, along with 35 other Islamist charities worldwide, for its ties to the Union of Good. This was a follow-on designation; Israelis first blocked the Union of Good from operating in the West Bank and Gaza in 2002.
Interestingly, the Union of Good may not only be tied to Hamas. Included in the Israeli list of 36 designees was the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). In 2006, both the U.S. government and the United Nations designated the IIRO branch offices in Indonesia and the Philippines for financing al Qaeda. French magistrate Jean-Louis Brougiere also testified that IHH had an "important role" in Ahmed Ressam's failed "millennium plot" to bomb the Los Angeles airport in late 1999.
The U.S. government, it should be noted, also views the Union of Good as a terrorist organization. On November 12, 2008, a press release from the U.S. Treasury announced the umbrella group's leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), stating that the group was "created by Hamas leadership to transfer funds to the terrorist organization."
"Terrorist groups such as Hamas continue to exploit charities to radicalize vulnerable communities and cultivate support for their violent activities," said Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey.
According to Treasury, Hamas's leadership actually created the Union of Good in 2000—just after the launch of the armed campaign against Israel—as a means to transfer funds to Hamas. At the time of designation in 2008, the Treasury believed that the Union of Good was transferring "tens of millions of dollars a year" to Hamas-controlled entities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As the Treasury release explained, "The Union of Good acts as a broker for Hamas by facilitating financial transfers between a web of charitable organizations—including several organizations previously designated… for providing support to Hamas—and Hamas-controlled organizations in the West Bank and Gaza. The primary purpose of this activity is to strengthen Hamas' political and military position in the West Bank and Gaza."
It gets worse. The Treasury, drawing from declassified documents, stated unequivocally that the Union of Good "compensated Hamas terrorists by providing payments to the families of suicide bombers. One of [the charities], the Al-Salah Society, previously identified as a key support node for Hamas, was designated in August 2007... The Society employed a number of members of the Hamas military wing and supported Hamas-affiliated combatants during the first Intifada."
Then there's the leadership. Apart from the aforementioned Qardawi, Union of Good's top officials include Hamas members, as well as Yemeni national Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, who was designated by the U.S. Treasury as a terrorist in 2004 for providing support to al Qaeda.
Thus, the convoy of ships allegedly trying to bring aid to the Gaza Strip could never be characterized as a "peace flotilla." With ties to Hamas and other dangerous groups, the IHH can only be described as a dangerous organization. Its members only underscored this fact when they attacked Israeli naval personnel with iron bars and knives, ultimately leading to the regrettable deaths this morning on the Mediterranean Sea.
Jonathan Schanzer is a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.