By Aykan Erdemir
The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated five Turkey-based individuals on Thursday for providing a range of financial and travel facilitation services to al-Qaeda. The new designations — the seventh set since April 2019 targeting a Turkey-based jihadist network — expose the extent to which radical Islamists thrive in the permissive environment Ankara has cultivated.
Thursday’s designations sanctioned three Turkish nationals — Soner Gurleyen, Cebrail Guzel, and Nurettin Muslihan — and two Egyptian nationals — Muhammad Nasr al-Din al-Ghazlani and Majdi Muhammad Muhammad Salim. The most senior among the five is Salim, who is the former emir of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group once headed by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Treasury alleged that Salim serves as one of the primary facilitators of al-Qaeda’s activities in Turkey, including by acting as a financial courier.
The sanctioned Turkish nationals are junior operatives, two of whom — Guzel and Muslihan — worked with one of the former deputy emirs of Zawahiri. In 2016, a Turkish investigative journalist found that the Turkish police, in July 2015, had intelligence that Muslihan ordered his militant followers to arm themselves and carry out shooting practice on the outskirts of Istanbul and warned of imminent terror attacks. Still, Turkish authorities failed to prevent jihadist attacks in the city the next month. Those attacks came a day after the United States sent fighter jets to Turkey to strike the Islamic State.
Another Turkish journalist alleged that Irfan Fidan, an Istanbul deputy prosecutor whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan later appointed as a constitutional court judge, quashed an investigation into Muslihan and al-Qaeda in March 2015 and discontinued the monitoring and surveillance of the suspects.
This round of sanctions follows designations issued in April, September, and November of 2019 and January, May, and August of 2021, all of which demonstrate Washington’s heightened vigilance against jihadist networks operating within the borders of an increasingly adversarial NATO member state. In addition to al-Qaeda, previous U.S. sanctions have targeted illicit financial networks linked to the Islamic State, Hamas, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Egyptian group Harakat Sawa’d Misr. These links show the extent to which Turkey has become what NPR in 2014 referred to as the “jihadi highway.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s press statement about Thursday’s Treasury designations, however, sends mixed signals. It reflects the Biden administration’s softened approach to the Erdogan government since the Turkish president’s June offer to guard and run the Kabul international airport following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Blinken said that the United States “will continue to work closely with our partners and allies, including Turkey, in identifying, exposing, and disrupting al-Qa’ida’s financial support networks.” Such a framing hides the Erdogan government’s negligence toward radical Islamist groups and complicity in offering them a permissive environment to exploit. It also contradicts the earlier comments Blinken made during his confirmation hearing in January, when he sarcastically referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner of ours.” Blinken’s volte-face was also evident last month when he referred to Turkey, within the context of ongoing U.S.-Turkish talks on evacuations from Afghanistan, as “an important NATO Ally and an invaluable partner in the region.”
Blinken’s press statement on the al-Qaeda designations coincided with Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal’s two-day visit to Washington to meet with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. Ankara is hopeful that these meetings will help Erdogan secure a second in-person meeting with Biden. The Turkish president used his first in-person meeting, held on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June, to burnish his tarnished image, bringing his U.S. counterpart’s cold-shoulder policy toward Ankara to an end.
Although the Biden administration’s two sets of designations targeting Turkey-based jihadists are a move in the right direction, Washington should not whitewash the Erdogan government’s culpability in transforming a secular NATO member state into a fertile breeding ground for myriad jihadist groups.