The research director for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Abbas Barzegar, has a history of publicly supporting a Turkish nonprofit organization that “has provided financial, logistical and political support for jihadists,” according to The Investigative Project on Terrorism.
What makes Barzegar’s praise of Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) particularly noteworthy is that he is the head author of CAIR’s 2019 report on Islamophobia, titled “Hijacked by Hate: American Philanthropy and the Islamophobia Network.” In other words, he has been accusing U.S. nonprofits of Islamophobia while publicly endorsing a group that, according to the former chief of counter-terrorism in Turkey, has furnished material support to jihadists.
It is unclear whether Barzegar was either ignorant of IHH’s role or knew but did not care. When approached by IJT for comment, Barzegar did not respond.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2015, Barzegar claimed that IHH was on the “front lines” in Syria, assisting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees heading towards Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. He even presented IHH as ideal candidates for becoming “ideological gatekeepers” within the war-torn region, arguing they were capable of performing more than simply “routine aid work.”
These claims could not be farther from the truth. IHH is hardly the organization Barzegar depicted to WaPo readers. It is instead a group that has done a reasonable job of hiding its jihadist affiliations. However, the mask occasionally slips, as in 2014, when the centrist Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that Turkish police had discovered weaponry disguised as aid in IHH trucks headed for Islamic rebels in Syria.
Or as in 2006, when a confidential U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks expressed that IHH was “suspected by some of international terrorism financing… In 1997 local officers at IHH’s Istanbul headquarters were arrested after a raid by security forces uncovered firearms, explosives and bomb-making instructions.” The confidential cable also expounded upon the fact that IHH had co-organized the funeral for Chechen militant and State Department-designated terrorist Shamil Basayev.
Former chief of the Counter-Terrorism and Operations Division of the Turkish National Police (2010-2012) and now assistant professor at DeSales University Ahmet Yayla described IHH’s role in providing material support for terrorists. In an interview with Medium, Yayla admitted, “I was indirectly involved early on in the counter-terrorism investigations into IHH.”
Yayla continued, “The leader of the IHH was arrested as a result of these investigations at the time, due to the evidence we had obtained that the group is behind much of the support to ISIS. IHH have provided weapons and ammunition to many jihadist groups in Syria, not just ISIS.”
If Yayla’s claims are true, they indicate IHH was a pass-through entity for Turkish President Recep Erdogan to provide support to rebel groups in Syria—indeed, an NGO can provide a benign cover for more sinister activities. Yayla revealed in the same interview that when support wasn’t being furnished by IHH, it was instead being provided by the Turkish state National Intelligence Organization (MIT), a longarm of Erdogan. As he told to me when I asked him about the Erdogan-IHH connection, “Erdogan uses IHH as a tong in supporting those terrorist organizations and as a cover for his dirty work.”
Unsurprisingly, both Germany and the Netherlands have designated IHH a terrorist organization due to its continuous financial support of Hamas, the Sunni fundamentalist group currently controlling the Gaza Strip. Despite almost 90 senators asking President Obama in 2014 to consider designating the group a terrorist organization, IHH has yet to be classified as such in the United States, although its support of Hamas continues.
As Yayla emphasized to me, “IHH for sure supports or has supported AQ affiliates and ISIS, and any American person or entity interacting with this organization should think twice because IHH’s affiliation with those terrorist organizations is well known and documented.”
All this suggests IHH is a far-cry from the supposed model NGO that Barzegar has presented it as. Although it is theoretically possible that Barzegar did not know of IHH’s role, it is highly unlikely, given his role at CAIR and the general field of research in which he supposedly specializes.
The fact that Barzegar conducts research for CAIR while praising those who materially support jihadists is a troubling phenomenon, but points to a larger problem within the field of NGOs. The IHH conundrum reveals the capacity of organizations to be repackaged as supposedly benign NGOs and then lauded internationally to an unsuspecting audience.
Yayla posits it could go deeper than that. In the case of CAIR, there is a real and tangible friendship between the director of CAIR, Nihad Awad, and Erdogan. Thus, Yayla expressed to me, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Barzegar mimics the same friendliness towards the Erdogan regime that his boss displays. This mimicry may include running cover for the Erdogan regime when its reputation enters hot water on the international stage. Yayla continued, ” I know some people left CAIR because of their interactions and support [of] Erdogan.”
Given all the work that CAIR supposedly does on behalf of the Muslim community in America, Yayla’s final note to me seemed particular poignant and brave: “It is..honest Muslims’ duty to counter such organizations and be vigilant about their activities [because] if we don’t stand up against terror, we become hypocrites; which is worse than disbelief, according to Quran.”