Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan frequently accuses the West of failing to cooperate with Turkey against terrorism. He raised his voice again after the recent suicide bombing at the US Embassy in Ankara. Erdogan appears justified, too: the bomber, Ecevit Sanli, came to Turkey from Germany for the attack, entering the country via Greece.
The German media has reported that Sanli wasn't under significant police scrutiny in Germany, despite his known record as an active member of the ultra-leftwing urban terrorist group the Revolutionary Peoples’ Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).
Erdogan’s real target, however, is the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey and listed as a terrorist organization in most Western countries. But past and present human-rights violations against Kurds in Turkey have colored Western perceptions of the PKK, and have enabled the PKK's members to enjoy safe havens in various European capitals.
This was the case with the three female PKK activists killed in Paris in January. One of them, Sakine Cansiz, a founding member of the PKK, was residing freely in France — where the political elite have long been sympathetic towards Turkey’s Kurds — even though Turkey had placed her name on Interpol’s wanted list.
Erdogan’s complaints, echoed frequently by the Turkish media, may not be off the mark. But what is less known in Turkey is that this displeasure over the lack of anti-terrorism cooperation isn't a one-way street. The West has accused Ankara of insufficient cooperation, too.
In October, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — an intergovernmental organization founded in 1989 to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, and which Turkey is a member of — laid it on the line for Ankara.
In a statement issued by its head office, in the OECD headquarters in Paris, FATF gave Ankara a deadline to “adopt legislation to remedy deficiencies in its terrorist financing offence” and to establish "a legal framework for identifying and freezing terrorist assets.” Otherwise, FATF warned, Turkey’s membership in the organization would be suspended as of Feb. 22, 2013.
FATF found serious deficiencies in Turkey's policies towards money laundering and terrorist financing going back to 2005, and FATF urgently wanted these remedied. In Oct. 2012, FATF acknowledged that “Turkey has taken significant action in order to remedy some deficiencies and improve its anti-money laundering regime.” But it said that “no remedial action has been taken to improve Turkey’s counter-terrorist financing regime.” Francis J. Ricciardone, the American ambassador to Turkey, explained what was expected of Turkey in a meeting with the Ankara bureau chiefs of the major Turkish papers, held days before draft legislation aimed at preventing Turkey’s suspension by FATF was submitted to Parliament.
Noting that “in Turkey, most definitions of terrorism focus on attacks against the Turkish state and the definitions are less clear when it comes to international terrorism,” Ricciardone said that “the state must have the authority to freeze terrorist assets very quickly on the basis of solid evidence and a legal process that the citizens trust.”
He also indicated that although he hadn't seen the draft legislation — which was subsequently adopted on Feb. 7 — he understood it to be similar to a draft that FATF experts found "inadequate" in a review last May.
A main US concern involves financial transactions between Turkey and Iran. Another undoubtedly has to do with Hamas, which the Turkish government doesn't consider a terrorist organization, but rather an elected regime fighting for freedom against Israeli oppression.
Nobody was pleased by the draft — reluctantly prepared by the Erdogan government and hurriedly adopted by Parliament on Feb. 7, less than 10 days before the FATF’s deadline for suspension of Turkey’s membership expired. So why did the Erdogan government drag its feet, while trying at the same time to maintain the moral high-ground against the West on terrorism? It helps to look at which Turkish factions vehemently oppose the new law.
Roughly 20 Islamic non-governmental organizations (NGO) issued a strongly worded joint statement after the legislation was adopted. They called on the Islamist Erdogan government to annul the law and for Turkey to leave FATF if necessary. These organizations included Mazlumder, a Turkish human rights watchdog group, as well as the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation.
IHH owned and operated the ill-fated Mavi Marmara ship, which was raided in international waters by Israeli soldiers in May 2010, as it was heading to Gaza to attempt to break the Israeli blockade. The raid killed 9 pro-Palestinian Turkish activists, one of them a US citizen, who were shot at close range.
Both organizations are tangibly Islamist in orientation. Israel has tried to get the IHH listed as a “terrorist group,” and it has obtained some bipartisan support from the US Congress. But Washington has not yet designated the group as a terrorist organization, and says that its alleged links to groups like al-Qaeda have not been substantiated.
Islamic NGOs are worried that they could be targeted under FATF regulations. Arguing that the US and Israel are the prime forces behind FATF, the joint statement on behalf of the Islamic NGOs said that anyone could be listed as a “terrorist” by Washington, or the West in general, based on entirely subjective criteria.
But it was not just Islamic organizations that opposed the new law. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), who some see as the political wing of the PKK, also opposed it — albeit for different reasons. BDP deputy Murat Bozlak told reporters that BDP had no problems with FATF regulations themselves. But he said the BDP is concerned that the Erdogan government had gone beyond these regulations, by injecting stipulations into the new law that broaden the definition of “terrorist organization” when compared to UN definitions.
In other words, while Islamists complain that the law is at the mercy of subjective definitions of terrorism by the US and Israel, pro-Kurdish politicians complain about Turkey’s subjective definition of terrorism and point to the hundreds of pro-Kurdish activists imprisoned on such grounds.
The bottom line is that no one is happy with this legislation, including the Erdogan government itself — which drafted it to provide loopholes for Islamic NGOs but maintain the pressure on Kurdish groups. This is not exactly what the FATF requested of Ankara, so we are bound to hear more on the matter in the future.
In the meantime, this is yet another example of divided loyalties for Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which leave Turkey caught between two worlds — where a terrorist in one can be seen as freedom fighter in the other.
Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English language Hurriyet Daily News.