Iran plays al-Qaeda figure to pit Turkey against US

Well, Iran has done it again. The mullah regime in Tehran dropped a ticking bomb on Ankara when Iranian intelligence operatives smuggled Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith into Turkey using human trafficking/illegal migration routes. Iranian agents put Abu Ghaith in a luxury Rixos hotel room in downtown Ankara, walking distance from Turkish Parliament, and later disclosed the information to a third country, knowing full well that the intel would be picked up by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The plan worked when the CIA alerted the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) with a tip on Abu Ghaith’s whereabouts, which was in turn passed on to the Turkish police. Abu Ghaith was out dining when the police seized him a day before the US Embassy attack staged by a leftist militant organization in Ankara on Feb.1. Many initially thought the suicide attack was linked to his arrest and was a response by al-Qaeda. They were wrong, but the assumption that al-Qaeda may target Turkey is a valid argument. That is why Iran, after holding Abu Ghaith for 12 years in a detention camp, decided to move him to Turkey.

Iran hopes to kill two birds with one stone by using Abu Ghaith. First, it is trying to draw the al-Qaeda terror network’s attention to Turkey by placing the organization’s former spokesperson in the hands of Turkish authorities. Since Abu Ghaith was stripped of Kuwaiti citizenship after an arrest warrant was issued by the US following the World Trade Center bombing in New York in September 2001, he married Fatima bin Laden, one of bin Laden’s numerous daughters, who is currently living in Saudi Arabia. But neither Kuwait nor Saudi Arabia wanted anything to do with him and refused Iran’s attempt to expel him to those countries.

I believe the threat of al-Qaeda against Turkey has been exacerbated with the detention of Abu Ghaith. After all, this terrorist organization does not consider Turks to be Muslims, and they have on a several occasions warned Turkey that it would suffer the consequences of cooperating with the West. Al-Qaeda, with its radical Wahhabi-Salafist ideology, views Turkey as dar al-harb, a country against which armed struggle or jihad is legitimate. Al-Qaeda terror has already taken its toll on Turkey. According to government data, seven police officers and more than 60 citizens have been killed by al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in Turkey. Simultaneous suicide attacks in İstanbul in November 2003 claimed the lives of 58 people. According to the indictment for the suspects in these bombings, one-third of the money financing the attacks came from Iran. In 2011, the police also seized 600 kilograms of explosives, foiling a planned terror attack by al-Qaeda. In 2012 alone, Turkish police arrested 254 people in various operations against al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups, resulting in the incarceration of 79 suspects.

The second motivation for Iran was to put Turkey in conflict with the US over the ensuing extradition brawl. The talks between American and Turkish officials have not resulted in handing Abu Ghaith over to the US, and this has already created a rift between Ankara and Washington, adding a new item to a long list of differences. There is a huge array of legal issues that need to be sorted out here, which makes it very difficult to extradite Abu Ghaith to the US. What is more, the Turkish authorities are very concerned that the extradition will further agitate the terrorist organization and put the lives of Turkish citizens at risk.

Since Turkish law defines terrorism as attacks against Turkish citizens and the state, Abu Ghaith did not break the anti-terror law in Turkey. Unlike the highly controversial description of a “non-combatant” in US law, Turkey does not have an equivalent term in its criminal justice system. This stands as quite a contrast to other al-Qaeda trials in Turkey. In February 2007, a Turkish court sentenced Luay Sakka, who was a Syrian financier and al-Qaeda operative, to life in prison because he was linked to the 2003 İstanbul bombings, in addition to 48 other defendants who received various jail sentences. Sakka was also connected to the Zarqawi network and was responsible for the deaths of US troops in Iraq. He was also plotting a terrorist attack on Israeli cruise ships in Turkish ports when he was arrested in August 2005.

There is a legal framework for extraditions between the US and Turkey governed by the treaty on extradition and mutual assistance in criminal matters signed in Ankara on June 7, 1979 which entered into force on Jan. 1, 1981. According to Article 7 of this treaty, the US should have submitted a detailed request explaining the offense committed, charges leveled against him, arrest warrant, facts of the case and relevant laws. Article 10 of the treaty also requires that the US furnish this information within two months from the date of arrest or detention. Otherwise, Turkish authorities may decide to let the suspect go. Different definitions of legal rules may complicate the extradition request made under this bilateral agreement.

But this is not the only problem possibly preventing Turkey from handing the suspect over to the US. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) severely limits Turkish government actions in extradition requests as was clearly seen in the case law involving Turkey at the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Because the US still enforces the death penalty in many states and as there have been abundant claims of torture for 9/11 suspects, Turkey may be violating Article 3 of the convention, which says, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In order to satisfy Turkey’s obligations under the convention, the US needs to provide legal assurances that Abu Ghaith will not be sentenced to the death and won’t be tortured, should he be convicted in a US court of law. A recent example of this predicament was seen in the case of Fraydun Ahmet Kordian, an American citizen with Iraqi roots, who fled the US but was arrested in the airport in Istanbul in 2005 while he was en route on a connecting flight to Iraq. He was later extradited to the US to face double murder charges in California after the US had given assurances that it would not seek the death penalty. Kordian’s lawyers appealed to the ECtHR to halt the extradition process but failed to secure the court’s backing after the US satisfied Turkish concerns under the convention.

If Abu Ghaith decides to apply for refugee status or political asylum in Turkey, then the situation becomes much more complicated. Turkey ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but maintains that the geographical limitation means it is valid only for refugees from Europe. Though he was stripped off his citizenship in Kuwait, Abu Ghaith illegally entered Turkey via the Iranian border, which means that the 1951 convention protections would not apply. But national regulations adopted since 1994 have allowed non-European asylum seekers to apply for “temporary asylum seeker status” in Turkey pending their resettlement in a third country by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is a lengthy process, and whether or not the UNHCR or any third country is actually interested in taking up Abu Ghaith’s case remains to be seen.

The government may think it would probably be a quick fix to deport Abu Ghaith back to Iran, in accordance with national regulations, since that was his point of entry into Turkey, citing risks to national security, public safety and order. Some in government believe that this may be the best course of action under the circumstances. Ankara may invoke the 72-article-long bilateral agreement regulating judicial cooperation on legal and criminal matters between Turkey and Iran that was signed in February 2010 and became law in March 2011. Iran will probably dispute the Turkish interpretation of the relevant articles in this case and refuse to take Abu Ghaith back. However, there are other ways to make him cross the porous border with Iran, as Turkish authorities have done in the past to forcibly eject some irregular migrants.

By the way, in another twist of history, Muammer Güler was the governor of İstanbul when al-Qaeda struck with coordinated attacks in 2003, and he oversaw the implementation of government measures to go after the network in the country’s biggest metropolitan city. Now, he is interior minister, and al-Qaeda may come back again with the shadow of Abu Ghaith. It will be interesting to see how this saga eventually plays out.

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