National Security

The First Rule of Drone Club

The bad lessons Turkey learned from Obama's war from above.

As the United States continues to grapple with the legal ramifications of using armed unmanned aerial vehicles to strike individuals, a slew of countries are eager to develop their own drones and mimic American tactics. Turkey is an avid supporter of drones and argues that it needs an indigenously-built UAV to combat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish insurgents it has been fighting since the 1980s. The problem is that the Turkish republic seems to have adopted the principles currently guiding the U.S. use of drones: Say nothing about how you employ them and ignore the potential consequences.

The PKK has come to dominate the country's security planning, but for years the Turkish Army's large conscript force and emphasis on heavy equipment left it ill-equipped to effectively fight an insurgency, particularly during the winter months. So, in addition to professionalizing its forces, it focused on improving its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Ankara, therefore, purchased off-the-shelf drone systems from the United States, partnered with Israel for sale of Heron UAVs, and launched an effort to build one of its own -- an effort that has apparently come to fruition. Turkey now claims that the country's first domestically produced UAV -- a reconnaissance drone dubbed the "Anka" -- is set for serial production.

While the Anka was beset with problems during testing, the drone is reported to be able to operate for 24 hours at an altitude up to 30,000 feet in adverse weather conditions during the day or at night. The Anka will primarily be used to surveil Turkey's Kurdish majority southeast and the PKK camps in the Kandil Mountains in Northern Iraq. Ankara hopes to develop an armed version of the Anka so that it can decrease the time needed to launch airstrikes against Kurdish targets. To help augment Turkey's drone capabilities in the interim, Ankara has requested unarmed and armed Predator and Reaper drones from the United States.

Despite Turkey's repeated requests, U.S. export control law and congressional opposition will likely prevent the sale, but the Obama administration has sought to appease its Turkish counterparts and has agreed to station four unarmed Predator drones at Incirlik Air Force Base. The drones are flown by an American contractor from a joint operations center near Ankara. Turkish Air Force officers are in the room with their American counterparts and reportedly have the authority to direct the drones' movements.

In 2011, Turkish officers in the Ankara operations center directed an American drone to surveil a known smuggling route near the Kurdish majority town of Uludere.* After a group of men were spotted crossing the border illegally, the Turks reportedly ordered the Predator to fly away. A Turkish Heron then picked up the surveillance, and the Turkish Air Force bombed the smugglers.

*Correction: This sentence originally misstated the year of the surveilance as 2007. 

It was later revealed that the group of men were not members of the PKK, but 34 Kurdish citizens attempting to eke out a living by smuggling subsidized Iraqi gasoline to Turkey for resale. The subsequent uproar has led to a parliamentary investigation, though the report has been repeatedly delayed, and no minister has resigned. Most believe that the government is conspiring to prevent the authorities from carrying out their investigation in order to protect the person responsible for issuing the kill order.

Turkey's pursuit of armed drones reflects, in part, the new consensus, driven by the United States, that they are useful, even critical, for counterterrorism. But there is little acknowledgment of the difficulties and dangers that drones pose. For example, few Turkish officials have made clear to the electorate that drones rely heavily on human operators and pre-existing intelligence. Nor have they acknowledged that the total cost of operating armed drones is reported to be higher than 240 F-16s in the Turkish Air Force. Most significantly, few in Turkey have grappled with the moral and legal implications of a country -- one hoping to join the European Union -- using drones to assassinate its own citizens.

Turkey hasn't addressed the regional implications of increased drone use either. Unlike the United States, it has not received overflight rights from the countries where it would likely use its drones. Given Turkey's tense relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it is unlikely to secure drone overflight rights similar to those used by the United States in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. It is also unlikely that Turkish ally Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), would turn a blind eye to the Turkish military operating and using armed drones to kill Iraqi Kurds. True, it is widely believed that Turkey is using its fleet of Herons to violate Iraqi airspace to monitor PKK bases in Kandil. However, if Iraqi territory were repeatedly targeted with drone-fired missiles, relations with Baghdad would sour and Turkey's close alliance with the KRG would flag.

Turkey's desire to export the Anka could also undermine its recent efforts to stem proliferation in the region. Turkish President Abdullah Gul told the opening session of Turkey's parliament in October 2012 that the threats posed by WMD in the region reinforced the need to make progress towards a Middle East WMD-free zone. But Egypt, which is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), has agreed to purchase ten Anka drones from Turkey's Turkish Aersopace Industries. If the sale is finalized, Ankara will have agreed to export a dual-use item to a non-signatory of the CWC that has a history of chemical weapons use (in North Yemen in the 1960s). While it is unlikely that Egypt would arm the Anka with chemical weapons, the sale would nevertheless send conflicting messages about Turkey's commitment to regional disarmament and nonproliferation.

So, just like the United States, Turkey faces a series of unresolved political, legal, and strategic issues as it moves forward with its drone program. It may well conclude that armed drones -- and even the assassination of Turkish citizens -- are vital for Turkish security. But whatever debate the government is having is a mystery. Turkey, therefore, appears to have adopted almost all of the American established norms associated with drones. The problem is those norms are to keep all of the details secret and to prevent the public from weighing in.

Senior Airman Anthony Sanchelli/DVIDS


Uncharitable Organizations

Islamist groups are bankrolling terror groups across the Middle East and pretending it's aid work.

In 1997, employees of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHIF), a Saudi-based charity, were mulling how best to strike a blow against the United States in East Africa. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, one employee indicated that the plan they hatched "would be a suicide bombing carried out by crashing a vehicle into the gate at the Embassy." A wealthy foundation official from outside the region agreed to fund the operation.

The employees' plans would go through several iterations, but AHIF would eventually play a role in the ultimate attack. In 1998, simultaneous explosions ripped through the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya -- attacks eventually traced back to al Qaeda operatives. Prior to the bombings, a former director of AHIF's Tanzanian branch made preparations for the advance party that planned the bombings, and the Comoros Islands branch of the charity was used, according to the Treasury Department, "as a staging area and exfiltration route for the perpetrators." The ultimate result was deadly: 224 people killed and more than 4,000 wounded.

This was, of course, before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent crackdown on wealthy Islamist charity organizations such as AHIF, which provided a large portion of the funding that made international terrorism possible. As a monograph produced for the 9/11 Commission noted, prior to 9/11, "al Qaeda was funded, to the tune of approximately $30 million per year, by diversions of money from Islamic charities and the use of well-placed financial facilitators who gathered money from both witting and unwitting donors."

But despite all the efforts made to shut down such groups, Islamist-leaning international charities and other NGOs are now reemerging as sponsors of jihadi activity. In countries like Tunisia and Syria, they are providing the infusion of funds that have allowed extremist groups to undertake the hard work of providing food, social services, and medical care. Jihadists, meanwhile, have discovered that they can bolster their standing within local communities, thereby increasing support for their violent activities. And governments are struggling to keep up.


Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST), best known for its members' involvement in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, represents the most prominent example of this phenomenon. AST, a Salafi-jihadi organization, has been active since March 2011 in undertaking dawa -- missionary work calling people to their interpretation of Islam.

In addition to direct outreach at cafes and universities, AST performs dawa through a variety of social services. The group organizes charitable convoys through which it distributes food, clothing, and other supplies to different parts of the country. It also sponsors medical convoys, which it sets up at local buildings or mosques to provide medical care and medicine.

This may seem like purely humanitarian work, but it is explicitly designed to strengthen the group's dawa efforts. At all functions, AST passes out religious literature and then posts pictures and videos of these charitable activities to its official Facebook page (which has been taken down repeatedly, but re-emerged more than eight times in the past six months). Based on AST's media releases, the group has performed these activities more than 90 times in more than 30 cities and villages in Tunisia.

Although AST has collected donations at mosques during Friday prayers, the economic climate in Tunisia makes it likely that these donations comprise only a small portion of the funds that the group requires. The pictures, videos, and information that AST posts on its Facebook page suggest another source of funding: In at least one case, it received medical supplies from the Kuwaiti charity RIHS (the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society), which is known as the Society for Preservation of Islamic Heritage in Tunisia.

The fact that RIHS has been involved in supporting a militant group in Tunisia will come as no surprise to seasoned watchers of terrorist financing. The Treasury Department designated RIHS in 2008 "for providing financial and material support to al Qaida and al Qaida affiliates, including Lashkar e-Tayyiba, Jemaah Islamiyah, and Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya." The Treasury designation also charges that RIHS provided financial support specifically for terrorist acts.

That's not AST's only connection to sympathetic foreign organizations. The literature it passes out at its dawa events can be traced to at least three book publishing houses in Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Qassem, based in Riyadh; Dar al-Tarafen, based in Taif; and the Cooperative Office for the Call and Guidance and Education Communities, based in Dammam. It is unclear what kind of relationship AST has with these publishing houses, and it is possible that it does not receive support from any of them. Nonetheless, the fact that a significant amount of its literature originates from Saudi Arabia -- a traditional supporter of Salafi organizations -- is likely a sign that it is receiving outside assistance from the kingdom.


The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) -- an umbrella group of six organizations that is considered one of the key jihadi elements within the Syrian opposition -- is another benefactor of money from sympathetic charities. SIF has clearly expressed ties to government-linked NGOs in Turkey and Qatar: The video proclaiming the creation of this new group in December showed SIF members providing aid to Syrian civilians with boxes and flags bearing the logos of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which the German Interior Ministry banned for contributing funds to Hamas. Additionally, in early January, SIF posted a video to YouTube depicting its members picking up aid from IHH in Yayladagi, Turkey, that was to be distributed in Syria.

Other boxes and flags in SIF's December video belonged to Qatar Charity, which used to go by the name Qatar Charitable Society. As evidence submitted by the U.S. government in a criminal trial noted, in 1993 Osama bin Laden named the society as one of several charities that were used to fund al Qaeda's overseas operations. In 1995, the group's funds were used to support an assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Terrorism Without Borders

These charities form an international network that has financed radical groups across the Muslim world. Most significantly, Qatar Charity is known to have operated in northern Mali when it was overrun by Islamist groups, including al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa. These jihadists were not only well armed, but also well funded: The U.N. news agency IRIN reported in October that displaced Malians were risking a return to the north because of economic opportunities. The Islamist groups, the report stated, "removed taxes on many basic goods, say traders in the region, provide erratic electricity and water services at no charge, and have fixed the price of some basic foods."

Qatar Charity was part of that mix in Gao, one of the Malian cities that fell under Islamist control. IRIN reported that 35-year-old Moussa Touré returned to Gao, where Qatar Charity paid him twice the salary that he made previously. Because of such efforts, Maliweb, an independent Malian news source based in the United States, accused Qatar Charity of being a major financier of "the terrorists in northern Mali." Although Qatar Charity has its defenders, the focus of its charitable efforts and the manner in which they coincided with Islamist attempts to bolster the economy provide reasons for suspicion.

The international record of RIHS is just as shadowy. In January 2012, a commission of inquiry set up by Egypt's Justice Ministry issued a report stating that the Kuwaiti charity was funding Salafi groups in that country. And Spanish intelligence issued a report in late 2011 singling out RIHS: The version of Islam advanced in its mosques in Reus and Catalonia, the report said, "opposes the integration of Muslims into Spanish society," thereby "promoting segregation from and hatred toward non-Muslim communities."

Other charities that in the past supported al Qaeda and jihadi causes may also be on the rebound. For example, when the Treasury Department designated AHIF, the Saudi charity linked to the U.S. Embassy bombings, for "having provided financial and material support to al Qaida," it noted that AHIF's leadership "has attempted to reconstitute the operations of the organization, and parts of the organization have continued to operate."

As the monograph on terrorist financing for the 9/11 Commission notes, two types of charities become involved in sponsoring jihadi activities. In the first case, lax oversight allows jihadi operatives or supporters to divert money intended for legitimate purposes to militant causes. But in the second case, "entire charities from the top down may have known of and even participated in the funneling of money" to jihadi causes.

Even charities that have made an organizational decision to support jihadi causes will no doubt do some legitimate -- perhaps even praiseworthy -- work. But there is a dark side to these groups: They are making it possible for terrorist organizations to provide social services, thus increasing the base of support for their deadly work. As the United States learned in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this dark side must be taken seriously.