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Weapons shipments highlight the ambiguous roles of Qatar and Turkey in the fight against Islamic militants

by Claudio Gatti

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In the fight against ISIS the choice seems clear: either you side with civilization or you side with terror. There is no middle ground.

But is that really so? For example, are Turkey and Qatar really to be trusted? And could the United States in fact have contributed to arming terrorist groups in Syria?

No one dares to ask these questions out loud. But suspicions are circulating. And for good reason.

An investigation by Il Sole 24 Ore-Italy24 shows that Turkey’s and Qatar’s interests are in conflict with those of the West, and that those two countries probably have been arming militant groups associated with terrorists. Our investigation shows also that the United States may have facilitated shipments of weapons to Islamists in Syria, the land of the Caliphate.

For years, Washington has worried about Ankara and Doha arming Islamists both in Libya and in Syria. But a series of flights by military cargo planes reported by The New York Times and investigated by the UN suggests that the US helped them to do so.

The suspicion that those planes were carrying weapons hasn’t yet been supported by hard evidence, but a number of facts have been established. We know for example that the C-17 used for those cargoes belonged to the Qatar Air Force, that the planes’ final destination was Turkey and that a US company provided logistical support for the flights. Not just any US company, but one that was called by the US media “the CIA’s travel agent,” which leads to the conclusion that the cargo of those planes did not consist of humanitarian goods.

To understand the likelihood of such a scenario, one must learn more about the role played by Ankara and Doha.

Formally, Turkey and Qatar are on our side. Ankara has a solid history of commercial partnerships with the West, while Doha has long being investing its petrodollars in the US and Europe. Most importantly, both continue to allow what no other Muslim country allows: the use of its territory by Western military forces. NATO in Turkey, the US and Britain in Qatar.

In combating terrorism, however, Turkey and Qatar are not merely negligent. They have different interests than those of the West. This has become evident in the two hot spots of the moment: Libya and Syria, where Ankara and Doha have been actively supporting Islamic militants under the worried but also accommodating eyes of American intelligence. Here the parallel with al Qaeda, which branched out of the Islamic militants supported by the US in Afghanistan in the 80s, is disturbing.

In 2009, in a message classified “secret” but made public by WikiLeaks, the US State Department called the degree of cooperation of Qatar in fighting terrorism, “the lowest in the region.” In October of last year, the then-Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence of the US Treasury David Cohen called Qatar a “permissive jurisdiction for terrorist financing.”

The report delivered in March 2013 to the “Panel of Experts” created by UN Resolution 1970, which placed a military embargo on Libya in 2011, stated that Qatar played “a key role” in the supply of military equipment -- weapons and ammunition -- to Libyan rebel forces. And, despite the denials of the Qatari authorities, it concluded that Qatar had violated the embargo.

As for Turkey, there are reasons to think that it has repeatedly acted in violation of UN Resolution 1970. In particular, there is evidence of shipments of military equipment between 2013 and the end of 2014.

The UN Panel of Experts reported that 55 containers with 1,103 tons of ammunition were found in 2013 by Greek custom police aboard the freighter M Nour, which originated from Turkey and was bound for Tripoli. Acting as a broker for that cargo was a Turkish company that, in an internal note made public by WikiLeaks, the State Department called “an arms broker.” 

The Panel of Experts also received information concerning the transport of military equipment on an Airbus A320 operated by the Libyan airline Afriqiyah Airways that flew from Istanbul to Tripoli on Sept. 17th, 2014.

The UN Panel of Experts has even hinted that Turkey twice violated the Security Council Resolution 1970, which prohibits both, importing weapons to Libya and exporting them from Libya.

“According to reliable sources, weapons from Libya arrive by air and sea. Aircraft mainly fly to Gaziantep, Ankara and Antakya and sea shipments go through Mersin and Iskenderun. The materiel then travels by truck through the border crossings at Reyhanli and Kilis. The Panel met with members of the Syrian opposition, foreign representatives based in eastern Turkey and Libyan combatants returning to Libya from the Syrian Arab Republic, who alleged that some Turkish authorities were involved in weapons transfers through the management and oversight of weapons deliveries to some elements of the Syrian opposition.”

On November 23, 2013, the Panel met with the Turkish authorities, who denied any knowledge of a weapons transfer from Libya to Turkey. What happened with the Libyan fishing boat al-Entisar, however, refutes this denial. In September of 2013, The New York Times reported that the aforementioned fishing boat set out from Benghazi with a shipment of arms headed for Iskenderun, on the southern coast of Turkey. The Panel asked for more information from the Turkish authorities and was told that, “cargo in transit may pass through without inspection because Turkish policy is to check only the manifest.” The Panel’s requests for briefings and site visits with authorities in the various places through which weapons from Libya had allegedly passed, received no response from Turkey.
A couple of months later, however, the same fishing boat headed for Libya arrived in Istanbul with a cargo that according to the bill of lading included “1,000 pump-action rifles, 199 7.65 mm pistols, 214 9 mm pistols, 5,000 rounds of 7.65 mm ammunition, 260 rifle cartridges, 2 gas masks and 251,000 shotgun cartridges.”

It is suspected that the al-Entisar shipment was arranged by the MIT, Turkey’s national intelligence service that, according to Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet is also responsible for a convoy of trucks stopped at the border with Syria in January 2014 with a load of weaponry and munitions.

It is hard to believe that Ankara hasn’t been monitoring the so-called “Jihad highway”, the route used by Isis to move supplies and foreign jihadists in and out of Syria.

And it is just as difficult to believe that the US wouldn’t pay any attention to what Turkey and Qatar have been doing in Libya and Syria. To the contrary, there are tangible elements that makes us suspect that Washington provided a helpful hand.

According to The New York Times, Barak Obama first signed a presidential directive authorizing the CIA to arm anti-Gaddafi rebels, then secretly gave his blessing “to allow arms to be shipped to Libyan rebels from Qatar. But American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants.”

The Times continues saying that, “the Obama administration did not initially raise objections when Qatar began shipping arms to opposition groups in Syria, even if it did not offer encouragement, according to current and former administration officials. But they said the United States had growing concerns that, just as in Libya, the Qataris are equipping some of the wrong militants.”

These concerns, however, did not convince Washington of the need to oppose the shipment of weapons from Libya to Syria. If anything, a series of flights by C-17 Qatari Air Force cargo planes indicates that the opposite is true. These flights were first reported by The New York Times on March 21, 2013, and later investigated by the UN Panel of Experts.

After obtaining the flight plans from Lybia to Qatar, the Panel ascertained that the final destination was not Doha. “The flight data provided to the Panel shows that after the arrivals of each of the above-mentioned flights in Doha, the next C-17 to depart from Doha flew to Ankara,” says the report. “Between January 1, 2013 and April 30, 2013, the Qatar Air Force operated 28 flights between Doha and Ankara and one to Gaziantep, an airport near the Turkish-Syrian border,” wrote the experts.

The Panel also discovered that flights from Tripoli and Benghazi to Doha were given a special military-diplomatic clearance, usually reserved for weapons and military equipment.

“To apply for a Military Diplomatic Clearance Number, parties are generally required to provide precise details of the flight and cargo,” the report says. “The Panel contacted several countries that approved Military Diplomatic Clearance Numbers for the above-mentioned flights or through the airport at which the aircraft landed on its way back to Qatar. The Panel sent requests to Egypt, Greece and Saudi Arabia. Greece responded that no registered data related to the request and granting of a Military Diplomatic Clearance Number to the corresponding aircraft were in its records. However, Greece informed that on 14 and 15 January, registered flights of an aircraft owned by the Qatar Air Force took place outside the Greek airspace. Egypt responded that Qatar requested a Military Diplomatic Clearance Number for three flights on that day to rotate the guard of the Qatari Embassy in Tripoli. Saudi Arabia did not respond to the Panel’s letter.”

The experts also contacted the company that provided logistical support to those C-17s. “The company responded that it was not involved in the process of obtaining Diplomatic Clearances for the Qatar Air Force and did not know the content of the flight cargo for the flights it plans. It did not provide the list of flights which the Panel requested,” wrote the experts.

It would be difficult for C-17s probably filled with weapons to fly anywhere from Libya without being noticed by the US. But what makes it even more difficult to imagine is the fact that they stopped at the al Udeid Air Base, in Doha, which serves as the “forward headquarters” of the US Central Command and home of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the USAF (and the 83 Expeditionary Air Group of the RAF, the British Air Force).

But even more significant is the identity of the company responsible for preparing the C-17s’ flight plans: Jeppesen, a subsidiary of Boeing, a leading producer of military equipment that owes 30% of its revenues to the Pentagon.

Jeppesen was also the CIA contractor of choice for the most secretive operation of the last 15 years, the so-called extraordinary rendition of al Qaeda suspects.

Here is how Jeppesen’s role was described in a lawsuit that the ACLU filed on behalf of 4 victims of renditions: “Jeppesen provided direct and substantial services to the United States for its so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ program, thereby enabling the clandestine and forcible transportation of terrorism suspects to secret overseas detention facilities. Jeppesen furthermore provided this assistance with actual or constructive knowledge of the objectives of the rendition program. (…) Further evidence of Jeppesen’s knowledge of the objectives of the rendition program was highlighted in a report by Dick Marty, Rapporteur to the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Report states that Jeppesen falsified flight plans submitted to European air traffic control authorities to avoid public scrutiny of CIA flights. More specifically, according to the Report’s findings, Jeppesen intentionally submitted ‘dummy flights’ to various aviation authorities in order to conceal the true flight paths of the rendition planes.”

Contacted by Il Sole 24 Ore, Jeppesen neither confirmed nor denied having provided logistical support to the Qatari C-17s. The CIA declined to comment.