December 8, 2014 | Foreign Policy
Hamas’s Main Man from Turkey to Tehran
Israel filed a complaint with NATO in late November over Turkey’s role in supporting terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza. Specifically, Israel called out Turkey for harboring and supporting known Hamas officials. The complaint specifically mentions Saleh al-Arouri, the head of Hamas’s armed wing in the West Bank, who has lived in Turkey since 2010. Arouri alsoclaimed responsibility for this summer’s kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, an abduction that helped spark this summer’s 50-day war in Gaza.
It’s outrageous that a known terrorist like Arouri can take refuge in a NATO member state. But it’s also only part of the story. As recently as mid-November, Turkey has been home to one of Hamas’s original leaders and most dangerous assets: Imad al-Alami. Not only was Alami on the list of theoriginal six Hamas officials designated terrorists by the U.S. government in 2003, he is also the point man for all of Hamas’s relations with Iran and its proxies. He’s made countless trips to Iran, a country that has provided Hamas with military training and billions of dollars in financial and material aid. At the time of his posting in Tehran, Iran was giving around $100 million a year to Hamas. Alami has had a close and continuing working relationshipwith Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah for over 20 years. His ties are so close with the Tehran-aligned “axis of resistance” that when Hamas decided to abandon its headquarters in Damascus over disagreements with Tehran about the Syrian civil war, Alami was the last to leave — in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to salvage the relationship.
The circumstances surrounding Alami’s recent arrival in Turkey are still unclear. During this summer’s Gaza war, he took part in the marathon cease-fire negotiations and reportedly gave voice to the more militant elements of Hamas, which is not surprising given his close ties with Iran. According to media reports, he arrived in Turkey a month after the war ended for surgery on his right leg. Rumors swirled on blogs and forums that he was injured in an intra-Hamas battle, although Hamas officials insisted that an Israeli airstrike hobbled him.
Nearly three months later, Alami is still in Turkey, still receiving medical attention, and still hosting prominent visitors. In early November, he met with a Hamas delegation from the defunct Palestinian parliament, who gave him a rundown of the violent events that have recently rocked Jerusalem.
If Alami is still keeping the lines of communication open with Tehran from his new base in Turkey, it could very well mean that Ankara has taken on a new importance in the procurement of Hamas weapons and the facilitation of other military activity. This would not be terribly surprising in light of the fact that Hamas seems to be operating rather openly in Turkey these days. For the last two years, Arouri has been running West Bank operations from Turkish soil, while the number of Hamas operatives in Turkey has swelled. In 2011, Israel released 10 Hamas operatives as part of a prisoner exchange for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. These operatives included Mahmoud Attoun and Taysir Suleiman, who both abducted Israeli soldiers. They are now in Turkey, where they make the rounds on the Turkish speaking circuit, touting their past “accomplishments.” There are at least nine other Hamas officials in Turkey, according to Palestinian news agencies.
Alami, however, takes the Hamas presence in Turkey to a whole new level. He was a founding father of the terror group when it literally exploded on the scene in Gaza in the late 1980s. He was promptly arrested by Israel and expelled to Lebanon in 1991. The expulsion served as a turning point for Hamas. The leaders in exile learned new tactics and strategies from Hezbollah, including the use of suicide bombing. According to the Treasury Department’s investigation, Alami was officially tasked in the 1990s as the Hamas member in charge of “sending personnel and funding to the West Bank and Gaza.” He soon helped broker the relationships between Hamas and other regional actors, including Iran and Hezbollah.
In 2003, Alami’s body of work as a senior Hamas leader earned him a terrorism designation by the U.S. Treasury, alongside other more household Hamas names, including politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, deputy political head Moussa Abu Marzouk, and founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
In 2008, Alami moved to Damascus, where he was officially put in charge of maintaining Hamas’s ties with Iran and its allies in Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. He was apparently good enough at keeping these relationships strong that he was able to navigate the complexities of the Syrian revolution when it first erupted in 2011. But by 2012, it was clear that the Hamas leadership could not stand by as its patrons slaughtered Sunnis and Palestinians by the thousands, so the group’s leadership moved to Qatar. Yet even then, Alami maintained good relations with Iran and its proxies. Nasrallah facilitated a meeting between Alami and Iranian officials, in what appeared to be an attempt to keep the lines of communication open during the fallout. And while ties were strained, weapons continued to flow from Iran to Gaza during this period.
When it became clear that even Alami could not salvage ties between Iran and Hamas, the journeyman Hamas leader returned to Gaza and set about building a new political career. He was elected deputy chief of the Hamas politburo in secret internal elections in 2012, and was later was named the head of the Intifada Committee, an organization that presumably seeks to spark further unrest against Israel. Even in his new capacity, Alami maintained his close ties with Tehran. In early 2013, he went to Tehran tomeet with Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. And in the aftermath of the Gaza war this summer, Hamas officials confirmed that Alami’s relations with officials in Iran are as strong as ever.
All of this raises questions about Alami’s current role in Turkey. It was troubling enough when Arouri was running West Bank operations of Turkey with Ankara’s blessing. Now that Alami has joined him, Turkey rivals Qatar as a top Hamas external headquarters — and perhaps with Iran’s blessing. Alami’s presence in Turkey could be a sign of heightened cooperation between Tehran and Ankara. The two countries are undeniably foes when it comes to the future of Syria and other issues in the Sunni-Shiite divide. But Iran and Turkey have found ways to look past their differences before: The two countries recently engaged in massive sanctions-busting schemes yielding Iran billions in gold, and other illicit transactions. Alami’s presence in Turkey could be a sign that Hamas is another joint venture.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Grant Rumley is a Research Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.