A Turkish member of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also known as al-Qaeda in Syria or Nusrah Front, opened a bank account at a state lender despite the fact that he faced an arrest warrant in Turkey, which was obligated to freeze his assets and bank accounts.
According to classified financial documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, Emre Çamurcu, a 26-year old HTS militant, opened a bank account at the state-owned Halkbank on February 21, 2020 although Turkish authorities knew he was working for HTS under the assumed name of al-Katade.
Turkey listed HTS as a terrorist group on August 31, 2018 with a presidential decree issued two days earlier as part of Turkey's compliance with the UN Security Council ISIL (Da'esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. On June 5, 2018 the UN committee had updated its data on Nusra Front, saying the group created HTS in January 2017 "as a vehicle to advance its position in the Syrian insurgency and further its own goals as Al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria."
Ankara was supposed to freeze the assets of HTS members and its entities in Turkey after the UN decision became part of Turkish law with the presidential decree; yet no decision was taken to enforce this decree or the UN committee decision.
HTS members have since continued to raise cash and move funds using the Turkish banking system while the group, dominant in Syria's Idlib province, kept trading goods across the Turkish-Syrian border, raising tax revenue in territories that are controlled by the Turkish army and its affiliated fighter groups.
Çamurcu opening a bank account two years after the sanctions were imposed on HTS is yet more proof of how al-Qaeda has been operating in Turkey without much hindrance.
According to the confidential file on Çamurcu, an arrest warrant was issued for him in 2018 by a judge in Istanbul on charges of belonging to an armed group. Yet there is no criminal investigation pending against him by public prosecutors, and there is no ongoing criminal case in any court. His banking activities show that he had had three accounts at another state lender, Ziraat, since 2014 but closed two of them in March 2018. He then opened a bank account with private lender İş Bankasi on January 25, 2018, followed by a Halkbank account in 2020.
The police records indicate that he had been identified as an HTS member long before. The police even asked the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) to look into his bank accounts and assets on April 26, 2019, followed by another request on July 16, 2020.
Although he was flagged as an HTS terrorist, it took years before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a government decree, on December 24, 2021, that ordered a freeze of his assets.
He had a short employment stint in 2018 with a paint factory that operates under the name of Aromatik Kimyevi Maddeler Dış Ticaret Limited Şirketi in Istanbul.
HTS members detained in police raids in Turkey were often released, while some freely made trips between Turkey and Syria, conducting business on behalf of the terrorist group.
HTS remains the predominant terrorist group in Idlib, with some 10,000 fighters according to the latest report issued in June by the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team. It incorporates various fighter groups and works with affiliates such as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). It operates gas stations and other businesses in Idlib to raise funds to support their activities.
The presence of HTS in Turkish-controlled Idlib has been one of the contentious issues among Turkey, Russia and Iran, the three countries that initiated the Astana process for a cease-fire in Syria. Turkey, as one of the three guarantor states, is supposed to eliminate the terrorist threat in Idlib.
HTS was explicitly named as a terrorist group and threat to peace in Syria in a statement issued by all three countries in December 2019. They expressed "serious concern with the increased presence and terrorist activity of 'Hayat Tahrir al‑Sham' and other affiliated terrorist groups as designated by the UN Security Council that pose threat to civilians inside and outside the de-escalation area."
Russia believes Turkey has not adhered to the cease-fire agreement because it has yet to eliminate HTS.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.