WASHINGTON - The United States has imposed new sanctions on individuals and networks for providing financial support to the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced Monday the new round of sanctions targeting four individuals and five companies operating in Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan and several other countries for their involvement in supporting IS financially and logistically.
After the U.S. operation that killed IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late October, the U.S. government has increased its efforts to undermine the terror group’s financial capabilities further, U.S. officials said.
“Following the highly successful operation against al-Baghdadi, the Trump administration is resolved to completely destroy ISIS’s remaining network of terror cells,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement, using another acronym for Islamic State.
U.S. officials also said the United States would increase its partnership with the anti-IS global coalition to disrupt IS’s financial networks.
“The U.S. is increasing pressure on ISIS’s resources and networks with new sanctions on nine individuals and organizations,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet Monday. “ISIS remains a threat to global security and stability."
"Any measure by a Coalition partner that damages Daesh’s cash flow can only be a good thing. These sanctions help prevent Daesh accessing the resources they are actively seeking in order to regain momentum, mitigating the threat they pose to citizens around the world," an official for the Global Coalition against the Islamic State told VOA.
The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets held by those targeted and prohibit Americans from doing business with them.
Two of the four individuals and four of the five companies targeted in Washington’s sanctions are based in Turkey. The individuals are Ismail Bayaltun and Ahmet Bayaltun, two Turkish brothers who operate ACL Ithalat Ihracat, a company also targeted by the U.S. move.
Experts say the U.S. sanctions raise questions about the Turkish government's handling of IS networks inside Turkey.
The Turkish authorities reportedly have increased their crackdown on IS networks on Turkish soil, but some experts believe significant parts of the terror group’s financial structure continues to operate in the country.
“These jihadists, which include ISIS, have really entrenched networks inside Turkey,” said Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey program coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).
“It is very unnerving but at the same time quite believable that Turkey hasn’t been really going after these jihadist networks because Turkish law enforcement has been busy hunting down dissidents and government critics,” she told VOA.
According to Turkish media, Ismail Bayaltun, who the U.S. Treasury says is the "Chairman of the Board of Director at ACL Ithalat Ihracat," was detained in 2015 in an anti-IS operation carried out by Turkish police in Sanliurfa, where the company is headquartered. It is unclear when he was released.
After the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad was captured from IS by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in 2015, “our correspondent there saw a cargo package with the surname 'Bayaltun,' which was sent to an IS fighter,” Turkish newspaper Haberturk reported at the time.
Not a top priority
Inside Turkey, some experts say, IS’s presence and activities have not been a top priority for Turkish security forces.
“The way Turkey has been approaching ISIS has never been a military problem… inside Turkey in terms of combating the ISIS threat inside, Turkey has looked at is as a police problem,” analyst Tahiroglu said.
The Turkey analyst noted that the timing of this designation “wasn’t a coincidence,” as it comes only a week after a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House.
“Bilateral relations between the U.S. and Turkey are going through a crisis because of Turkey’s recent military incursion into northeast Syria,” Tahiroglu said.
“Erdogan is trying to present Turkey as an alternative to the [Syrian Kurdish-led] SDF in the American mission against IS,” she said. “He desperately wants the U.S. to recognize Turkey as America’s main partner in Syria and not the Syrian Kurds.”
“He appears to be succeeding at convincing President Trump that he is the right partner for it, but not so much the rest of the U.S. bureaucracy, as we also see with this designation but also from various statements that have come out of the Defense Department and the State Department,” Tahiroglu told VOA.
The U.S. has previously designated individuals and entities based in Turkey for providing financial and logistical support to IS and other terrorist groups.
IS in Afghanistan
The U.S. Treasury also took action against an Afghanistan-based organization, Nejaat Social Welfare Organization, which has used false charitable pretenses as a cover to help the transfer of funds to IS’s affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, known as IS-Khorasan (IS-K).
The Afghan organization has held planning meetings for IS-K leaders, using a Salafi solidarity meeting as a cover, according to the U.S. Treasury.
When IS in early 2015 established its branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many fighters who had previously worked with Pakistani Taliban in the region pledged allegiance to the terror group.
According to U.S. officials, the region has become a hotbed for many foreign fighters, including some who are fleeing Syria and Iraq as IS has lost nearly all of the territory it once held in 2014.
Nejaat’s ties with IS
Two leaders of the Nejaat group, Sayed Habib Ahmad Khan and Rohullah Wakil, have been targeted in the recent U.S. designation.
The U.S. Treasury said in mid-2016, an IS-K operative worked at Nejaat and recruited fighters for the terror group in Kabul.
The group has collected donations on behalf of IS from individuals in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.
Waheed Mozhda, a Kabul-based analyst and a former Taliban official who worked for the government when the group was in power, told VOA the company is not officially registered with the Afghan government.
Ahmad Khan, the leader of the Nejaat Organization, has been identified by the U.S. government as a facilitator for IS-K.
Analyst Mozhda said he personally knew Wakil, the other Afghan national targeted by the recent U.S. designations, and that he was shocked to learn about his ties with IS.
“I have never heard that he had any contacts with IS,” Mozhda said, adding he met Wakil in Qatar's capital, Doha, where the Taliban has a political office.
The U.S. Treasury, however, said Wakil has provided material support to IS as he is an executive member of Nejaat.
Former Guantanamo prisoner
Jawid Kohistani, a security analyst in Kabul, said Wakil was previously imprisoned by the U.S. in the Guantanamo Bay prison for his ties with al-Qaida.
When the Taliban regime was toppled by the U.S. in 2001, most of the Afghanistan-based al-Qaida fighters fled to the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, where Salafists enjoyed growing popularity, Kohistani told VOA.
“Some Salafist followers provided shelter for al-Qaida fighters, and during that time, Wakil was a well-known figure and was arrested and sent to Guantanamo,” he said.
Salafism is considered an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam.
“Salafists are accused of having relations with IS,” Kohistani added.