European Eye on Radicalization
The earthquakes that hit Anatolia on 6 February have killed about 50,000 people: nearly 44,000 in southern Turkey and 6,000 in northern Syria. This is the deadliest earthquake since the one that struck Haiti in 2010, killing a quarter-of-a-million people, one of the worst natural disasters of all kinds in recent memory. One of the questions that has arisen is the provision of aid: conceived by many as simply a humanitarian issue, in reality it is an inherently political matter, with important implications for the spread of extremism.
Past Cases of Humanitarian Aid Gone Awry
Several extremist groups and dictatorial regimes have in the past made a profit from natural—and, indeed, unnatural—disasters. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq used chemical weapons of mass destruction against Kurdish villages in the north of the country as part of Operation ANFAL, massacring and ethnically cleansing thousands of people. A particularly infamous chemical attack, using a mixture of mustard gas and nerve agents, was against the town of Halabja, murdering 5,000 people. In the years after the attack, Islamist “charities” took the lead in rebuilding the area, and spread their ideology among the population. Halabja was later one of the centres of recruitment for the Islamic State (ISIS).
Another example was in Pakistan after the floods in the summer of 2010, which displaced half-a-million people. All aid groups were banned from working in the affected areas, except “Jamaat-ud-Dawa” (JuD), a front for Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), a vicious jihadist group that had been placed on the United Nations ISIS and Al-Qaeda Sanctions List in 2008 after the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency used LeT for the terrible atrocities in Mumbai. LeT was able to embed itself further in Pakistani society after this and gain access to more and better recruits.
Avoiding History Repeating Itself
To avoid a repetition of the exploitation of humanitarian aid by extremist groups, especially in northern Syria where Al-Qaeda-derived jihadist groups such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) are powerful, it is vital that external actors intervene. For instance, the United States’ contribution of $100 million to the earthquake relief effort is a good start in this regard, as is Australia’s $18 million and monies from other states like Germany. The United Arab Emirates contribution is important, since it not only includes $13.6 million in cash, but the deployment of search and rescue teams and on-the-ground aid delivery services, directly challenging any attempt HTS might make to present itself as the sole guardian of those in need. More broadly, the UAE and other countries’ humanitarian aid is a good example of human rights-supporters who cooperate with other countries to ensure that people live in dignity and peace.
In addition, there is no doubt that the humanitarian aid serves a good example of how human sympathy between different peoples, countries, and cultures in periods of major disasters and pandemics can mitigate the factors leading to extremism, hatred, and violence. This act of solidarity with affected countries shows the strength of human bonding and reminds us of our humanity, that people are equal no matter their different religions, colors, and beliefs. Contributing to reconstruction of countries also prevents them from becoming a hotbed for terrorist organizations that look for suitable grounds to grow and develop by exploiting the misfortunes of others.
The countries that stood by Turkey and Syria such as the United Arab Emirates are a vivid example of respecting and preserving human rights. The preservation of human rights in such a critical time is essential to prevent the exploitation of this humanitarian crisis by extremist groups, as has happened in the past. This also helps to strengthen human bonding and solidarity and reminds us that our humanity is above all else.