PARIS – The Turkish Islamic charity behind a flotilla of aid ships that was raided by Israeli forces on its way to Gaza had ties to terrorism networks, including a 1999 Al Qaeda plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, France's former top anti-terrorism judge said Wednesday.
The Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, had "clear, long-standing ties to terrorism and Jihad," former investigating judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Bruguiere, who led the French judiciary's counterterrorism unit for nearly two decades before retiring in 2007, didn't indicate whether IHH now has terror ties, but said it did when he investigated it in the late 1990s.
"They were basically helping Al Qaeda when (Usama) bin Laden started to want to target U.S. soil," he said.
Some members of an international terrorism cell known as the Fateh Kamel network then worked at the IHH, he said. Kamel, an Algerian-Canadian dual national, had ties to the nascent Al Qaeda, Bruguiere said.
Among Kamel's followers was Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who was arrested in the U.S. state of Washington in December 1999 on his way to bomb Los Angeles International Airport as part of an Al Qaeda plot.
"IHH had a role in the organization that led to the plot," Bruguiere said, reiterating sworn testimony he made in a U.S. Federal Court during Ressam's trial. Ressam is serving a 22-year prison sentence.
Bruguiere issued an international warrant for Kamel, Ressam's former mentor, who was extradited from Jordan to France in 1999 and sentenced to eight years in prison on terror-related charges.
IHH vehemently denies ties to radical groups. The group is not among some 45 groups listed as terrorists by the U.S. State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. Nine people on board the IHH flotilla were killed by Israeli forces on Monday.
"We are a legal organization," IHH board member Omer Faruk Korkmaz said late Wednesday in response to Bruguiere's statements. "We have nothing to do with any illegal organization," he said.
"We don't know Ahmed Ressam or Fateh Kamel," Korkmaz said. "We don't approve of the actions of any terrorist organization in the world."
French investigators found in the 1990s that "several members of Fateh Kamel's network worked at the IHH as a cover," Bruguiere said. "It was too systematic and too widespread for the NGO (non-governmental organization) not to know" their real goal, he said.
The former judge, renowned for tracking down convicted terrorist Carlos the Jackal, said he didn't believe the IHH could have been infiltrated by terrorists without its knowledge.
"It's hard to prove, but all elements of the investigation showed that part of the NGO served to hide jihad-type activities," Bruguiere said. "I'm convinced this was a clear strategy, known by IHH."
The judge said he was personally involved in a raid with French and Turkish police at IHH headquarters in Istanbul in 1998, where they found weapons, false documents and other "incriminating" material.
"It was clearly proven that some of the NGO's work was not charity, it was to provide a facade for moving funds, weapons and mujahedeen to and from Bosnia and Afghanistan" — areas focused on by Islamic militants then.
In Istanbul, Korkmaz, of IHH, confirmed the late '90s police raid but denied that any weapons were found and said there was no evidence found of links to militancy.
Bruguiere would not specify how many members of Kamel's terror cell worked at IHH or give their names, but he said one of the suspects, a man from Bosnia, appeared in another terror-related case as recently as 2005 — though there was no indication at the time that the man still had ties to IHH.
Elements within the charity supported jihadi operations in the 1990s, Bruguiere said, before adding: "I don't know whether they continued to do so" more recently.
"But it seemed clear at the time that it was thanks to a measure of political backing within the Turkish government that it (IHH) could continue to operate," despite the strong suspicions against it, Bruguiere said.
Bruguiere retired from the judiciary in 2007 when he took part in an election to become a lawmaker in the conservative party of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He lost his bid.
Bruguiere, 67, is now the coordinator for the European Union in a terrorism finance tracking program jointly run with the United States.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Wednesday that "we know that IHH representatives have met with senior Hamas officials in Turkey, Syria, and Gaza over the past three years. That is obviously of great concern to us."
But, he said the U.S. could not "validate" that IHH has connections to Al Qaeda.