How Turkey Sees Its Role in the World and What it Means for the U.S.
Ahmet S. Yayla
7:30 pm-8:45 pm (April 25)
Robert R. Reilly:
We’re delighted tonight to have back with us Dr. Ahmet Yayla who is as you know from the invitation you received a 20-year veteran of the counter-terrorism and operations department of the Turkish national police and serving in the capacity of chief of counterterrorism in a large, southern Turkish city. He received his PhD in the United States but he taught at… in the department of sociology at Hurran University in Turkey. He has served here as an adjunct at Georgetown University’s Security Studies, research fellow at George Washington University Orogram on Extremism, and adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University. He last spoke here on the subject of the book of which he is a co-author, “ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.” Something he knows a great deal about. Let’s say he… His reputation is large enough to have attracted the attention of President Erdoğan in Turkey who let us say has had some unkind things to say about Ahmet. When he speaks to us tonight, you will find out why. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Yayla who will speak to us on the subject of “How Turkey Sees its Role in the World.”
Dr. Ahmet Yayla:
I will start with President Erdoğan and his history in the Turkish politics. As we can see the history goes back with his leadership in Turkey from the Mayor of Istanbul and then the establishment of his party, AK Party, and then three terms [as] Prime Minister, and now for the last two or three years [as] the President of Turkey.
A lot of people ask me when we talk about these issues why the Turkish people vote for Mr. Erdoğan. Basically they try to understand the sociology of the circumstances, people’s mindset in Turkey. The first thing we need to understand [is that] Mr. Erdoğan claims representing the religion of Islam in Turkey and he openly argues that if he goes, Islam goes. If he is not there, there’s going to be harsh secularism again, looking at the history, giving a lot of examples from the Turkish history. So therefore if the people do not vote for him, they will lose their religion. This is what he claims.
Secondly, he controls almost all the media in Turkey. Therefore he can control the minds of people in Turkey. There is only a few newspapers who do not circulate much left that is not under his control. He either owns the media companies or controls them almost one hundred percent. So every day all of those papers, TV stations are pumping propaganda towards him. There are over 15 million people receiving $25 billion dollars a year [in] social aid directly from the Turkish government who think that Mr. Erdoğan is providing those social aids to them.
He has been purging and fighting people. It’s now almost over 165,000 officers from military to universities to judiciary and replaced those people with partisan people who are loyal to him and there is a fear factor that makes sure nobody can raise his or her voice because even a tweet can take you [to] a prison. Until recently he started to play with words. For the last two elections there are very high voting allegations, voting fraud allegations, that can be backed with evidence. When he was establishing the AKP Party, he told the Turkish people that he was taking off his political Islamist shirt, meaning that he is no longer an Islamist leader but he is a democratic person who will be respectful to the human rights and democracy. And through that rhetoric he won the elections but before that he was recorded to say, “Democracy is like a bus. When you get to your bus station, you just take off that bus.” So after the coup attempt in 2016 he basically got off that bus and runs the country with an iron fist since then.
You also need to understand what kind of Islam Mr. Erdoğan represents in Turkey. If you look at history, coming from the Ottoman times historical Turkish Islam used to be a Sufi Islam. Many of you might know Rumi, the poet Rumi. So an Islam- an understanding of Islam open to dialogue and interactions with other religions including Christianity and Judaism as we can see during the history of Ottoman times. However, right now Mr. Erdoğan represents a political Islam understanding, basically using Islam for his objectives and driving the Sufi understanding of Islam towards more like Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist understanding of Islam and meanwhile making his base an open target to Salafist jihadi terrorist organizations for recruitment and support purposes through his rhetoric and activities.
Now on the other hand Mr. Erdoğan for a long time has been trying to assume the leadership of the Islamic world. When you look at the year 2010 and 2011, we could very easily see him traveling around in the Middle East and Northern Africa, visiting Muslim countries, taking a lot of aid to those countries and talking to the people of those countries during his visits. By then some Western media, including Die Welte and The New York Times realized that he was playing to the leadership of Islamic world by his activities and by his actions. Basically what he was doing in the Middle East and how he was spreading his influence and propaganda in those countries.
One of the main issues that he was very successfully increased- or got the attention of the people of the Middle East was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He arranged a flotilla, aid flotilla, to Gaza, knowing that [the] flotilla was going to be stopped by the Israeli military. But [he] sent that flotilla anyway so he could create a conflict. By the way he’s doing the same thing again through the same organization, IHH, and on May 25 there is going to be a new flotilla with six ships again towards Gaza and I don’t know what’s going to happen most probably the Israeli military again [is] going to stop the flotilla and those ships.
Just before the elections Gaza- In two months there is going to be a presidential election in Turkey, a snap election, which was announced last week. And also as the problems arising in the Middle East and the conflict in Egypt, Mr. Erdoğan became the main supporter of President Morsi in Egypt. He was very harshly against President Sisi and what was happening in Egypt. He carried out a lot of demonstrations in Turkey against Sisi and openly supported Mohamed Morsi. By that this was a good opportunity for him to assume the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region and to this day, starting from the Egyptian conflict he used this Rabia sign wherever he goes, wherever he talks. Every day you can see him on the media, on the T.V. stations his hand making this Rabia sign, referring to the Rabia scare in Egypt where the conflicts started. So with his leadership promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and their ideals, he definitely won a lot of hearts among the Muslim Brotherhood people, also among the Hamas supporters because of what happened with the Gaza flotilla.
Another problem: as the Arab Spring started, when the Salafist jihadist terrorist organizations were rushing towards Syria, Turkey became the main supporter of those terrorist organizations. This is a video where three Turkish intelligence trucks loaded with weapons, military grade weapons, were stopped by the Turkish National Police through the orders of the judiciary. And supposedly according to Mr. Erdoğan, those trucks were carrying medicine but when the trucks were searched, underneath the medicine, the police uncovered military grade weapons. And you can see the pictures here:[news excerpt]
So of course Mr. Erdoğan was very upset and blamed the police and the judiciary and labelled them as terrorists, interrupting a Turkish National Intelligence operation. Even though he claimed it was only medicine being sent as a humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. It was very obvious that this was an intelligence operation to help the Salafi jihadist terrorist organizations in Syria. By the way, the journalist who published these pictures, video, and made a news piece out of it, and the editor of that newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were arrested. They were labelled as terrorists, as usual-
By the way, they were sentenced today.
Yes! [The] Cumhuriyet trial was today but it was like a separate trial.
Another important issue that Mr. Erdoğan used in Turkey in apart from MIT and supporting those terrorist organizations, when he came in to power there was a rhetoric coming from his party that the religious schools, called imam hatip high schools in Turkey are the backyards of Mr. Erdoğan’s party and his previous party. Those schools were established to provide imams and preachers for the Turkish mosques. He increased the numbers of those schools and basically today he is forcing a lot of kids to go to those schools by basically killing the other alternatives, forcing them to go these imam hatip schools as they cannot find any other schools to attend.
Mr. Erdoğan very cleverly and skillfully used the diyanet, [the] Turkish religious authority, as they were the most widespread bureaucratic establishment, institution in Turkey with over 120,000 officers, imams, preachers, and other officers in the country, to the smallest village, the most distant village in Turkey and made sure that during the sermons those imams and preachers supported his ideals. They backed him. He also made sure the sermons, the Friday sermons during the Friday prayers, were written in Ankara and distributed from the center. So each imam in his mosque could read those sermons, but not what they wanted to talk [about]. So the mosques in Turkey, the religion in Turkey, became the main propaganda tool of Mr. Erdoğan apart from the media.
And by the way, this is the diyanet mosque in Maryland, 15 miles to Washington, D.C. There are 26 mosques ran by the diyanet in the United States. Mr. Erdoğan invested over $100 million dollars to this mosque, basically it’s a complex, not only a mosque but a school and other institutions. And there are a lot of Turkish mosques and imams assigned from Turkey in Europe as well. For the last year after the coup attempt at least six European countries carried out operations against the Turkish imams, claiming that they were acting as spies, and collecting information on the Turkish minorities for Mr. Erdoğan.
Another important tool Mr. Erdoğan used to extend his power is the NGOs. The main NGO he used and still uses today is IHH. This NGO was behind the Gaza flotilla and again the same NGO is managing the new flotilla and several times they were caught red-handed helping Salafist jihadist terrorist organizations through Turkish National Police operations. And in fact in 2014 there was an operation in one city on the east of Turkey related with the IHH and the humanitarian relief operations in Syria. Again Mr. Erdoğan got really upset and blamed the police and basically those officers who carried out that operation in 2014 were arrested and they are still in prison.
Another important institution that he cleverly used is Tika, Turkish aid agency, just like USAID in the United States. [He] extended the influence of Turkey and Mr. Erdoğan with the aids they were carrying out around the world, particularly in the Middle East, in Northern Africa. And another essential institution that he uses is called Maarif Vakfı, Turkish Education Foundation. And through this foundation he opens schools around the world, not in Turkey but [around] the world. And at those schools, basically boarding schools, he tries to influence the youth towards his ideals. Now this relates to the United States: this is a foundation [that] his son and his daughters established and the U.S. American sister of this foundation is Turken Foundation through TURGEV. And this foundation has a lot of dormitories around the United States where university students can stay at very discounted prices. Right now they are building a new dormitory in Manhattan on the 41st street. Basically, these kinds of activities have become an essential tool for him to increase and extend his influence because he can reach out to a lot of people by using the state funds and brainwash the people staying at those institutions or going through these institutions.
Another essential tool he used to Salafize or radicalize the population and his base is distribution of Salafist jihadi books. This book is an ISIS book published by an ISIS publisher in Turkey and this was purchased by the Ministry of Culture in Turkey and distributed to Turkish libraries and with the stamp of the Turkish State. So think about yourself as a student going to that library for a research project and seeing a book stamped by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. At the age of 15 of course you are going to trust that book and do your research in the most cases based on what is being described in this book or several other books like this.
The control of the media and social media: Turkey is now the champion of the censorship of social media. A 15-year old kid could go to prison just because he was retweeting a tweet criticizing Erdoğan. During the first month of Operation Olive Branch operation against Afrin, 800 people were arrested because they tweeted against the operation. The only crime they did was to tweet about the Afrin operation and opposing the operation. That was it. Immediately they were labelled as terrorists and got arrested. Right now there are over 200 journalists in Turkey in the prisons. At least another 200 or 300 ran away from the country so that they would not be arrested and basically nobody can dare to write against himself or his policies. There is only one person who can openly criticize Mr. Erdoğan. His name is ? and there are reasons behind it but other than him nobody can criticize Mr. Erdoğan or write anything against him.
So I will give you a few examples [of] how Turkey extended its assistance to the Salafi jihadi terrorist organizations beginning in 2011 and how [it] made it possible for ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated organizations to empower themselves through Turkey’s aid or Turkey’s ‘closing eyes’. As you can remember foreign fighters were the backbone of ISIS and they were the most brutal killers in Syria and in Iraq. Around 35,000 of those foreign fighters were let go through Turkey without being stopped and this was just part of it but there are several of cases like this here. Basically from Istanbul to Şanlıurfa, where I was working as the Chief of Counter-Terrorism, was labelled as the ‘jihadi highway’ because of how those foreign fighters were traveling very fast without being disturbed. And the orders were very open: “Let them go. Do not touch them.” Turkish borders were wide open. There are several documented cases and I have several articles on these issues so I am not going to spend too much time. Even Prime Minister Davutoğlu or Mr. Erdoğan had hard times labelling those terrorist organizations as terrorist organizations. Up until 2016 Turkish public were not able to hear the words terrorist or terrorism from the head of the state of Turkey regarding ISIS and Al Qaeda.
This is a phone call which was released on YouTube. A Turkish Air executive calling the Chief Advisor of Mr. Erdoğan and asking him [about] the weapons they are exporting to Nigeria to Boko Haram.[news excerpt]
He is openly asking, ‘hey, please talk to the Chief of the MiT and Mr. Erdoğan because I am taking these weapons to Nigeria and I don’t know who is being killed: the Christians? The Muslims? And I don’t want to be responsible of the killings of Muslims. So please make sure we are doing the right thing.” Whatever they were doing, they were doing it very openly by using the state tools without any hesitation.
Another important issue with the beginning of the conflict: ISIS terrorists who were wounded in Syria and Iraq were welcome to Turkey for free of charge medical treatment in Şanlıurfa, in Gaziantep, [and] in Kilis. In fact, the Turkish National Police were forced to protect, to provide security to those terrorists. The Turkish people would pay for medical expenses but these terrorists were treated free of charge. Abadi’s deputy was also treated in Şanlıurfa at a private hospital.
A lot of weapons and almost all explosives that ISIS used to produce IEDS were provided either from Turkey or through Turkey. There are reports on the Internet through the Conflict Armaments Research Center, funded by the European Union, and these reports openly indicate the routes and the sources of the chemicals, the electronics, the explosives used at the production of those IEDs and you can get those to see by your own eyes.
Not surprisingly, Erdoğan[‘s] family made millions of dollars from ISIS oil. Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who was the Minister of Energy and he’s still at this government as a minister, Minister of Natural Resources, established a front company called Power Trans, purchasing ISIS oil, [making] daily around $3.5 million dollars. And this was revealed to the world through two sources mainly. A hacker group called Red Hack hacked Albayrak’s emails and through his emails we realized that he was managing this Power Trans company. And after the shooting down of the Russian warplane, the Russians released the satellite pictures of Power Trans trucks transferring ISIS oil from northern Iraq and Syria to Turkish refineries and again from those Turkish refineries Erdoğan son, Bilal Erdoğan, through his BMZ transportation company sold the ISIS oil as Turkish oil to the whole world and there are manifests of his ships transferring oil from the Turkish refineries to different countries refineries.
So what happened with this support? Salafi jiihadi terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq also in Turkey became monster terrorist organizations. If Turkey had not supported them openly, they would not have become that powerful terrorist organizations, particularly ISIS, if you think about the ISIS, if you think about the IEDS, the explosives they used, if you think about the foreign fighters Turkey let to go- let go to Syria without being stopped. Also this support changed the perception of [the] Turkish public. In the past the Turks were very distant from Salafi jihadist ideology. But by seeing what the government was doing, how Erdoğan was promoting their ideology, they became accustomed to this ideology and basically though his rhetoric [they] started to support these terrorist organizations. And then Turkey itself became a recruiting ground for those terrorist organizations. Thousands of Turks went to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organizations.
At the end of 2013 in December there was a huge corruption investigation against Erdoğan’s son, Bilal Erdoğan, and his close circle, including several ministers and their sons. This really got Erdoğan upset. He said that this is a coup against him. All the evidence against- for- according to him, was fake. The Turkish National Police was basically carrying out a coup to take him down. So he immediately fired all the police officers, all of the police officers, the police chiefs, the judiciary [who] carried out the corruption operations. At the time of the operation he called his son, Bilal, and told him to get rid of over one billion – with ‘b’ – dollars of cash in his Istanbul villa. Bilal with [the] help of his sister, Sümeyye, and Berat Albayrak, who is the Minister of National Resources, who is also married to Sümeyye’s sister, used three trucks to hide that money, over one billion dollars. At the end of the day when Erdoğan called his son, Bilal told him they were able to hide the cash in dollars but there’s only €27 million Euros left. They couldn’t find a place to hide €27 million Euros. They decided to purchase seven luxurious villas from a project at the Bosporus. Of course he denied it but three months later we saw the receipts of the payment and the documentation that those villas were registered under other relatives names.
Even though Mr. Erdogan denied these open evidence collected by the Turkish National Police, nobody knew the FBI was carrying out a similar operation. We realized when the FBI arrested the main person, the key person in [the] Turkish operation, named Reza Zarrab when he decided to visit the United States with his wife, who was a very famous singer in Turkey. He was arrested in Miami by the FBI and then we realized the FBI was also carrying out a similar operation. Because what Mr. Erdoğan really was at those times, during the Iranian embargo, selling the Iranian oil and getting gold instead of dollars, basically helping the Iranians to break the American embargo and Reza Zarrab was the key person arranging all those activities and he got arrested by the FBI. He was extremely upset by this. He came to the United States to meet first President Obama, then President Trump to make sure he could kill the operation. But he couldn’t. He hired a lot of lobbying firms, lawyers, including one of the former Mayors of New York but he couldn’t manage it. And eventually the FBI also arrested the Deputy CEO of Halk Bank, which was in the middle of these operations by helping the Iranians to transfer their money. And two months ago a New York federal jury found him guilty. He’s about to be sentenced. And of course Mr. Erdoğan came out and said this is a trap, the Americans are carrying out a coup against me. The judge, the prosecutor, and the people involved in the New York case are terrorists. Basically, this is what was his rhetoric and what his media wrote openly. They claimed judge and the prosecutor in the New York case were terrorists and you can find those [reports] online. And by the way, Reza Zarrab, the main suspect in the… in the case carried out by the FBI decided to cooperate. He and another officer from Turkey who was involved with those operations named Mr. Erdoğan as the number one organizer of these operations with the Iranians.
So fast forward to today after the coup and the purges that I mentioned and with the changes that I mentioned at the Turkish bureaucracy. I would like to talk about a little bit [about] what’s going on in Syria with the Turkish operations. As you can remember there was a Turkish operation in Al Bad and then very recently in Afrin called [the] Olive Branch Operation. Several ISIS members and other HTS or Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists who were fleeing from Syria ended up in Turkey by the way. There were a lot of cases where arrested ISIS members, high-level ISIS members, were abruptly released in most cases where the prosecutors were seeking aggravated life sentences, which means it was impossible for the judges to release those ISIS terrorists. But regardless of what was going on with the case and the evidence against them, they were released and nobody could understand.
For two years between 2014 and 2016 there was no single pre-planned counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and Al Qaeda in Turkey and Erdoğan successfully established a base in Syria and in Turkey by using the fact that there are 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey as guests of Erdoğan and because Erdoğan accepted them and because they are being taken care of by the Turkish people, they feel that they have to be loyal to Mr. Erdoğan so they support him very deeply.
And what happened with the Olive Branch Operation? In Afrin he made sure that there was not going to be a corridor at the southern border of Turkey or the northern border of Syria, basically interrupting the operation against ISIS. But at the same time while countering the YPG or the SDF, the coalition force fighting against ISIS in that area under the coordination of the United States Military, he indirectly countered the U.S. And his media was very explicit about this and very open about how Erdoğan was successfully countering the Americans. This was a war against- basically among his base, among the base that supports him in the Middle East, particularly the Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, was a war against U.S. interests. So he indirectly countered the Americans while he was directly countering the YPG during this Olive Branch Operation. And it wasn’t enough. He sent a lot of aid through the diyanet, tika, [and] IHH, to those cities and towns that are being hammered by the Turkish forces to make sure the local people would be pleased but at the same time he also made sure the Salafi jihadist people controlling several of those locations around the area were also loyal to him and loyal to the operation. Several of those organizations through the sheikhs and the imams spread the propaganda supporting Mr. Erdoğan and what was happening in Syria.
By the end of 2017, Mr. Trump announced that he was going to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. I don’t know if you heard of but there was a large demonstration by the White House carrying out mostly the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood here in the United States. I’m just telling you so you can better understand the thinking scheme of the people around that part of the world. During these demonstrations in front of the White House people who carried out the demonstration yelled, “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, true leader of the Ummah.” Ummah meaning the Muslim population in the world.
Now Mr. Erdoğan announced that he is going to have a snap election in two months, basically, 55 days from today. This election was going to happen in 2019 around 16 months from today, but he decided to carry out this election in two months from today and it was announced last week. Nobody knows who is running against Mr. Erdoğan and the other parties basically could not decide who they are going to support against him so far and there is a reason for that. He wanted to make sure that he was going to stay in power but at the same time the economy in Turkey is going down very fastly. Inflation is very high. The dollar-Turkish lira ratio is really against the Turkish lira. Right now the Turkish lira is… One dollar is over four Turkish liras. So he wanted to make sure the economy is… before the economy is really going down, he could get re-elected. Of course he doesn’t want to leave power. He changed the constitution to ensure that he was not going to be prosecuted as long as he lived even if he is not in power. But there are a lot of issues against him, including the weapons and explosives he provided to the terrorist organizations, the corruption issues, et cetera. So- so basically he does not want to leave the power and he will do anything to stay in power. There are a lot of expectations that regardless of the outcome, he will win these elections.
Now what can we do? Mr. Erdoğan is from Kasımpaşa, a city in Istanbul known with its macho-man, tough man. So far he seems to be getting whatever he wanted from the world leaders. He basically blackmailed the Europeans with the 3.5 million refugees and forced them to accept what he was asking from them. Basically he became the gatekeeper of ISIS and Al Qaeda towards Europe and blackmailed them towards his wills. With the United States he very skillfully used İncirlik NATO Air Base and forced the Americans basically sometimes close their eyes but it wasn’t the case with Putin. When the Russian warplane was shot down, Putin immediately imposed economic embargo, banned the Russian people to go to Turkey as tourists, and Mr. Erdoğan immediately started to feel the heat through the Russian embargo and in a few months he went back to Russia and apologized [to] Putin. Even though the Europeans were very warm, when Angela Merkel started to talk about a proposed economic embargo against Turkey, Mr. Erdoğan immediately released a German journalist who was arrested in Turkey for almost a year with no reason. So he was scared of a German embargo. So far these are two countries kind of show tough love against him and got whatever they wanted [or] at least partially. We had the case of Pastor Brunson who has been in a Turkish prison for over 16 months and so far we could not save him. And with that I would like to take your questions.