The recent appointment to the leadership of Turkey’s diaspora agency confirms the long-held view that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is keen on promoting its radically divisive political Islamist ideology among Turkish and Muslim diaspora communities abroad.
The agency, officially called the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı, or YTB), has been a facilitator for Erdoğan’s long arm abroad for some time now. Initially touted as a long-delayed project for the Turkish government to improve the well being of Turks residing overseas, the agency was quickly transformed into a partisan tool in 2011 to advance clandestine projects cooked up in the offices of Erdoğan and his associates. At face value, it was described as an outfit to support the preservation of Turkish cultural and linguistic identity. Yet in reality it has become a cover for Erdoğan operatives including the notorious National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to promote the Erdoğan brand in foreign countries.
On Oct. 26, 2018 Erdoğan appointed a 34-year-old man named Abdullah Eren to be head of the YTB as part of his plans to completely turn the agency into a branch of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Eren was the deputy head of AKP Istanbul youth branches and worked to expand the AKP’s tentacles to the Balkans, a region he is familiar with as someone who was born in the Komotini area of Greece where minority Turks live. The AKP Istanbul youth branch has for years functioned as a special operations hub for Erdoğan to network with Muslim and Turkish diaspora groups all over the world. Eren was a key operative in building alliances and finding people who might be helpful for the Erdoğan regime in promoting his brand among diaspora communities.
It was certainly no coincidence that Eren was groomed to be an operative for the Erdoğan regime. He was picked up, just like many from the Turkish community in Western Thrace, from where the Turkish spy agency often draws recruits, after his family proved to be loyal to the interests of the Turkish state. His uncle is Hakan Çavuşoğlu, who served as deputy prime minister and is still a key senior official in the Erdoğan government in crafting Turkey’s policies toward the Balkan states. The uncle, whose portfolio included the YTB, brought Eren to this position as interim head of the YTB and moved him from the advisory position at the Prime Ministry to command a key agency.
Incidentally, Eren’s brother İbrahim Eren is a close friend of Erdoğan’s son Bilal; the two have known each other since high school. The Turkish president brought Ibrahim to head Turkey’s state-owned TRT network. The Eren brothers’ father Halit Eren is director of the OIC’s Istanbul-based Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), which is funded by Turkey. Abdullah Eren had also worked at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), a government propaganda think tank charged with the task of whitewashing what Erdoğan does. SETA is known to function as an entry point for government jobs. In fact, many officials in the Erdoğan government including his spokesperson İbrahim Kalın, a die-hard Islamist figure, had built their resumes at SETA before moving on to the intelligence agency, the president’s office and other government jobs.
The pictures from 2013 show Eren leading a group of people from the Balkans to a meeting with Erdoğan while he was working for the AKP youth branches in İstanbul. He managed to pull off a gathering of some 100 young people who were working for political parties or NGOs in Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The project was part of Erdoğan’s personal orders to shore up proxies in the Balkans and support politicians, political parties and NGOs affiliated or aligned with the AKP’s Islamist policies. The project was overseen by Aziz Babuşçu, Erdoğan’s confidante and lawmaker who was the head of the provincial branch in Istanbul. Babuşçu was expelled by Bulgaria in March 2017 over his alleged role in interfering in the Bulgarian elections when he was using his cover as chairman of the Turkey-Bulgaria Parliamentary Friendship Group to engage in clandestine activities and meddle in elections in a neighboring country.
According to the leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, the YTB was overwhelmingly staffed by Islamists. An email sent to Albayrak on Nov. 29, 2013 by the general manager of the state-owned Turkish Petroleum International Company (TPIC), Mithat Cansız, Albayrak’s friend, revealed that 70 percent of staff members of the YTB came from a political Islamist background and had some connection in the past with the Islamist Felicity Party. That was before a massive purge in the Turkish government that resulted in the dismissal of over 130,000 employees. Perhaps the unlawful purge on fabricated charges left the YTB completely in the hands of Islamists.
The YTB’s budget for 2018 was set at TL 285.8 million in the spending bill but increased with additional funding to TL 333.9 million as of June 2018. For the fiscal year 2017, its budget was TL 277.8 million, and yet the YTB spent TL 295.6 million in current expenditures to finance operations in diaspora communities and provide scholarships to foreign students studying in Turkey. For 2018 the budget for current expenditures was set at TL 249.7 million, of which 57 percent had already been spent in the first half of 2018. Similar discrepancies between set targets and actual spending can be seen in the budgetary item under the title of financing NGOs. Accordingly, the YTB assigned TL 26 million to fund NGOs at the beginning of the year but had spent TL 65.8 million as of June 30, 2018.
One of the key projects the YTB pursues is the study of Muslim diaspora communities. This was Erdoğan’s plan — to map out not only Turkish but also non-Turkish Muslim minority groups in foreign countries so he can promote his caliphate brand among them. Interestingly enough he was able to sell this to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) using his loyalists planted at OIC subsidiaries. The YTB, working with the Statistical, Economic and Social Research and Training Centre for Islamic Countries (SESRIC), an OIC agency, held a workshop in in May 2018 to address issues among Muslim diaspora communities. The survey presented by SESRIC, which is headed by Musa Kulaklıkaya, a former head of the Turkish Development and Cooperation Agency (TIKA), another overseas arm of the Erdoğan government, focused on diasporas in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. The exploratory study was a discreet move by the Erdoğan regime to feel the pulse of the Muslim diaspora and devise policies to cater to the targeted audience based on the findings.
With the generous support of other government branches such as the Ministry for Youth and Sports, the YTB organizes free youth camps in Turkey to bring young Turks from abroad to brainwash them in the ideals of the Erdoğan regime. The program was openly advertised by Turkish embassies and AKP branches in other countries. The YTB organized half a dozen camps, separate for boys and girls, in 2018 to indoctrinate foreign nationals of Turkish origin in a series of lectures provided by Turkish officials. It also coordinates the network of some 150,000 foreign nationals in 165 countries who graduated from Turkish universities. The YTB also funds associations that cater to foreign students and helped establish six organizations for that purpose in 2018. It brings together graduates of foreign schools in other countries that were funded by Turkey as well. It also provides scholarships to students in diaspora. In order to promote its activities, the YTB established a Diaspora Communications Academy and trained 20 people for that purpose in Strasbourg in January 2018.
While the YTB is trying to export Erdoğan’s ideology to Western countries in a more discreet way, it has publicly been doing the same in Asian countries. For example, the YTB developed joint projects with the South Asia Strategic Research Center (Güney Asya Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi, or GASAM), an NGO that is run by Ali Şahin, a Pakistani-educated Islamist who now serves as a deputy chairman in Erdoğan’s AKP responsible for developing social policy. Both the YTB and GASAM have crafted policies to woo Asian Muslim communities in order to pitch the idea of Erdoğan as the leader of all Muslims in the world. For example, in May 2016 GASAM organized a conference in Istanbul that was about the caliphate movement in India.
It is obvious that the YTB is pursuing projects to make segments of Turkish and Muslim diaspora groups more susceptible to the radicalizing efforts of the Erdoğan regime. In sharp contrast to its stated goals, the agency’s engagement is discouraging the integration of diaspora groups in their host countries, building a separate identity for them and developing troublesome outreach activities, all of which can very well carry the risk of jeopardizing national and international security and stability.