Erdogan Signals a Transformation of the Turkish State towards Political Islam.

Erdogan has been in the news lately for his controversial role in supporting one of the sides in the Libyan conflict with Syrian jihadi mercenaries, but beneath the headlines, even more is going on. Three recent crucial incidents indicate that Erdogan has been getting ready for a significant move, probably a transformation that will change Turkey forever.

Cartoon: Carlos Latuff

The first development – and the most under-the-radar for non-Turks – concerns Erdogan’s gradual empowerment of the Turkish National Police (TNP) Intelligence Department Directorate as a sort of personal intel office. On January 17, 2020, the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey issued a new presidential decree, elevating the status of the Turkish National Police (TNP) Intelligence Department to a Directorate. This office is in charge of carrying out intelligence operations against terrorist organizations.

(TNP intelligence should not be confused with the Turkish National Intelligence (MIT), which oversees both domestic and international intelligence and is led by Erdogan’s longterm confidant Hakan Fidan.)

The TNP is in charge of all types of crimes and law enforcement related issues all over Turkey except for rural areas, covering over eighty-five percent of the population with 300,000 employees.

Here’s the backstory. After the December 2013 anti-corruption operations, which the TNP carried out against Erdogan’s son Bilal Erdogan, his inner circle, and four of his ministers, Erdogan realized that he could not trust the police. Immediately after surviving the anti-corruption operations, Erdogan started to restructure the TNP, essentially firing and replacing the officers and police chiefs working for key investigative departments, including the intelligence, counterterrorism, and organized crime, by the end of 2014. Furthermore, the 2016 coup attempt became a great excuse for Erdogan to additionally fire around 35,000 TNP personnel whom he deemed as possible opposition and to hire over 80,000 new officers considered loyal to him.

TNP intel has been extremely loyal to Erdogan since 2014. In fact, it was Erdogan’s intelligence officers who learned that ISIS was going to carry out a suicide attack on a leftist march outside the Ankara train station eight days before the attack happened in October 2015. They were already following one of the key perpetrators; however, they did not stop the attacks. The ISIS suicide attack in Ankara on October 10, 2015, killed 109 and wounded over 500 people. The European Union Intelligence and Situation Centre (EUINTCEN) released a report suggesting that the ISIS Ankara suicide bombing “may have been committed on the orders of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).”

The restructuring of the TNP resulted in the high politicization of the historic agency, focusing on the so-called enemies of the regime. The hysteria peaked in July 2016 and resulted in 500,000 investigations, in addition to almost 100,000 arrests.

Taking a page from similar dictators’ playbooks, Erdogan certainly knows very well that the new Police Intel can act like the infamous Mukhabarat of Middle Eastern dictators, ignoring the rule of law and human rights further than they have been doing for the last five years. It could collaborate with terrorist organizations, kidnap, torture, and assist Erdogan by providing live intel about his opposition. The Police Intel can play a significant role simply because the TNP has a better grasp of the population with over 300,000 personnel and now a more powerful intelligence section. I pointed to this scenario when I was testifying as an expert witness at the U.S. Congress in 2016, arguing that Erdogan will eventually have to attempt to establish the Turkish Islamic Republic, to stay in power.

The second, related development took place during a January 2, 2020 speech, when Erdogan said, “We have come to a point where we can longer ensure the security of our cities and maintain the order inside with police forces. In the face of this new situation, we need to develop new methods.”

At the time, nobody knew what Erdogan meant. Ahmet Takan, an advisor of former President Abdullah Gul, wrote a column questioning whether Erdogan meant a TURGEV (Erdogan’s family foundation) law enforcement agency or the SADAT army. SADAT serves as Erdogan’s backup security force and it is actively involved in the arming and training of the Salafi Jihadist terrorist organizations in Syria and in Northern Africa, according to a Pentagon official. Takan compared today’s Turkey to 1936 Germany. Takan also referenced a leaked video of police cadets pledging “Revenge! May our revenge be everlasting.” This was revenge against Erdogan’s enemies.

On December 16, 2019, Kemal Gozler, a Turkish constitutional law professor, published an article titled “The Value of Islamic Law: Could Islamic Law Pose an Alternative to Western Law?” Gozler pointed out in his article that students enrolling in Turkish universities’ Islamic theology programs increased fivefold from 6,252 to 33,202 in the last nine years. The number of theology programs rose from 24 to 92, with the faculty members also rising from 1,120 to 4,121. According to Gozler, there are currently 407 faculty members teaching Islamic Law, whereas Turkish universities only employ 24 faculty for Roman Law, which Turkish legal structure is based on.

Gozler argued that these developments are a clear indication of Erdogan’s preparations to shift Turkey’s legal system to an Islamic theology-based one.

As an example, a recent change in the code of Turkey’s public oversight accounting and auditing standards authority cited from the Qur’an for the codes of conduct of its auditors stating, “An auditor should avoid all actions for which he could be punished by God and take precautions accordingly.”

A third bombshell development took place with the revealing of the identity of the new leader of ISIS on January 20, 2020. He is Iraqi Turkman Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi, who was a founding member of ISIS. Al-Salbi is a very well known figure to the Turks. His brother Adel Salbi is the representative of the Turkmen Iraqi Front (ITF) in Turkey, a political party. According to the Guardian report, the new ISIS leader was believed to have maintained his connections with his brother until he was named as the Caliph.

The brotherly link becomes truly astonishing if one considers that Turkish National Intelligence (MIT) finances and manages the Turkmen Iraqi Front in addition to carrying out joint operations in Iraq and Syria against the YPG. The Salbi brothers’ connections reinforce concerns about Turkey’s ISIS connections. These include questions about why Turkey was hosting one of al-Baghdadi’s wives along with several other family members since 2018 in addition to al-Baghdadi being killed in sight of Turkish observation posts just 3 miles away from the Turkish border.

In addition to the three developments just discussed, there are important signs of Erdogan’s Islamicization of the civic sphere. On December 23, 2019, Adnan Tanrıverdi (a former Turkish general who was forced to retire in 1996 due to his ties to political Islamist movements), Erdogan’s chief military advisor, said to pro-Erdogan Akit TV following a session of the International Islamic Union Congress that his organization “has been working to pave the way for the long-awaited Mahdi (prophesied messianic redeemer of Islam), for whom the entire Muslim world is waiting.”

Tanriverdi is head of the Strategic Research Center for Defenders of Justice (ASSAM), and the founder and president of a paramilitary company, International Defense Consulting, SADAT. It’s unclear which he referred to. ASSAM is the sister organization of SADAT and focuses on world politics involving the Islamic world through its research activities and political agendas.

Controversy over Tanriverdi’s remarks forced him to resign after two weeks on January 8, 2020. But ASSAM has a critical role in Erdogan’s future plans. Under the leadership of Tanriverdi during the First International ASSAM Islamic Union Congress on November 23- 24, 2017, the “Declaration of ASSAM Confederation of Islamic States for Islamic Union,” was signed and accompanied by the “Constitution of the Confederation of Islamic Countries.” These were gestures towards the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. It is vital to bear in mind that ASSAM is fully supported by Erdogan and financed by organizations close to him. Also, participants from 44 Muslim countries attended the 2019 ASSAM conference.

By now, everyone understands that no one in Turkey, including Tanriverdi, can speak to the public about critical issues like getting ready for the Mahdi without the approval of Erdogan. Similarly, it is clearly known that every piece of legislation Erdogan passes is part of a bigger preparation for his future amid the decline of his domestic support and economic problems. Judging by recent developments including the elevation of the status of TNP intelligence, Erdogan’s references to the police not being enough to protect the cities, the continuing undermining of the established Turkish institutions towards a one-man rule, the rapid arming of Erdogan’s supporters, and Tanriverdi’s Mahdi references, it is clear that Erdogan is getting ready for a conflict.

There is an argument that Erdogan understands it is very difficult for him to win another election. However, he also understands that if he loses an election, he will be prosecuted for a variety of crimes, including crimes against humanity and corruption. Therefore, he has only one choice, which is to prepare a revolution or transformation and establish a so-called Islamic rule. However, it is alleged that he is still not a hundred percent sure of the military, and if the people would rise up against him.

Similarly, now Turkey is involved in the Libyan conflict and has already invested in Libya not only its military and SADAT but also over 2,000 Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army members.

Ahmad Shihabi, a Commander in the Free Syrian Army, said to Akit TV on January 17, 2020, that his forces were serving in Libya for Erdogan and the Ottoman Caliphate. He said, “Inshallah, we will go wherever there is Jihad. We won’t stop. We thank the Turkish government and the great Turkish people. We are grateful to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We are willing to sacrifice our lives, our children, and our elderly for the sake of our country, for the sake of the Ottoman Caliphate,” literally implying what they were coached before being sent to Libya.

All signs indicate that Erdogan is getting ready for the worst-case scenario to stay in power. This time democratic means are not going to be enough to keep him in power even if Erdogan continues to corrupt the election processes. There is only one way ahead of Erdogan to guarantee his future, which is transforming the Turkish Republic to a kind of Sunni Islamic State. He will blame the international community and his domestic enemies for the problems Turkey is experiencing and the allegations about himself. This future Erdoganistan does not need to be called an “Islamic Republic” like Iran; however, his supporters understand where this process is going, and they are ready for sacrifices to reach that end.

Ahmet S. Yayla
Ahmet S. Yayla

AHMET S. YAYLA is the Director of the Center for Homeland Security at DeSales University and an Assistant Professor of Homeland Security. Former counterterrorism and operations chief in the Turkish police, Dr. Yayla is also a member of the faculty at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies Program in Master's in Applied Intelligence. Additionally, Dr. Yayla is a research fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism. Dr. Yayla is a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey between 2010 and 2013. He earned his Master's Degree and Ph.D. in the United States. Dr. Yayla has published both scholarly works and written or co-written numerous articles related to counterterrorism and homeland security. Yayla is the co-author of the recent book ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.

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