Erdoğan’s Pelican conspiracy in Turkey’s propaganda war

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Abdullah Bozkurt

Perhaps the most conniving and cunning arm of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mammoth propaganda machine is a little-known clandestine group called Pelican, whose name was derived from an anonymous blog site called “pelikandosyasi” (Pelican file), which led to the abrupt ouster of newly elected Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in May 2016.

Named after the 1993 American political thriller “The Pelican Brief,” based on a novel by John Grisham, the Turkish group secretly and relentlessly works behind the scenes to shape Turkish public opinion, disseminate false narratives, fuel all kinds of conspiracies, disparage the government’s opponents and manipulate government agencies according to the desires of one man, namely Erdoğan. The Pelican group complements the two other robust propaganda centers, namely the office of Erdogan, popularly known as “the Palace,” and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which are at the disposal of the Turkish president.

I have already written about how the Palace and MIT function, their modus operandi and who is involved in propaganda and psychological warfare techniques that are often based on lies, deceit, half-truths and fake news. It is time to lift the curtain on the dark faces of these abhorrent Pelican people, who are driven not by ideology but rather by an Erdoğan personality cult, a greed for power and, of course, money. Key people in the organization range from liberals, Islamists and communists to leftists who don’t have much in common except being part of a vicious posse put together to do Erdoğan’s dirty bidding. They engage in trolling social media, producing negative campaign materials, providing sound bytes for the 24-hour news cycle, weaving truths with fake stories and muddying the waters of the print media. Dozens of hired writers were employed or contracted for various tasks.

The group is one of the main drivers of the regime change in Turkey that undermined a decades-old parliamentary democracy with checks and balances and separation of powers and paved the way for an imperial presidency and helped Erdoğan amass abundant power. The malicious impact of the Pelican people in covertly influencing politics, advancing the narrative and inducing changes in the behavior of interest groups as well as government entities undermined accountability and transparency in the governance of the country. Since it was linked to MIT and pro-government media outlets and protected by Erdoğan, Pelican acted with impunity in disseminating false narratives through myriad networks of means and operatives.

The Pelican people serve at the pleasure of Erdoğan through two key point men who are very close to the Turkish president. One is Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law and current energy minister, who is often described as the shadow prime minister and heir to the throne in the Erdoğan dynasty. While Berat provides political cover for Pelican with a green light from his father-in-law and finances its operations via various schemes, his brother Serhat Albayrak, the manager of the Turkuvaz media outlet, which owns newspapers, radio stations, TV networks and magazines including Sabah and A TV, supplies logistics and platforms for the Pelican people to amplify their messages. It is no coincidence that many Pelican people at the core or in the outer layer of the circle enjoy positions in Turkuvaz media, often under the cover of journalism.

The second man behind the group is Nafiz Can Paker, an Erdoğan confidante who operates as the main ideologue in framing the public discourse to help the Turkish autocrat make his case to the people. Paker touts himself as a liberal; yet his track record suggests he long ago abandoned liberal ideas and turned into an Erdoğan apologist and facilitator for his dictatorial regime. His close ties to Erdoğan and unwavering support for his repressive policies led to his dismissal from the board of directors of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation in June 2011. Paker’s falling out with liberals came on the heels of his growing friction with US human rights activist Aryeh Neier, who served as president of the Open Society Institute until 2012.

Paker continues to support the Erdoğan regime through new organizations that he helped set up and is now leading the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM), a front NGO he uses to connect with foreign contacts. In fact, the jailing of the Soros-linked Osman Kavala, who actually worked with Paker in the Open Society Foundation in the past, has nothing to do with the Gülen movement but rather is part of an intimidation campaign launched by Erdoğan to send a message to liberals in Turkey and abroad that Paker is the man whose lead they should be following. The Turkish president is effectively saying that you’ll be safe if you work with Paker, not Kavala-like people, even if that means going against all the values of liberal ideology. This is also a way of clearing the field for Paker to operate on behalf of Turkey’s dictator.

Cemil Barlas, an Erdoğan propagandist who leads the Pelican group, is actually the cousin of Paker, whose sister Canan Barlas is married to journalist Mehmet Barlas, a chief columnist at the Sabah daily, which is owned by the Erdoğan family and managed by Serhat, the brother of the Turkish president’s son-in-law. The entire Barlas family has been active in half a dozen media outlets, effectively running a propaganda machine for Erdoğan and attacking his political enemies whoever they might be in exchange for fattening their wallets. In fact, the declaration that led to the resignation of Davutoğlu on May 1, 2016 was disseminated by Cemil Barlas, the social media algorithm in Twitter suggested, after it was first shared by Merve Taşçı, a young female volunteer who worked for the Pelican people.

Cemil Barlas is a nasty guy who spews hatred and bigotry in his writings and commentaries. Even his Twitter handle is @secondvirus, and he often posts anti-Western slurs. When the tension between Turkey and the US climaxed in the wake of the jailing two local employees of the US consulates in Istanbul and Adana in October 2017, he said the nation had declared outgoing US Ambassador John Bass persona non grata. In December 2016 he suggested that members of the Gülen movement, a civic group that is highly critical of the Erdoğan government, be locked up in concentration camps. “In total there will be around 500,000 of them, without a house, without money, and nobody will want to be seen with them. Their lives have been zeroed out,” he said on A Haber TV, a network that is also owned by Erdoğan’s family.

Another shadowy figure in the Pelican group is Süheyb Öğüt, a columnist for Aktüel magazine, which is owned by Erdoğan’s family. He is also believed to be the author of the Pelican article that paved the way for Davutoğlu’s sudden departure from his position as prime minister. He is chairman of the board of directors of Boğaziçi Küresel İlişkiler Merkezi (Bosporus Global, or BK), the public face of the Pelican group that was set up on Oct. 7, 2015. Paker, the mastermind behind Bosporus Global, was also listed as a member of the board of this new organization. Tapping in on a global network of ties he had managed to develop while working for Open Society, Paker is now busy channeling this experience to serve and sustain the Erdoğan regime. Bosporus worked hard during the campaign period for the April 16, 2917 referendum that gave Erdoğan imperial powers. Along with PODEM, it engaged in a media campaign to portray the constitutional amendments as if they were in line with democratic values when the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the European Union expressed serious concerns on the changes.

Another figure in the Pelican group is Hilal Kaplan, the wife of Öğüt, who writes for the Sabah daily, a flagship pro-government newspaper owned by the Erdoğan family and managed by Serhat. According to emails of Berat Albayrak that were hacked by Redhack in September 2016 and published by Wikileaks in December 2016, Kaplan is the woman who helps frame the talking points for Erdoğan’s public speeches which often carry a strong anti-Western diatribe. Kaplan is also very close to Erdoğan’s family and often travels with the president on a government plane during state visits abroad. She was exposed for what she is in October 2015 when she was heard urging Erdoğan’s sidekick, advisor Mustafa Varank, to show no mercy in cracking down on critical TV stations. The footage, recorded during a break for a commercial, showed her urging the government to remove critical stations from the government-owned satellite operator Turksat’s lineup and take them off the air, which amounted to shuttering those television stations.

The Redhack emails clearly show that Pelican, or Bosphorus Global, its official name, was set up with the approval and support of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat, who would not take a step without his father-in-law’s approval. In an email sent to Albayrak on Sept. 8, 2015, Öğüt provides a copy of bylaws for the Pelican group and an application for registration with the governor’s office in Istanbul and suggests people to be included on the board of directors: Sadık Ünay, Melih Altınok, Hilal Kaplan, Süheyb Öğüt, Salih Tuna, Can Paker and an unnamed businessperson. In another email sent to Albayrak on Sept. 5, 2015 Öğüt details financial expenditures in the amount of TL 323,435 (approximately $109,000 at the rate of exchange in effect at the time) on monthly expenditures with a fixed capital investment for the start-up of the organization. The organization had 16 staff members according to a draft proposal by Öğüt, which included among others İdris Kardaş as general coordinator, Hamit Balcı as his deputy, Suheyb Öğüt as general director, Hale Korkmaz, deputy director, and specialists Elif Şahin, Cahide Zeynep, Deniz Bilici, Zeynep Mete, Betül Balcı, Bilal Öğüt, Ayhan Ak, Neşe Kara and others. Most of the names proposed appear to have been approved by Albayrak. The staff also incorporates graphic designers, programmers and software developers to spread messages on social media.

Pelican’s operational connection to Erdoğan’s office is managed by Mehmet Uçum, a chief advisor to the Turkish president. It is quite something to see Uçum, a former communist, working closely with ex-liberals and die-hard Islamists in shoring up the one-man regime in Turkey.

Uçum led the campaign in 2017 to make his boss an executive president and described the changes as a revolution that would lead to the establishment of a new state. Asked on a TV program whether the government should apologize to victims of mass purges in the civil service, Uçum brushed aside the question and instead said apologies came many years after the oppression of Native Americans by the US government and Aborigines by the Australian government. He recalled that Turkey had expressed condolences almost a century later for the killing of Armenians on a mass scale in 1915. He criticized the Constitutional Court when it issued a judgement stating that the rights of jailed journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan had been violated. The European Court of Human Rights also issued a similar judgement, yet Alpay was conditionally released and Altan remains in prison as of today.

There are several more people clustered around the Pelican conspiracy, but significant ones that are worth a mention are Kerem Alkin, an economist, Markar Esayan, a Turkish lawmaker of Armenian descent, and Haşmet Babaoğlu, Melih Altınok, and Kurtuluş Tayiz. All of them write for pro-government media outlets. Cem Küçük, another propagandist planted in the media by the Turkish intelligence agency, is another deplorable operative who is linked to the group. The group is emboldened by the political backing of Erdoğan, so much so that Küçük even said in a television commentary that MIT should assassinate exiled journalists who are critical of the Erdoğan government.

Alkin, who also works as a lecturer at the privately funded Medipol University in Istanbul, deserves further scrutiny as he is believed to be the moneyman who channels funds through this institution with the approval of Berat Albayrak. Medipol quickly emerged as a major player in the healthcare industry in Turkey after an early alliance with Erdoğan, who provided the necessary regulatory changes to immensely benefit the group and enrich his family personally in the meantime.

In leaked wiretaps in 2014, Erdoğan was heard calling the hospital “our Medipol” as he was urging his Saudi friend Yasin al-Qadi, once listed as an al-Qaeda financier on both the UN and the US Treasury lists, involved in a car accident in Istanbul on Feb. 16, 2013 at 2 a.m., to go to the Medipol hospital as opposed to others nearby. Al-Qadi was secretly escorted into Turkey despite a travel and entry ban and provided with one of Erdoğan’s personal bodyguards, İbrahim Yıldız, while he was in Turkey. Al-Qadi was returning from Ankara, where he met with Turkish intelligence agency head Hakan Fidan and President Erdoğan when his car was rammed from the side. Alerted about the incident, Erdoğan urged them to go to Medipol, where hospital records were doctored to show that only the bodyguard was in the car. MIT also fixed the accident reports filed by the police to get rid of traces of al-Qadi and his associates.

According to revelations by Fırat Erez, a member of a group that had worked with Pelican for four months before he was fired by Öğüt, the work at a luxury seaside mansion involved everything from character assassination to smear campaigns targeting Erdoğan critics. A quarterly performance report was submitted to President Erdoğan in private meetings, he revealed. While he was working at the luxury mansion in Kuzguncuk that functions as the headquarters of the Pelican group, he saw heavy traffic of high-profile people that included Bekir Bozdağ, former justice minister and currently deputy prime minister who serves as government spokesperson; Sümeyye Erdoğan, the Turkish president’s daughter; Egemen Bağış, the disgraced former EU affairs minister who was accused of taking $1.5 million in bribes from an Iranian sanction buster and gold trader.

Behind the rapid rise of xenophobia, especially anti-Western sentiment, in Turkey lies the effectiveness of the nefarious Pelican group in disseminating false information and propaganda to the masses in Turkey. It uses both the traditional media, which is nearly totally controlled by the government, and social media, which has been restricted by the Erdoğan regime. A criminal investigation into the Pelican group’s clandestine activities is out of the question in Turkey, where judges and prosecutors are completely subordinate to Erdoğan’s rule. Since domestic remedies are no longer available to thwart this group’s propaganda machine that denigrates, discredits and disparages people, groups and entities that are critical of Erdoğan, Turkey’s allies and partners should take necessary measures to counter Erdoğan’s propaganda and disinformation efforts.

This is very much like the hybrid threat posed by Russia with its own unique propaganda war and psychological warfare operations targeting the US and its allies, which is now the subject of a federal investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The only difference is that the enemy is within NATO, as Turkey has been a full member of the alliance for the last 66 years. Erdoğan’s trojan horse and its trump cards including this Pelican group are a growing threat, and their malign influence has become a danger not only for Turkey but also for allies and partners. They must be countered head-on before taking more of a toll on the decades-long investment in Turkish democracy, or what’s left of it, anyway.

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