Erdoğan’s militant partners work with sanctioned Russian Prigozhin to run disinformation campaign amid elections in Turkey
Turkey’s militant, ultranationalist Aydınlık group set up a new outfit to conduct influence operations in Istanbul, apparently in close cooperation with a US-sanctioned Russian operative, to spread fake news, run disinformation campaigns and communicate messages intended to sway public opinion against the West, especially the US and Israel, and to impact upcoming elections in Turkey.
The Tübamer Sosyal Araştirma ve Danişmanlik A.Ş. corporation, claiming to be a research and consulting firm registered in the media and communications category, was established in Istanbul toward the end of 2021 by the group for the specific purpose of waging a disinformation campaign. The official records, obtained by Nordic Monitor, show its owner is Elif İlhamoğlu, who was part of a hit team that attacked a US sailor in Istanbul in 2014 and was indicted for criminal offenses.
She is also connected to United World International (UWI), a Russian-backed propaganda organization run by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, sanctioned multiple times by the US, Canada and their European allies for influence operations in North America and Europe. Tübamer was established a year after UWI appeared on the internet. The personal profiles and the content generated on both sites are strikingly similar, and they both operate from Turkey.
İlhamoğlu works at UWI as an editor generating anti-Western content and holding events for officials from Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Afghanistan, China, Russia and Hamas. A review of recent articles at both UWI and Tübamer also suggests that they are poised to shape the narrative during the election campaign in Turkey as well. The election coverage is markedly in favor of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and critical of the opposition, which it describes as loyal to the NATO alliance.
It appears that Tübamer is the new pet project of the militant group. It was listed as a research and consultancy company in the trade registry when established on November 12, 2021. It has since then been operating a website called Harici.com.tr, which publishes articles praising Iran, Russia and China and criticizing Israel, the US and the West as a whole.
İlhamoğlu has long been a member of the violent Turkish Youth Union (Türkiye Gençlik Birliği in Turkish, or TGB), the youth arm of the Aydınlık group, which is led by Doğu Perinçek, a close ally of President Erdogan and chairman of the Homeland (Vatan, formerly Labor) Party. The TGB is known for attacks on NATO bases and US troops in Turkey and has faced multiple criminal investigations but was saved from its legal troubles thanks to its master Perinçek and his ties to Erdogan.
İlhamoğlu was one of the key people who organized an attack on three sailors from the US Navy’s USS Ross destroyer that docked in Istanbul on November 12, 2014. The US warship was in Turkey at the time as part of a NATO drill in the Black Sea, and the TGB was protesting the ship’s presence.
A video circulated online by the group showed the militants throwing paint at the Americans and shouting slogans like “Yankee, go home!” and “Damn America!” and saying, “You said you are members of the US military. Because we define you as murderers, as killers, we want you to get out of our land,” a man can be heard shouting at one of the American sailors, who looks stunned. Then he and the others surrounded the American and tried to put a sack on his head. The sailors can be seen running away from the chanting protesters, who are in pursuit.
The attack, immediately condemned in a statement released by the US embassy, prompted the police to detain 12 TGB militants. But they were quickly released without even a referral to the prosecutor’s office. Although the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office subsequently indicted 13 TGB militants including İlhamoğlu on charges of slander and inflicting bodily harm, which carried a combined prison sentence of up to 10 and a half years, the militants managed to get away with the attack thanks to the Erdogan government’s alliance with Perinçek.
Two of the US sailors, Mark Antony and Henry Francisco Navarro, had filed complaints as plaintiffs in the case and were represented by a Turkish lawyer. During the hearings, the TGB militants defended their actions, showed no remorse and vowed to continue similar attacks in the future against what they described as American imperialism.
At the end of the trial in May 2016, the Istanbul 27th Criminal Court of First Instance acquitted seven TGB members and convicted five of them of minor offenses, ordering them to pay fines ranging from TL 2,000 to TL 4,000 (roughly equivalent to $950 to $1,900 at the time). The court also deferred the convictions, meaning that none of them would suffer any sort of legal consequences as a result of their convictions.
Perinçek rewarded İlhamoğlu a year later by nominating her for parliament on the Vatan Party ticket. Although she failed to win a seat, she continued to serve the party and the TGB in various positions.
İlhamoğlu has also been busy with her work at the UWI, the Russian-backed propaganda group that was flagged by the US Treasury on March 3, 2022 and sanctioned. The UWI operates in Turkey under the umbrella of İletişim Gönüllüleri Ve Görevlileri Vakfı (Görev Vakfı), a foundation that belongs to the Perinçek group.
The Görev foundation was sanctioned by the UK in July 2022 because of its connection to the UWI, which the UK said had been involved in supporting or promoting policies or actions that destabilize Ukraine or undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine.
The UWI is effectively run by Prigozhin, who was previously designated in the US by multiple sanctions authorities for facilitating attempts to interfere in US elections. He is the Russian financier of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which he utilizes to conduct global influence operations. According to the US Treasury, Prigozhin directs the generation of content to denigrate the US electoral process and spreads false narratives online through shell companies he set up in Russia and other countries.
The UWI was set up in 2020 by Project Lakhta, a company owned by Prigozhin that used various tactics such as fictitious online personas who posed as US citizens to interfere in US elections. UWI’s chief editor was Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina, the daughter of Alexander Dugin, who has long worked with the Perinçek group in Turkey. She was also among those who were sanctioned by the US.
Darya was the leader of the Eurasian Youth Union, which actively recruited individuals with military and combat experience to fight on behalf of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and has stated that it has a covert presence in Ukraine. She was killed in a car bomb outside Moscow in August 2022.
It’s no surprise that İlhamoğlu’s associates at Tübamer working on spreading false news and disinformation as part of information warfare and influence operations also have origins in the same militant TGB cells. The Harici website lists its editor-in-chief as Tunç Akkoç, another neo-nationalist militant who was indicted in the past for his involvement in illegal, clandestine plots. Akkoç served as chairman of the European network of the TGB. He was in China in December 2019 to sign a partnership agreement on behalf of Aydınlık with China’s state-owned Beijing Radio and Television Station (BRTV).
Indictment filed against Tunç Akkoç on March 8, 2009 indicates that he was charged with membership in a terrorist organization and illegally obtaining private information:Tunc_Akkoc_indictment
On paper the company’s sole owner was Gürkan Koç, the former general manager of the Aydınlık newspaper, the flagship daily of the Perinçek group, when it was first established. He was later replaced by İlhamoğlu. Koç had worked in Aydınlık management for seven years before he left in February 2021. Nine months later, he established Tübamer along with his comrades in the extremist, ultranationalist bloc.
Akkoç, who also worked in Aydınlık management along with Koç for years, left the daily at the same time. He now runs the editorial management of Tübamer. Trade registry records show that in August 2022 Koç handed over the ownership of Tübamer to İlhamoğlu. İlhamoğlu runs the TGB’s overseas operations and manages the Homeland Party’s external affairs. She had also worked for Aydınlık as foreign news editor.
Akkoç, born in Germany to a Turkish migrant family and partly educated there, was on the wrong side of the law when he was identified as being involved in illegal activities in 2008. He was among scores of militant neo-nationalists who were indicted on terrorism charges by Istanbul prosecutors. His activities since he returned from Germany in 2003 and his secret work with the TGB were put in the spotlight by investigators.
He fled to Germany after being released from detention pending trial and took over the TGB network in Europe, trying to keep the militant organization alive in Turkish diaspora communities. He was convicted and sentenced to 11 years for his illegal activities in 2013. The tables turned in his favor when his boss, Perinçek, made a secret alliance in 2014 with Erdogan, who helped get all convicted neo-nationalists released from prison. It was a quid pro quo. The neo-nationalists defended Erdogan in an Iran sanction busting scheme in which he and his family members were incriminated in massive bribery investigations.
A review of Akkoç’s work on the Harici website indicates it has quickly become a focal point for all West haters, US and Israel bashers and known pro-Russian, pro-Iranian figures. Ceyda Karan, a journalist who works for Russia’s Sputnik media outlet, has been disseminating propaganda on behalf of Moscow since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most of the translated Russian content is written by Hazal Yalın, another Russian propagandist.
Erkin Öncan, a communist who works for Sputnik and wholeheartedly campaigns for the Chinese Communist party and tries to cover up mass human rights violations by Beijing, is another contributor. Cansu Yiğit, a former managing editor of the Aydınlık newspaper, is another reporter at Harici. Yiğit writes articles defending Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and criticizing Israel.
Thanks to their alliance with the Erdogan government, the neo-nationalists continue acting with impunity in their campaign to undermine Turkey’s strategic ties with its NATO allies, spread false narratives in Turkish society and engage in protests and at times violent attacks against US and European troops that are visiting or stationed in Turkey. About half a dozen legal cases against the group filed in the last decade have all been thwarted with the interference into the proceedings by the Erdogan government and its ally the Perinçek group. Included among them is one case in April 2016 that involved a security breach of Incirlik Airbase, where US and allied troops are stationed in the Turkish province of Adana.