The Islamist youth organizations controlled by the Turkish president’s family have expanded their operations abroad with diplomatic backing from the foreign ministry and generous funding from Turkish Airlines and an overseas development agency.
According to information received by Nordic Monitor, 500 students was selected for a foreign trip program in the summer of 2019 by the Turkish Youth Foundation (TÜGVA) and the Turkish Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGEV), both run by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s family members. The program was officially organized by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), a development agency. Turkish Airlines also provided generous financial support for the program, which took place in July and August 2019.
TÜGVA and TÜRGEV, founded by Erdoğan’s family members, focus on educational institutions with the professed aim of raising a generation loyal to Erdoğan and his political Islamist policies. Although the president’s son Bilal Erdoğan played a crucial role during the expansion of TÜRGEV, today the Erdoğan family is represented by Esra Albayrak, Erdoğan’s daughter, on the executive board of TÜRGEV, whereas Bilal Erdoğan serves on the executive board of TÜGVA.
Turkish public broadcaster TRT, the state-run Anadolu news agency and the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), a diaspora agency, have also contributed to the TPP program under which students spent their summer vacations free of charge in 35 countries. The launch ceremony of the program was held on July 6, 2019 in a TÜGVA dormitory located in the Bakırköy district of Istanbul, attended by Bilal Erdoğan and the heads of the aforementioned agencies and organizations.
During the program students were received by Turkish ambassadors, briefed by TIKA coordination officers and offered tours guided by diplomatic staff. The participants attended TIKA programs in the host countries and enjoyed use of the facilities of diplomatic missions and governments agencies.
TÜGVA and TÜRGEV play a crucial role for the dissemination of Erdoğan’s radical Islamist ideology and for controlling the religious realm of Turkish society. President Erdoğan described the aim of these organizations as “working for the construction of a new civilization,” and they act as quasi-official regime charities.
The ideological underpinnings of these two foundations are rooted in political Islamist activism with alarming jihadist leanings. When examined as to who drives the ideological basis for these foundations, two controversial names come to light. One is Hayrettin Karaman, also known as the chief fatwa (religious edict) giver for Erdoğan, whom he effectively declared caliph. Karaman, who openly advocated the view that all Muslims are obligated under Islam to support Erdoğan, is in fact a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who endorsed suicide bombings and armed rebellion in Syria.
This cleric is also a revered figure among the leadership of the Ensar Foundation, which was embroiled in a major child abuse scandal. In 2016 Turkey was shocked by the news that a teacher in Karaman province had sexually abused 45 children over a period of time. The incident was claimed to have taken place when the boys were staying at a dormitory operated by Ensar. Karaman was featured as a keynote speaker at many panel discussions organized by the foundation. The foundation’s publishing arm prints Karaman’s books and distributes them to readers.
Another ideologue is Nureddin Yıldız, a radical cleric who is close to the Turkish president. Yıldız openly advocates armed jihad, describes democracy as a system for infidels and says it can only be used as a means of deception to rise to power. Yıldız is the man who radicalized the young al Nusra-affiliated police officer who assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey in December 2016.
He had close ties to the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Hassan Abboud, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, who was killed in September 2014. Yıldız had pictures with Abboud during a visit to İdlib. Abdallah Muhammad Bin Sulayman Al-Muhaysini, an Al-Qaeda cleric of Saudi origin who is among the leaders of al-Qaeda group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, urged Turks to read the books of Yıldız in a special video message addressed to Turkey.
On the one hand TÜGVA and TÜRGEV collect exorbitant donations from wealthy businessmen as well as foreign and domestic companies, who are in turn rewarded by lucrative deals with the Turkish government. Moreover, lavish activities and the growth of these foundations are financed by state funds and local authorities.
Today, TÜRGEV has 62 dormitories, 12 of which are for high school students and the rest for university students. It also has six dormitories abroad. In total, currently more than 10,000 students live in TÜRGEV dormitories. TÜRGEV exclusively focuses on female students, whereas the 58 dormitories of TÜGVA are all for male students. However, the activities of neither foundation are limited to student dormitories. TÜRGEV also operates several kindergartens, primary and higher-level schools as well as a university. TÜGVA holds a wide range of educational and cultural programs organized all around the country through city and district representatives. These programs point to almost limitless financial resources.
Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, recently revealed a report that showed municipal funds had been transferred to organizations affiliated with Erdoğan and his family. According to the report charitable foundations received some $145 million in the past year and a half prior to local elections in March 2019. The report revealed TÜGVA ranked first among organizations getting municipal funds, receiving $13.2 million, while TÜRGEV comes in second with $ 9.1 million. Some $5.1 million has also been transferred to Ensar.
İsmail Cenk Dilberoğlu, the president of the Ensar, and Bilal Erdoğan are buddies from when the two attended an imam-hatip religious school. Bilal Erdoğan is a frequent visitor and keynote speaker at Ensar events, showing up for the inauguration of Ensar branches in Turkish cities and towns.
On the other hand, President Erdoğan’s authoritarian and anti-democratic rule provides his family members immunity from any attempts at prosecution, and they thus have benefited from the illicit funding to receive sizable donations that went straight to the president’s family members. Bilal Erdoğan played a pivotal role in that corrupt system. TÜRGEV is known to have received a $100 million donation between 2008 and 2012 from Gulf countries through Bilal Erdoğan, and it made the news for the first time in 2013 during a corruption scandal that involved Iranian-Turkish money launderer Reza Zarrab.
In the investigation process, Bilal Erdoğan was charged with involvement in a large-scale corruption at TÜRGEV, with sizable donations going straight to the president’s son. A phone call and a video in the corruption investigation file show that Zarrab in July 2013 sent an unspecified amount of money to TÜRGEV. In another wiretapped telephone conversation, Erdogan tells his son Bilal to conceal millions of dollars in illicit money.
The government reacted immediately after the revelation of two corruption investigations, on December 17 and 25, 2013, in which the inner circle of then-Prime Minister and current President Erdoğan were incriminated. Three ministers resigned, a fourth was replaced, and a second operation planned for December 25, which was believed to have included Erdogan’s son Bilal, was blocked.
After Erdoğan cast the investigations as a coup attempt to overthrow his government orchestrated by his political enemies, the prosecutors and judges were removed from the case, police were reassigned and the corruption investigations were dropped. Later, the police officers, judges and prosecutors who took part in the investigations were all jailed. But, gold trader Zarrab, who was the prime suspect in one of the major corruption investigations, was arrested in Miami in 2016 on charges of evading US sanctions on Iran. Zarrab testified that Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Erdoğan personally ordered resumption of a plot to launder billions of dollars in Iranian oil revenue and circumvent US sanctions, in parallel with evidence exposed during the 2013 corruption scandals in Turkey. Surprisingly, Zarrab also admitted that he handed over money under the guise of making donations to TÜRGEV.
The corruption scandal also exposed the relationship between Bilal Erdoğan and Saudi Arabian businessman Yasin al-Qadi, who was accused at the time by the United States and the United Nations of being an al-Qaeda financier. Al-Qadi was on a list of names due to be arrested in a second wave of arrests as part of investigations. Prosecutors suspected the Saudi businessman was involved in talks about the sale of a publicly owned piece of land in the upscale Istanbul district of Etiler to private investors for $460 million, less than half its market value.