The personal saga I’m about to relate is not something that journalists really like to write or speak about simply because we reporters rarely want to become part of a story. The rationale is obvious: It distracts us from our work, wastes our time, energy and resources and keeps us from investing valuable hours and precious resources in the stories that really require public attention in the larger scheme of things.
Nevertheless, like it or not, sometimes we end up in the unwanted situation of reporting about ourselves because we have become targets of harassment, intimidation, death threats, trashing and defamation campaigns, especially when we run investigative pieces about mighty and powerful people, exposing what they have been up to. I get my share of bullying and threats practically every day, most through people who hide behind masks, and I simply ignore them and don’t let such tactics get under my skin. Sometimes, such threats are uttered openly on Turkey’s government-controlled television stations as in the case of Turkish intelligence-linked propagandists publicly asking the spy agency to assassinate me in Sweden, where I have found sanctuary.
Naturally, troll farm operations can even become dangerous when the powerful people reporters write about also occupy influential government positions with numerous resources, means and capabilities at their disposal to make the lives of journalists as difficult as possible.
I became the story in December 2016 when the government of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, already notorious for disseminating fake news, half-lies and distorted facts about critical and independent journalists, ratcheted up his campaign of vicious targeting a few notches more. Up until that time I thought I had gotten used to getting smeared with all sorts of fabricated allegations, such as that I secretly work in intelligence, from the CIA and Israel’s Mossad to Russia’s FSB . These are classic and rampant accusations that any journalist with integrity faces in the Middle East at one time or another if he or she takes a crack at sensitive subjects. It simply comes with the territory, and you get used to it. The best way to overcome such trashing is for a journalist to ignore it and focus on what they do best: reporting the facts in the face of daunting challenges.
I never expected that the Erdoğan government would come after me with such a far-fetched claim as linking me to the assassin of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov, who was gunned down in an art gallery in Ankara in what is supposed to be the most secure part of Turkey’s capital city. The killer was a 22-year-old, decorated police officer, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş who at one time was even part of Erdoğan’s protective detail. The abundant evidence in the case file confirmed that he had been radicalized by three clerics, two of them imams on the government payroll at the Diyanet, the religious authority, and the third Erdoğan’s family cleric.
Fearing that the murder would hit home and put his regime in the crosshairs of the Russian government, Erdoğan and his associates quickly decided to create a distraction, build a heavy smokescreen for public consumption and buy some time while they worked to dump responsibility for the assassination on an unsuspecting group, the Gülen movement, which is highly critical of the government on a range of issues from corruption to Turkey’s arming of jihadists in Syria. I was one of the pieces in the government’s dirty scheme, and it took a while for me to track the footprints of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank, who were tasked with implementing this scheme.
Soylu had a personal stake in the fast developing story of the murder as he was the ultimate boss of the killer, who had joined the police force in 2014. Soylu’s associates in the force had rewarded the assassin 34 times with bonus payments for extraordinary services rendered. When the shooting of the ambassador in the art gallery was reported, Soylu rushed to the scene and personally coordinated the actions of the special operations team that killed the gunman. That raised a red flag for me from the beginning because it was highly unusual for an interior minister to handle such an emergency situation and direct police action on the ground by setting up a temporary command post at the Ankara Chamber of Industry (ASO), located next to the art gallery. Yet he did. Something didn’t feel quite right. My suspicions were confirmed when I talked to several experienced police chiefs who all found Soylu’s presence on the ground out of the ordinary.
Statement of reporter Huriye İyiçınar Coşkun, who was covering the event, indicated that the killer asked all civilians to leave the room after he shot the Russian ambassador:Huriye_Iyicinar_Coskun_statement
The first order the minister gave was to kill the assassin, when Altıntaş could have easily been taken alive albeit wounded. The shooter did not take anybody hostage and in fact asked everybody to clear the room after shooting the Russian envoy at close range. Multiple witness statements testified to that fact. He did not even attempt to flee the scene. Having left a will for his family, who he said he would see in the afterlife and advising them how to organize his funeral, he was ready to become a martyr in a shootout with the ambassador’s bodyguards. To his surprise he found himself in an exchange of gunfire with his fellow policemen, a situation into which he did not really want to put himself. After all, being killed by those he considered infidels — Russian bodyguards — would buy him a reward in heaven, and virgins would greet him as all jihadists with screwed-up mindsets believe before engaging in terrorist acts. The court papers show that he repeatedly asked for the Russian ambassador’s personal guards after the assassination.
The three local police officers who were first on the scene had already contained the situation, secured the perimeter, moved the civilians out of the building and boxed the gunman into a corner. He was injured in the left leg from police fire at 19:32 hours, bleeding and leaning on a column to support himself. Two minutes later he was hit again by a police shot that knocked him to the ground. He was alive, still holding a gun but could not get up.
It was a simply a matter of time before he would run out of ammunition and put himself in a position from which he could not harm anybody. He had already been hit twice, but the injuries were not lethal. Following the protocol in such situations, the local police officers did not shoot him in the upper torso to avoid killing him. They were simply waiting for him to give up and finish the last magazine he had.
Yet, Soylu sent his own guys to the art gallery with the specific order to kill the assassin, who could have been instrumental in naming the masterminds and help solve the murder had he been taken alive. The recordings show that two special ops police units approached the gunman at 19:39 hours, firing at him. The gunman lay flat on the ground, dropping his gun. Yet, the special ops officers rained down bullets on him. The autopsy showed that the gunman’s body had 33 bullet entry points, 20 of them considered deadly. The conduct of the police special operations team was not investigated by the prosecutor and their identity was kept secret in the probe, also unusual in any incident in which a murder takes place.
The second crucial piece in the scheme to derail the probe and put distance between the Erdoğan government and the assassination was to control the coverage in the media. Most Turkish media had already fallen victim to a government crackdown on the free press ongoing since 2015, and nearly 200 newspapers, TV and radio stations and online news websites had been shut down and seized by the Erdoğan regime. Hence, it was much easier to manipulate stories for public consumption. Soylu played his part at the scene of the crime, collecting all the footage and video recordings from CCTV cameras, guests and reporters who were invited to cover the opening of the exhibition.
We learned from the witness testimony of Tahsin Özkan, a cameraman for the state-run Turkish Broadcasting Corporation (TRT), how this actually played out. Özkan was working the night shift at the time of the incident and was dispatched by his chief to cover the art event held by the Russian Embassy. In a statement given on December 19, 2016, Özkan stated that he took a camera with 3G live feed capabilities and went to the event with a reporter named Huriye İyiçınar Coşkun. They thought the ambassador might comment on Syria during his speech and came prepared with the 3G camera to transmit the footage in real time to the newsroom at TRT headquarters in order to beat rival networks.
The statement of Tahsin Özkan, a cameraman for the state-run Turkish Broadcasting Corporation, shows he was taken to the interior minister who was on the scene. The minister sent him to retrieve his camera from the exhibition hall, escorted by a police chief, and watched the recording on the camera.Tahsin_Ozkan_statement
When the assassin started shooting at the ambassador, Özkan ran outside along with the others and was unable to get back in to retrieve his camera. While waiting outside the building, he saw the interior minister arrive and related what he had seen when the police took him to the minister when he identified himself as a cameraman. After the gunman was killed, he went back to get his camera, which was still recording and broadcasting to the newsroom in real time. He showed the video footage to Soylu, who watched the scene on the camera. The cameraman was escorted out of the building by the police and later saw that the police had seized the footage. Soylu hoped he could bury key evidence from the recording on the TRT camera but did not know that the camera had already fed the video to the TRT servers through a live 3G connection.
The TRT newsroom broadcast some of the footage from the scene at 19:30 hours and shared the video two minutes later with partners in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in line with standard operating procedure on breaking news. Dutch public broadcasting company NOS picked up the video immediately after it was transmitted by TRT to the EBU pool. If the camera had not been equipped with 3G technology and the cameraman had not activated the wide angle recording with a journalist’s instinct when the shooting started, perhaps the world would not have been able to see how the murder transpired and how the assassin was shouting jihadist verses he had memorized earlier by watching YouTube videos. The prosecutor launched a criminal investigation into TRT employees for their involvement in airing the video of the incident; the investigation is still ongoing.
Eurovision’s (operated by EBU) email informing the Turkish broadcaster that withdrawal of the Karlov footage was not practicable:Eurovision_Karlov_TRT_request
In what was a futile attempt, the government ordered TRT to secure the withdrawal of the footage from EBU. The case file includes an email from Julian Tarrant, the news editor at Eurovision, informing the TRT contact person, Pınar Çakırgöz, that he had added a script to the TRT footage which showed the murder, saying that TRT had filed a withdrawal request. “Urgent note: TRT have asked us to withdraw the shooting item (EVN at 1632 and repeated at 1639 GMT). This is not practicable as Members have already used the TRT cover, but we want to inform Members of this TRT request. We appreciate that this update is well after the fact.” In other words, the sharing was already done and it was not possible to withdraw the footage.
The government also rushed to issue a blanket gag order at 20:42 hours for all media outlets, barring them from running any story on the assassination. The ban was so broad that even comments on the murder were prohibited by the government. Erdoğan was pulling out all the stops to make sure the public only got his version of the murder.
I entered into the picture in the third phase of the plan when Soylu, Varank and their associates started planting fake news bytes, first on social media through operatives, then in the government-controlled media. The fabricated stories were amplified, with trolls, bots and influencers sharing the lies, which were immediately picked up by the newspapers and networks controlled by the government. I had no idea at the time that these machinations were already in motion. I was commenting on the incident, sharing my views and informing my followers on what was happening through tweets from Stockholm, where I have been living since July 2016.
A false claim stating that the killer stayed in my apartment in Ankara was first posted on Twitter at 9:27 p.m. local time in Turkey by a man named Ahmet Tezcan, who had served as press advisor to Erdoğan between 2003 and 2008 and these days spends most of his time engaged in trolling activities on social media. Out of the blue and without providing any source or evidence, he wrote that the gunman’s address turned out to be the home of Abdullah Bozkurt. Tezcan posted a similar message three minutes later, again without offering any support and not disclosing where he got the information. Questioned by troll user @tirsaktaci (who was later suspended by Twitter), Tezcan replied at 9:35 p.m. that his claim was true and that he was serious about it.
A popular bot from Erdoğan’s troll army who goes by the name Gökhan Kahraman (@GkhnKhrman) picked up Tezcan’s claim and broadcast the lie to a wider audience. He also posted a series of tweets on the background of the killer, most of which turned out to be completely false when checked against the facts, again as part of intensified distraction campaign. Kahraman is one of the many trolls who used to be discreetly funded by the Istanbul Municipality, run at the time by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He was supervised by Fatih Tezcan, a preacher of hate who has the same last name as Ahmet Tezcan although the two have no family ties. The two Tezcans cooperate in troll farm and influence operations on behalf of Erdoğan.
Fatih Tezcan runs a group of young Islamist trolls on behalf of Interior Minister Soylu and has direct access to him and the resources of the police, the main law enforcement agency in Turkey, with nearly 300,000 officers. According to a lawyer who sued him, Fatih Tezcan has a long rap sheet. He has 16 convictions on multiple charges from kidnapping of a child and inflicting bodily harm to document forgery and defamation. He was also sentenced to 21 months, 20 days in jail in the last year alone. Yet he continues to operate freely and is kept safe from jail thanks to the big brother watching over him in the form of the Erdoğan government. Tezcan is well known for his nastiness. At one time he even threatened to kill US troops and diplomats in Turkey.
Mustafa Varank, a former chief aide to Erdoğan and now the minister of industry and technology, also played his part in this grand scheme. Varank runs another troll army on behalf of Erdoğan, and I have written about him extensively in the past. One of his trolls that goes by the user handle @biyikbay (his real name is Hikmet Timur, currently an advisor to Varank) posted the killer’s address printed on the official leave of absence that showed he took two days off on July 16-18, 2016 from his temporary assignment in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish province of Diyarbakır. The fact that he was able to obtain such a document in a few hours clearly exposed his links to the government. The address the killer listed as his residence in Ankara during his leave of absence was Demet Mahallesi 357. Cadde Mehmetçik Apartmanı No:30/5 in the Yenimahalle district. Other trolls started disseminating this document with the false claim that the address was the same as mine. I had to post my own address displayed in an official government document on Twitter to refute this baseless accusation. Yet the lie was perpetuated.
The survey of tweets on the night of the murder suggests that Erdoğan’s troll farms enlisted the help of a foreigner named Klaus Jurgens to push the government’s disinformation campaign for the overseas audience. Jurgens, describing himself as a contractor, lobbyist and paid consultant in his Linkedin profile, posted a series of tweets on December 19, pushing similar talking points made by the Turkish government. Jurgens, who had written articles and reports for Today’s Zaman, an English-language daily that was critical of the government, for years until the government seized the newspaper in March 2016, apparently decided to curry favor with Erdoğan. He has been appearing as a frequent guest and commentator on the Turkish state-owned TRT World network and writing articles for Daily Sabah, owned by President Erdogan’s family, basically paying lip service to the repressive regime that has locked up 161 journalists in Turkey, the world’s largest prison of journalists.
For me, the pieces have finally fallen into place, revealing how the plot to manipulate media coverage in the aftermath of Karlov’s assassination by the inner circle of President Erdoğan, especially Soylu and Varank, functioned.
Part of the reason I attracted attention against the backdrop of the murder of the Russian envoy was my investigative piece that was published on the TurkishMinute.com news website three days before the assassination. In the article, titled “Embassies are no longer safe in Turkey,” I tried to draw attention to the vitriolic anti-Western diatribe by Turkey’s Islamist rulers and a surge in xenophobic incidents, which may very well have been the precursor to the much more worrisome act of storming a foreign embassy in Ankara. My argument was that President Erdoğan, whose government, staffed by pro-Iran figures including intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, has been following a playbook borrowed from the experience of the Iranian mullahs in consolidating a power grab.
Actually, the first time I wrote about the targeting of foreign embassies by radical groups aligned with the Erdoğan government was on June 16, 2016, six months before Karlov’s murder. I was in Ankara at the time and wanted to draw attention to the alarming pattern I saw in rallies held in front of embassies. In a series of tweets I explained why there should be increased vigilance concerning such groups. I turned those tweets and additional information I had gleaned from my talks with foreign diplomats since then into an article and sent it to my editor on December 13, 2016. It was published three days later.
The crux of the article is based on the movements of radical groups that often show up outside embassies in Ankara and consulates in Istanbul to make their case, sometimes with violence, vandalism and verbal threats. I knew some of these groups were linked to Turkish intelligence agency MIT, and it was not just a random occurrence that the government rallied these groups to send political messages to foreign capitals when they were needed. There was a clear pattern for a keen eye. When I heard the mounting concerns in private talks with foreign diplomats in Ankara, where I had worked as bureau chief for an English-language daily from 2009 to 2016, I thought I should pen an article specifically on this subject.
My concern was primarily for the embassies of Western countries, not Russia, so I focused on that in the article, although the same rallying groups were also mobilized in front of Russian diplomatic missions. A Turkish man named Umut Ömer Belül, who touted himself as an Islamist activist but was in fact listed as an al-Qaeda suspect in a criminal case, was the point man who was used by the Erdoğan government to send a message to Russia. He led rallies in front of both the Russian and US embassies on different dates, depending on to whom Erdoğan wanted to send a coded message.
I had been raising red flags on what I saw through my writings based on the monitoring of such groups in Turkey for years. My interviews with diplomats in Ankara were alarming. However, I had never anticipated an incident like the assassination of the Russian ambassador. Things became much clearer after sifting through the 609-page indictment prepared by Turkish prosecutor Adem Akıncı, who submitted it to the court in November 2018, almost two years after the murder. I’ve also gone through thousands of annexed documents, witnesses and suspects’ statements, phone and Internet records, banking transactions and profile papers on the assassin kept at the police department.
The evidence in the case file confirmed what I had long known. It was made absolutely clear in my mind that this 22-year-old man had been radicalized when he was exposed to several radical imams who were close to the Erdoğan government. His psychological profile showed he was a perfect candidate for a quick radicalization given the right circumstances, guidance and nurturing. He was a withdrawn, reclusive, antisocial man who kept to himself. He had sex with a prostitute but wanted to repent and cleanse himself of what he considered his sins. He wanted to create a big bang to leave his mark on this world and be rewarded in the afterlife.
He wanted to quit his job and go to Syria to fight alongside jihadists, tried to learn Arabic in his free time, attended study circles set up by radical groups and financially supported jihadist NGOs, some of which had already been reported to the UN Security Council by Russia as entities that were helping al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He purchased and read dozens of al-Qaeda and ISIS jihadist books that are freely available for sale in Turkey, where the government ironically shut down nearly 200 media outlets and imprisoned 165 critical and independent journalists. He left a will to create his legacy.
I have written extensively on various aspects of this case file to shed light on how a quick radicalization process works in the permissive and encouraging environment under the political Islamist government of President Erdoğan. The hundreds of pages of the indictment and thousands of pages of annexes are actually a gold mine for investigative journalists like myself who love digging to find a scoop, connecting the dots with other information available in the public space and drawing a picture for the public to see.
Anyway, going back to the false claim of the killer having stayed at my apartment in Ankara, I was very curious how that planted lie would pan out in the indictment prepared by prosecutor Akıncı, who was apparently instructed by the government to erase all traces of the real masterminds who helped radicalize the assassin and keep them safe from criminal charges. None of the people who played a role in nurturing the killer’s mindset were charged or indicted. Some were not even brought in for a statement as a witness or person with knowledge of the killer, which makes no sense at all.
The prosecutor investigated two apartments where the killer had lived in Ankara. One was located at Demet Mahallesi 357. Cadde Mehmetçik Apartmanı No:30/5 in the Yenimahalle district, where he had stayed with his roommate Sercan Başar, also a police officer. It is the same address listed on the leave of absence slip from Diyarbakır, where he was temporarily serving. The current occupants of the flat are police officers identified as Hakkı Uçar, Fatih Peker and Mert Yelseli. The police searched the apartment on December 21, 2016 and filed report no. 2016/026284.5 which indicated that a book by the Social Fabric Foundation (Sosyal Doku Vakfı) was found. The foundation is run by radical cleric Nurettin Yıldız, who had played a pivotal role in radicalizing the killer since 2014. The killer also possessed a number of Yıldız’s extremist books.
Apartment no. 5 is owned by a man named Suat Solak, who also lives in the same building, in apartment no. 11. In his police statement the owner said he had leased the apartment to the killer and his roommate Başar in June 2014 for 600 Turkish lira a month through the Erdem Emlak real estate firm. In June 2016 Başar left the apartment because he was getting married, and the killer remained as the sole lessee of the flat. The killer acquired a new roommate, Yelseli, in August 2016. The prosecutor checked the deed of the flat as well, confirming that Solak was the owner, having inherited it from his mother. The information about leasing it through the real estate firm was also checked out.
The deed of the first apartment (Demet Mahallesi 357. Cadde Mehmetçik Apartmanı No:30/5 ) where the killer lived in Ankara:Deed_apartment1
The second apartment the killer last lived in with Serkan Özkan, a lawyer who worked for a law firm close to Soylu, was located at Kalaba Mahallesi Granit Sokak No:5/1 in the Keçiören district. Altıntaş had lived with Özkan since September 2016. The house was searched on December 19, 2016 at 20:00 hours, 45 minutes after the murder. The police report, filed on December 21, 2016 under no. 2016/026284.6, claimed that the initial search was not thoroughly carried out because Russian authorities wanted to be present during the execution of the search and seizure warrant. When the Russian investigator arrived to join the search, the lock on the door had already been broken and the house searched. Perhaps some of the incriminating evidence had already vanished by then.
The deed for the second apartment showed that Özkan was the owner and that he bought it on October 8, 2015. He sold the apartment on May 16, 2017.
None of the apartments where the assassin had lived in Ankara have anything to do with my apartment, which was located in another part of the city. They are not even in the same neighborhood. With no shred of evidence to back up the lie planted by the Turkish ministers and their associates on the night of the murder, the prosecutor decided not to include the lie of the killer staying in my apartment in the indictment. However, he added my name in a chart he had drawn on the alleged links of suspects in the case because of my article that was published three days before the murder. He did not even bother translating the article into Turkish because it would reveal to Turkish readers that the article had nothing to do with the Russian ambassador’s assassination. I guess I should be happy that he at least did not list me as a suspect due to the article.
This personal story tells the tale of how Erdoğan’s trolls and bots have been viciously fabricating stories to plant in the media for the purposes of controlling the narrative, smearing and defaming critics and undermining the credibility of investigative journalists who expose the skeletons in Erdoğan’s closet. Turkish President Erdoğan and his accomplices don’t mind that their efforts to flood social media, the airwaves and the pages of newspapers with junk news and fake stories actually undermine society’s trust in the institutions and sow doubts in the minds of the people about their government. Turkey’s Islamist rulers do not seem to understand that this will come back to haunt them one day when, not if, Turkey returns to the rule of law and eventually restores its democracy.
I’m anxiously waiting to see what else Turkish intelligence, Erdoğan’s troll farm and hacker groups are set to throw my way. I recently found out that a fake “official website” www.abdullahbozkurt.eu was registered in 2019 as if I had authorized its launch. Perhaps Turkish intelligence wanted to divert my traffic through such measures, and unsuspecting people might have used the contact form, thinking they were actually reaching out to me. I filed my complaints with the registrant and hosting firms. It remains to be seen how that will be resolved. I also realized Erdoğan’s trolls were manipulating Wikipedia entries to benefit the authoritarian regime while smearing critics, opponents and dissidents. The Wikipedia editors must be vigilant for such encroachment at the expense of facts and the truth.
We are in a completely new era during which evil and powerful people enlist troll farms to sow deception, distract people, raise suspicions and manipulate the masses, often hiding behind masks. As reporters, we have to spend our precious capital to fight them off and ward off their threats while trying to keep up with and maintain our journalistic work. It is quite challenging at times but rewarding when we get results in promoting public interest for the good of the people.
The program aired on December 20, 2016 on TGRT in Turkey where government propagandists Cem Küçük and Fuat Uğur publicly called for the assassination of exiled journalists including Abdullah Bozkurt, who was living in Sweden: