BACKGROUND: At 49, Sedat Peker is from a younger generation than the drug barons who dominated the Turkish underworld in the 1990s. A staunch Turkish nationalist, Peker became an outspoken regime supporter after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to the loss of the AKP’s parliamentary majority in June 2015 by launching a brutal military crackdown in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. The crackdown assuaged some of the concerns that Turkish ultranationalists had previously held about Erdoğan. In January 2016, Peker famously vowed to “bathe in the blood” of academics who had decried the brutal methods employed by the security forces in the southeast.
Peker was also widely regarded as being close to Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, frequently publicly lambasting Erdoğan’s son-in-law and former Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, with whom Soylu has a long and bitter personal feud. In 2019, Peker left Turkey for the Balkans after apparently being tipped off that Albayrak was trying to have him arrested. His wife and young daughter remained behind in Turkey and Peker appears to have been confident that he would soon be able to return. On May 6, 2021, Peker posted the first of what he said would be 12 YouTube videos. Now based in Dubai, Peker accused Soylu of reneging on a pledge to ensure that he could return to Turkey.
Organized crime has long been woven through Turkey’s political and social fabric. Since the 1970s in particular, the Turkish Mafia has also played a major play in the violence along the rents in this fabric – predominantly on the side of the Turkish nationalist right. The Turkish underworld operates on personal connections and the principle of “söz senettir”, the equivalent of “my word is my bond”. During the factional fighting that wracked Turkey in the 1970s, Turkish ultranationalist Mafiosi formed closed links with similarly-minded members of the security forces, including elements in what became known as the “Deep State”. But the links between the security forces and the underworld remained personal rather than institutionalized, with each Mafia group being dependent for protection on a handful of individuals.
In the 1970s, Turkish Mafiosi with good connections in the Eastern Bloc, especially Bulgaria, also played an important role in the supply of weapons to Turkish Leftist militants. More recently, Kurdish Mafiosi – who now control a significant share of the trafficking of heroin and humans into Europe – have become an important source of funds for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while also helping facilitate its purchases of arms and the illicit passage of militants and sympathizers across borders.
Contrary to how it has often been perceived, the Deep State was never a hierarchical monolith. In as much as it had a structure at all, it was horizontal rather than vertical. The closest it had to a skeleton were the military personnel who had been trained in what became known as the Special Warfare Unit (SWU), which was originally established as part of NATO’s efforts to create “stay behind” forces to serve as the nuclei for resistance groups in the event of the Soviet Union occupying Europe.
Graduates of the SWU undoubtedly played a role in both the factional violence of the 1970s and the later war against nationalist Kurds. But they were supplemented, and probably outnumbered, by non-SWU Turkish ultranationalist members of the police and gendarmerie – and, to a lesser extent, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) – who established contacts and networks of their own.
The Turkish state’s slow response to the launch of the PKK insurgency in 1984 meant that by the end of the decade the organization effectively controlled large swathes of southeast of Turkey. The result was a massive expansion in the SWU and non-SWU networks and the creation of death squads that killed thousands of perceived PKK sympathizers, the vast majority of them non-combatants. But the activities of these networks and death squads were never centrally coordinated. Rather than being an organization, in practice the Deep State was more of a culture of impunity.
Although its graduates continued to serve in the military, the SWU was effectively closed shortly after the end of the Cold War and converted into a counter-insurgency training center. By the mid-1990s, changes in equipment and tactics had enabled the Turkish military to gain the upper hand in its war with the PKK. Even though they shared the same ideological foes, the various Mafia groups in the pro-state networks were frequently rivals – even enemies – when it came to their commercial criminal activities. As the perceived threat from the PKK diminished, old rivalries were augmented by new ones and some of the Deep State networks – including members of the security forces who had now effectively become Mafiosi themselves – competed with and killed each other over access to sources of revenue, not least the lucrative heroin trafficking routes that ran through southeast Turkey.
On November 3, 1996, a Mercedes carrying a police chief, a right-wing deputy from the coalition government, a wanted Mafia hit-man and his mistress, together with a trunk full of weapons and silencers, collided with a truck outside the town of Susurluk. All of the occupants of the car except the parliamentary deputy were killed.
What became known as the Susurluk scandal occurred at a time when the Deep State of the time was already beginning to disintegrate. Nevertheless, the proof of collusion between the government, the security forces and the underworld came as a shock to many Turks, triggering nightly nationwide demonstrations. In reality, it had long been an open secret. All of the main political parties in the 1990s – including the Welfare Party (RP), the forerunner of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) – had at least one known heroin smuggler among their deputies in parliament. Leading underworld figures regularly featured in the social pages of the country’s newspapers and nearly all of Turkey’s leading football clubs had a member of the Mafia on their boards. Some still do.
IMPLICATIONS: After the AKP first took office in November 2002, Erdoğan would frequently cite the first two letters in its acronym – “ak” or Turkish for “white” – as an indication of how clean the party was. Given that the AKP had only been founded in August 2001 and had yet to hold any office, this would not have been difficult. However, the records of the AKP’s forerunners – the RP and the Virtue Party (FP) – at the municipal level and during its leadership of a short-lived coalition government in 1996-97 were hardly encouraging.
Very soon after the AKP took office – as had been the case with its predecessors in power – relatives of leading members of the party began to discover a previously well-hidden ability to accumulate massive personal fortunes. But there were nevertheless some changes. Instead of being exchanged for cash bribes, public contracts were awarded to friends and relatives of leading AKP members or bidders were advised that they could consider taking the latter as sleeping partners. Similarly, an approach to a leading member of the AKP for assistance in changing the zoning designation of a piece of land would be met with a request for a donation to the party rather than the individual concerned.
Even before 2002, an awareness that, in addition to being a transit country, Turkey was developing a growing drug problem of its own had resulted in increased efforts to suppress the trade in narcotics. Nearly all of the major drugs traffickers were either Turkish or Kurdish nationalists, and both regarded Erdoğan with disdain and distrust.
However, although it tends to have the highest media profile, narcotics trafficking is only one of the revenue streams for organized crime in Turkey. Even if the profit margins are lower, far more widespread are extortion, debt collection, prostitution rings, contract fixing and bureaucratic facilitation – such as securing permits and licenses and changing zoning designations to open up land for development.
Initially fearful of being ousted by the military, Erdoğan gradually became bolder, including through effecting regime change by filling the apparatus of state with AKP loyalists. For the members of the Mafia, who had been dependent on personal relations with members of the previous regime, it took time to cultivate contacts in the new regime.
In August 2016, Erdoğan appointed Süleyman Soylu, a hard-line Turkish nationalist, as Interior Minister. Since taking office, Soylu has overseen a huge increase in the appointment of Turkish hard-line nationalists to key positions in the internal security forces.
In his videos, Peker claimed to have previously supported both Soylu – including frequently communicating with him through intermediaries – and the AKP. He also said that he had organized attacks on the party’s critics and has been paying a monthly stipend to one of its deputies. In addition, he accused another AKP deputy, Tolga Ağar – the son of former Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar, who oversaw some of the state-sponsored death squads active in the 1990s – of rape and murder. Soylu has denied the allegations. In a rambling and evasive three-hour appearance on national television on May 24, Soylu claimed that Peker was part of an international conspiracy to weaken Turkey.
Although Peker’s background raises questions about his credibility, he has already produced evidence to back up several of his claims – though not yet to support his accusations against Tolga Ağar. Perhaps most striking has been Peker’s demeanour. Unlike Soylu’s evasiveness and recourse to absurd conspiracy theories, Peker seems relaxed and untroubled, apparently confident that he can continue to refute Soylu’s denials.
CONCLUSIONS: Regimes tend to become more corrupt the longer they remain in power. In this, the AKP is no exception. But what has been surprising in recent years has been the increasing frequency with which the regime has been prepared to flaunt not only its disregard for the rule of law but the extent of the corruption that permeates its higher echelons.
Even more remarkable has been the behaviour of its electoral partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). In the past, the MHP would seek to deny or downplay accusations of links to ultranationalist members of the underworld. However, MHP Chair Devlet Bahçeli has now become an outspoken supporter of Mafia boss and Turkish ultranationalist Alaattin Çakıcı, a convicted narcotics smuggler and murderer who once took out a successful hit on his ex-wife and who was described in a March 2021 Turkish police report as the leader of the largest criminal organization in Turkey with 428 members.
History suggests that, although many Turks are genuinely committed to clean governance and the rule of law, such principles are not electorally decisive on their own. That role has traditionally belonged to the economy. The Susurluk scandal did not determine the outcome of the subsequent general election in 1999. But, when added to the incompetence that triggered the economic collapse of 2001, the perception that they were riddled with corruption did play a role in ensuring that none of parties represented in parliament won any seats in the November 2002 election. Ominously for Erdoğan, the Turkish economy is in another prolonged downturn and there appears little prospect of it returning to sustained high growth in the near future. Even before Peker’s revelations, it was already becoming increasingly difficult to see how Erdoğan and the AKP could win fair elections when they next fall due in June 2023.
Gareth Jenkins is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.