Feeling confident with all levers of government power in his hands, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now openly bragging about his controversial past, rooted in the Islamist Akıncılar (Raiders) movement of the late 1970s.
His campaign team surprised him with a banner at a party convention held at the Halkapınar Sporting Hall in Turkey’s western province of Izmir on Jan. 5, 2019, when Erdogan came to the stage to deliver his speech. A huge banner featuring a young Erdogan from the late 1970s that pictured him in front of a podium bearing the word “Akıncılar” was hung in the rear of the hall facing the Turkish president. Akıncılar is a name given to an irregular light cavalry that served as advance troops for the Ottoman Empire’s military. They were feared as raiders who scouted the field before the regular army’s arrival.
The banner was signed by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) youth branch in Izmir, and the message read: “Now we carry the burden of the bullet for the good news” (Şimdi Biz Taşıyoruz Müjdenin Kurşun Yükünü). Ten minutes into his speech, which was televised live, Erdogan paused and stared at the poster and said “Mashallah,” an Arabic phrase that is used in Turkey to show appreciation. He then started reading what was written on the banner for everyone in the audience.
He pledged that he would continue to carry that burden, prompting a huge burst of applause and cheers from the crowd. He moved on, saying that Izmir’s borders in his heart stretch from Vienna to the shores of the Adriatic and Eastern Turkistan (China’s autonomous Uyghur Xinxiang region) before announcing the AKP candidates for local elections on March 31. This was a significant message that would resonate well with his core Islamist supporters and recalls a historical reference from the 1970s that his group, Akıncılar, used to brandish placards in the streets saying, “Each Raider is a bullet, we’re going to establish an Islamic state.”
The Raiders are a youth organization affiliated with the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi, or MSP), an Islamist party established by the late Necmettin Erbakan, founder of political Islam in Turkey and a mentor to Erdogan. Many radical and Islamist figures of today share a past with this organization. Although the group is a Sunni-based network, it was very much influenced by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Its origins lie with the Akıncılar Association, which was established in Ankara on Jan. 23, 1976 by a group of university students in engineering and architecture. It rapidly grew to 600 branches across Turkey.
The goal of Akıncılar was to set up a Sharia state in Turkey based on Islamic rules and to destroy the Western, secular republic. Some of the orders that were transmitted to branches from headquarters were secret, urging its members to act discreetly in order to avoid legal action from the authorities. Initially it was a non-violent group, but later some cells started arming themselves for what they claimed was a defensive position in response to violent clashes and bombings involving right-wing and left-wing youth groups. Two weeks after the police raided its offices in Ankara, on Nov. 27, 1979, the Akıncılar Association was shut down by the authorities.
It was succeeded by the Akıncı Gençler Derneği (AK-GENÇ, or Raider Youth Association), established on March 1, 1980 with its headquarters in the conservative province of Konya. The group started publishing a magazine called Seriyye, which replaced the defunct Akıncı magazine, the publication of which was earlier halted by the authorities. The group was among the organizers of a rally dubbed the “Liberation of Jerusalem” on September 6, 1980 in reaction to Israel’s approval of a new law that declared “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” Banners reading “Either Sharia or Death — Ak Genç,” “Towards an Islamic state – Akıncılar” and “Each Raider is a bullet, we’re going to establish an Islamic state” appeared at the rally.
The group organized 32 camps across Turkey and started arms training in some, prompting concern among the authorities. In addition to the lead Akıncılar organization, several other associations were established under similar names and affiliated with the core group: the Akıncı Association for Civil Servants (AK-MEM), set up in 1976; the Akıncı High Schoolers (Akıncı Liseliler, or AK-LİS) in 1977; the Akıncı Labor Association (Akıncı İşçiler Derneği, or AK-İŞ) in 1978; and the Akıncı Sporting Association (Akıncı Sporcular Derneği, or AK-SPOR).
Akıncılar was staunchly anti-Western with a special distaste for Americans. They had networks in Europe, especially among Turkish Muslim diaspora groups. The group was believed to have been behind a campaign of threatening letters sent to several US embassies in Europe in the late 1970s. The US Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, reported that it received a letter on March 29, 1978 from a group that issued an ultimatum saying that US officials creating trouble for Turkey would face the fate of John F. Kennedy and warned that repressive measures would follow if Greek and Jewish groups lobbying the US Congress did not stop acting as tools of the Greeks and the Jews. The letter was signed by the Türkiye Akıncılar Ordusu (Turkish Army of Raiders). When asked about the group, Turkish Embassy officials told the US that the group was made up of extremist followers of former Deputy Prime Minister Erbakan and that they called themselves “Akıncılar,” extremist, fundamentalist Muslims.
In the aftermath of a military coup in 1980, Akıncılar was shut down, and 140 people including administrators and some members were prosecuted and tried on charges of establishing an illegal armed organization. Many were convicted, but the case was dropped after several articles of the Turkish Penal Code were abolished in 1987. Although many cases were marred by the widespread torture and ill-treatment of suspects in prison under the repressive military regime, the evidence nevertheless was compelling enough to suggest that the Akıncı group was not at peace with the secular and democratic regime and was bent on establishing a state based on what they perceived as Islamic principles.
The investigation file uncovered secret armed factions within Akıncılar, and search warrants resulted in the seizure of some arms. Metin Külünk, a childhood friend of Erdogan and today considered to be the president’s close confidante, led an armed cell according to witness statements included in the indictment. When police raided a group of 30 to 35 people who were reported to be training in arms in a highland area called Demirciler Yaylası in Bolu province on July 12, 1979, they found a handgun and dynamite blocks on Külünk.
This man, who long served as a deputy in parliament, has been tasked by Erdogan with running clandestine networks in Europe and organizing Islamist and Turkish groups in the United States. Külünk was one of the key operatives who provided money to a right-wing gang called Osmanen Germania in Germany to purchase weapons, organize protests and target critics of the Turkish leader. He was also involved in supporting the Union of European-Turkish Democrats (UETD) in Europe in Germany, Sweden and other places.
No detailed information has yet emerged as to how, in what capacity and to what extent Erdogan was involved with Akıncılar, but it is clear that he played a role in the organization in the 1970s. Old pictures of him at public rallies in those days show that he was active in the organization. His close friend Külünk ran the armed wing of the group. The death of Metin Yüksel, an icon youth leader among Akıncılar who was gunned down in 1979 by nationalists, paved the way for the rise of Erdogan among the ranks of young people affiliated with the Islamist MSP party.
Apparently, Erdogan fantasizing about the group’s legacy has even impacted his family members. In a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley in 2016 by Erdoğan’s daughter Esra Erdoğan Albayrak (her husband is Berat Albayrak, the minister of finance and treasury), Akıncılar was described as “valuable sources of increasing social and cultural capital for students where they could follow up seminars by prominent intellectuals while also participating in student-run debates and theatrical performances.”
She claimed that these groups [Akıncılar and others] provided a vivid cultural and intellectual arena for students to think about current issues as they remained in close contact at their weekend meetings. This environment affected the students’ intellectual agenda and shifted the nature of other activities they were attracted to outside of school from personalized to community-centered activities.
Armed terrorist group the Great East Raiders Front (İBDA-C), established by Salih Mirzabeyoğlu (real name Salih İzzet Erdiş) in 1984, was among the founders of Akıncılar. His group was involved in dozens of deadly bombing attacks and murders in Turkey in the 1990s. Mirzabeyoğlu was captured on Dec. 31, 1998, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. However, with Erdogan’s help after serving 16 years, he was released in 2014 under a re-trial scheme orchestrated by the government. Erdogan, who admitted in a TV interview that he had ordered his people to do whatever was necessary to help him get out, not only congratulated him over the phone as soon as he was released but also invited him to his Istanbul office for a private audience. Mirzabeyoğlu passed away last year, leaving in his wake a trail of blood and murder.
Erdogan’s links to IBDA-C were first raised in the Turkish Parliament by Ali Topuz, deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) parliamentary group on December 4, 2003. He said Erdogan was one of the original founders of the IBDA-C, which traced back to the 1970s. Topuz, who was a government minister in the 1970s and served as the Istanbul provincial chairman of the CHP, was a maverick politician with inside knowledge of events unfolding in those years.
İBDA-C is among the key drivers of Turkish youth joining jihadist groups in Syria, especially those affiliated with al-Qaeda. It claimed responsibility for a dual synagogue bombing in Istanbul on November 15, 2003 that killed 24 as well as a subsequent attack on the HSBC Bank and British Consulate General on November 20, 2003. A total of 57 people were killed in the twin attacks. IBDA-C is listed by the European Union and the US State Department as terrorist group; yet, the Erdogan government has refrained from cracking down on them.
The Akıncılar Association was reestablished and has been active with its headquarters in Ankara. They have branched out across all the provinces of Turkey, organizing camps and rallies.