The appointment of Abdurrahim Boynukalın, a thuggish youth leader who spearheaded a violent raid on a newspaper headquarters in Turkey, as the representative of Turkey’s Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the United Kingdom raised concerns of radicalism among Turkish and Muslim diaspora groups.
The move is part of a drive by Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdoğan, who has been investing in Turkish and Muslim communities across Europe as proxies, asking them to mobilize, set up political parties or work within established parties to promote his ruling party’s agenda. Boynukalın, a hard-core Islamist who boasts Salafi roots in his family background, made headlines in Turkey when he led a violent group of some 150-200 people in an attack on a building occupied by the Hürriyet daily with sticks and stones on September 6, 2015 and attempted to enter the newsroom.
Boynukalın was head of the AKP youth organization and a lawmaker from Istanbul at the time. In remarks carried by the state-owned Anadolu news agency, he expressed no regret for the attack whatsoever and in fact continued his threats against the paper’s journalists. “I suggest they get used to this,” he was quoted as saying. The newspaper was attacked for a second time two days later amid allegations of police negligence and failure to respond in time to prevent the mob attack.
Ali Örnek, a journalist at Hürriyet, posted several tweets during the attack, writing: “AKP supporters raided the daily. No police.” In another tweet Örnek said: “They numbered around 200. They entered the building and damaged desks and computers in the advertising department in the absence of police.” The people were chanting religious slogans and saying “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest) as they tried to break into the building, another journalist tweeted.
The protest and ensuing attack were organized after a campaign by pro-government Internet trolls, known as AK trolls, and columnists who called on people to protest the daily after it reported on a speech Erdoğan gave. The allegations that the daily twisted Erdoğan’s remarks and misquoted him led to violent protests. In an apparent attempt to justify the attack, President Erdoğan slammed the Hürriyet newspaper two days after it, saying the daily had distorted his words.
Footage dating back to September 15 that was uploaded on social media shows Boynukalın saying, “We are to blame for not giving him a beating when we should have,” in reference to the daily’s then-Editor-in-Chief Sedat Ergin. “He [Ergin] is sweating… He has never gotten a beating,” Boynukalın is heard saying in the footage.
Speaking in Mersin province on October 21, 2015, Boynukalın bragged about how he and his followers taught Hürriyet journalists a lesson for insulting Islamic values. “They [Hürriyet] openly targeted our president by suggesting that he could share the same fate as [Egypt’s ousted] President [Mohamed] Morsi. They [Hürriyet] repeatedly called him [Erdoğan] a dictator. They thought nobody could question them when they insult this country’s Islamic values. But the AKP youth branches eliminated that immunity three weeks ago,” he said
“We have recently been receiving criticism that the AKP youth branches are no longer devoted to their cause, that they no longer take to the streets and protest. We need to take action, my friends! We need to get back that trust and confidence. Look, what we did at the Hürriyet building occupied the country’s agenda for weeks,” Boynukalın added, in an apparent move to promote the “success” of the attacks.
On October 28, 2015 Boynukalın, who had plotted the attack on the newspaper building only a month earlier, appeared next to interim Prime Minister and then-AKP Chairman Ahmet Davutoğlu at a party event in Ankara. The photo was a message sent to boost the impression that the party was behind the actions of Boynukalın. When asked whether his party planned to take disciplinary action against Boynukalın over his remarks, Davutoğlu said the deputy did not have bad intentions and that the comments were made in a friendly environment.
What is more, Erdoğan rewarded Boynukalın by appointing him deputy minister of the Youth and Sports Ministry, where he continued to mobilize and organize Turkish youths for his boss. Criminal complaints filed by lawyers representing Hürriyet against Boynukalın and several members of the AKP youth branch accusing them of damaging property and violating the sanctity of private property as well as making threats with the aim of spreading fear among the public were hushed up.
The Internet trolls linked to Erdoğan’s party continued to threaten the journalists. One AK troll, esat ç. @esatreis, wrote: “Whether they have guns or a camera in their hands, terrorists have never won in the end. Both the PKK and Aydın Doğan [Hürriyet’s then-owner] will lose.” “If Aydın Doğan is able to go to work comfortably as if he had done nothing, then this is not his fault but ours for allowing him,” the same troll said. Pro-government spin doctor and propagandist Cem Küçük also posted tweets threatening Doğan and journalist Eyüp Can, writing: “Hürriyet Digital Publishing Manager Eyüp Can! You will be tried as a militant of a terrorist organization.” In a similar vein, another AK troll, sağlam irade @tahaun, wrote: “A protest is being staged in front of Hürriyet! The number of attendees is increasing. Join the demonstration.”
Hürriyet subsequently changed its editorial stance as the intimidation campaign took its toll on the newspaper’s owners and journalists. It became a pro-government newspaper and was eventually sold to a businessman close to Erdoğan. Today, it is one of many newspapers that are merely serving as mouthpieces of the Erdoğan regime.
In December 2015 a Turkish prosecutor dropped a probe into Boynukalın and 30 others who were investigated for their involvement in the violent actions at the newspaper building. Twenty-six suspects were indicted, but all except one were acquitted at the end of the trial in November 2018. Only one person, identified as Mesut Yeşilyurt, received a fine of TL 2,000 (some $350) for damaging private property. The judges also ruled for a jail sentence for trespassing on private property, but that sentence was immediately suspended. In other words, no one was really held accountable for the violent attack on the newspaper building as the Erdoğan government provided immunity for people who acted in support of the policies of President Erdogan.
On January 23, 2019 Boynukalın was appointed AKP London office representative according to a statement issued by the AKP deputy chairman for external affairs. While he is serving as the point man for the AKP in the UK, Boynukalın is also expected to organize and mobilize Turkish and Muslim youth groups in his capacity as party representative in the United Kingdom.