As NATO has been working on a counter strategy to neutralize the non-conventional cyber threat that originates from Russia, Iran, China and others, NATO member Turkey has secretly been running a project to undermine the alliance structure from within.
The social media and Internet campaigns run by associates of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan harbor anti-NATO and anti-Western sentiments and portray NATO and allies as enemies that are bent on harming Turkey. The most vicious group among various entities that were coordinated by Erdoğan and his office is identified as the Pelican group.
President Erdoğan paid a visit to the headquarters of his troll group Pelican, which is linked to his son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak. The visit on August 3, 2019 came just after announcements by the US and UK revealing that Turkey’s NATO allies had decided to create cyber-armies to fight against foreign adversaries.
The latest developments, in July, 2019, marked a turning point for Western military strategic planning. Officials from the US and the UK revealed that they had launched new military/intelligence divisions to counter malign Russian activity and threats from technologically sophisticated terror groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to official releases, the new units will have an offensive and defensive propaganda mandate, taking the social media fight to Russia as well as to various state-sponsored terrorist groups using social media platforms to stir unrest and interfere in the workings of the West.
The US’s National Security Agency (NSA) chief, Gen. Paul Nakasone, announced the new US cybersecurity directorate on July 23 at the International Conference on Cyber Security. In parallel, Lt. Gen. Ivan Jones, the commander of the UK Field Army, said a new army formation of the UK, named 6 Division (6 Div), would widen its net, looking for a new generation of social media skills. To cybersecurity expert Zak Doffman, these structures are as close as we have seen in the West outside the intelligence and private contractor domain to the government-run hacking groups seen in Russia and China as well as in Iran and North Korea.
It is obvious that Erdoğan’s Ak trolls (a speculative term referring to the regime’s social media network) will also be under the surveillance of these divisions because of the alleged links to some terrorist groups. Furthermore, Ak troll strategies are similar to the hybrid threat posed by Russia with its own unique propaganda war and psychological warfare operations targeting the US and its allies.
President Erdoğan’s presence at Bosporus Global, the public face of the Pelican group, was a sign of his support for the hard-core Ak troll group, which benefited regularly from anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-NATO rhetoric for their propaganda. During the meeting he was informed about the international activities of the Internet trolls as well as their projects, in which social media serves certain regime functions with the goal of protecting Erdoğan’s Islamist authoritarian rule, disseminating false information, promoting anti-Western propaganda and mitigating dissidence.
In addition to the Pelican group, which has become an important part of the Ak trolls and the current political atmosphere in Turkey, members of Ak trolls range from Minister of Industry and Trade Mustafa Varank to the followers of anti-Semitic jihadist cleric Nurettin Yıldız.
In a case concerning the assassinated Russian ambassador in 2016, the evidence in the indictment showed that hitman Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a 22-year-old riot police officer, frequented lectures given by Yıldız’s own NGO, the Social Fabric Foundation (Sosyal Doku Vakfı). Yıldız himself admitted his connections to jihadist groups in Syria in a letter he wrote right after the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Hassan Abboud, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, was killed in September 2014 in a suicide attack on a high-level meeting in Syria’s Idlib province.
It is widely agreed that Russia is one of the most accomplished nations in the world in its ability to carry out state-sponsored attacks, disinformation and espionage. But China, North Korea and Iran also have dedicated cyber arsenals that are an increasing threat to the West. Their strategies are shaped very differently across regimes. For example, Iran perceives SNS as tools of US psychological warfare and manipulation, while Russia considers social media as an effective means to influence public opinion abroad. In China, the strategic objective is to distract and redirect public attention from discussions with collective action potential.
After the 2013 Gezi protests, Turkey also joined this group of authoritarian regimes employing trolls (Ak trolls) to spread official views, drive particular agendas and counter government critics on social media. The role of Twitter during the Gezi protests in Turkey alerted the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the relatively low number of active social media users among their supporters, and the party became more visible on Twitter after the Gezi protests, which erupted in May 2013 over a government plan to destroy and redevelop a park near the famous Taksim Square in central İstanbul. By the end of summer 2013, the party began recruiting an “army” of 6,000 social media users charged with promoting a positive image of President Erdoğan and his party. Ever since, they have increased their influence, and this cyber army was used as a tool to control both intra-party rivals and political opponents. A case in point was the release of the Pelican Brief files, strongly pushed by Erdoğan supporters and Ak trolls on social media, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was accused of betraying the president.
Many Twitter and Facebook users have been systematically attacked online for sharing posts that are critical of the AKP government, and particularly after a bribery investigation that implicated various high-ranking government officials was revealed to the public on Dec. 17, 2013, the AKP redoubled its efforts to mobilize supporters on social media — particularly on Twitter — to publicly criticize and intimidate anti-government commentators.
A special advertising agency was created to finance an online army of as many as 12,000 Twitter users who are paid and coordinated by Erdoğan’s office. In a voice recording previously leaked on Twitter in 2014, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye is heard telling Erdoğan’s adviser Mustafa Varank, now the minister of industry and technology, to use holders of fake Twitter accounts who serve the ruling AKP to support an unspecified campaign with their posts. The corruption scandal, involving enormous sums of money, implicated ministers’ sons, politicians, businessmen and people from Erdoğan’s inner circle, including his son, Bilal Erdoğan, and was widely discussed at the time on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms.
The leaked emails of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat also revealed in 2016 how he coordinated a campaign of anti-Western videos on YouTube to smear his critics and fuel anti-Western sentiment in Turkey.