Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony marking Ataturk's death anniversary, Ankara, Turkey November 10, 2017.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

Earlier this week, the trial for the Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab began in lower Manhattan. Zarrab, who has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, allegedly ran an elaborate gold-for-oil scheme to circumvent international sanctions against Iran, possibly with the assistance of relatives and allies of Turkish government ministers. (U.S. officials had arrested Zarrab in March 2016 while he was vacationing in Miami, Florida.) Soon after the proceedings began, however, the charges were dropped, and on Wednesday, Zarrab took the witness stand instead, making damning claims that he had bribed an economy minister as part of his sanctions-skirting racket. The whole affair, which could implicate Erdogan, has put the Turkish leader on edge, and he has lashed out against the United States, criticizing it for falling prey to an elaborate conspiracy to bring down the Turkish regime. The real culprit driving the probe, he has insisted, is Fethullah Gulen, the spiritual leader of the prominent Hizmet (or “Gulenist”) movement who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and who Erdogan claims orchestrated the July 2016 coup against him.

Zarrab’s high-profile case is only one example, however, of a larger trend in Turkey: the resurgence of organized crime. Over the last ten years, there has been a dramatic expansion in illicit trading and smuggling across the country. Part of the uptick has to do with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the worsening state of Iraq’s internal affairs after the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in 2014. The instability prompted an explosion in trafficking activity along Turkey’s southern border. For example, the country’s main counternarcotics arm, the Department of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime (known as KOM), executed close to 800 stings related to the illicit oil trade in 2009, but by 2014, the total number of such operations jumped to nearly 5,000. In 2014, more than 8,000 individuals were taken into custody on charges of heroin smuggling, a twofold increase since 2009 and a fivefold increase since 2001.   

The surge in Turkey’s illicit industries is also connected to Erdogan and his administration. They have generally failed to show resolve or urgency in the face of these challenges. Government officials have been overwhelmingly silent about the rise in smuggling. And Ankara has long resisted international calls for sealing the Syrian border despite the large number of foreign fighters crossing over from Turkish territory. It was only after Turkey’s invasion of Syria in August 2016 that the government initiated the construction of a 560-mile border wall along the Syrian frontier. Recent arrests and seizures, including the capture of 100 tons of contraband petroleum in March, came about only because of increased international pressure in the wake of news reports about rampant oil smuggling and other illicit activity between Turkey and ISIS-controlled territory.

In addition to its negligence, the Turkish government appears directly involved in criminal activity. The most damning signs surfaced in December 2013 when Turkish prosecutors arrested Zarrab and the sons of four prominent cabinet ministers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on charges of money laundering and smuggling sanctions and bribing. Erdogan, who was then-prime minister, helped found the party in 2001 and had close ties to the ministers. Although the investigation prompted the resignation of several AKP ministers, Erdogan publicly lashed out against officials in KOM and other bureaus for having abetted what he considered a “judicial coup.” He blamed Gulen, casting the investigation as an act of revenge by Gulen’s many supporters in Turkey after having criticized the movement earlier in the fall. In January 2014, after Erdogan assumed the presidency, he had thousands of officers and other employees within KOM fired or permanently reassigned. A month later, he released Zarrab from prison and the case was effectively closed. In another worrying sign, in April 2015, the Turkish government lifted declaration limits on the amount of currency travelers were allowed to bring into the country, ostensibly to encourage foreign investment. The move has raised concerns among such international watchdogs as the Financial Action Task Force, which has long lobbied Turkey to strengthen its laws against money laundering. What’s more, in March 2016, the U.S. State Department issued a report on the transparency and efficacy of Turkish officers and courts tasked with overseeing the country’s financial sector, going so far as to call Turkey’s anti-money-laundering mechanisms “weak and lacking in many of the necessary tools and expertise to effectively counter [terrorism financing].” Just a month before the State Department issued the report, Italian prosecutors initiated an investigation of Erdogan’s eldest son, Bilal, on suspicion of money laundering. Although the probe was subsequently abandoned and the charges dropped, Bilal Erdogan’s legal difficulties appeared to echo the criminal proceedings that had plagued his father’s associates in 2013.

The public was rightly outraged by these events, but their furor was dampened by the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, and the mass purges and arrests that followed. Erdogan’s immediate and unswerving insistence upon Gulen’s role in the coup has led the bulk of Turkey’s media, as well as much of the public, to view the bribery and corruption allegations of 2013 in far more circumspect terms. The state’s allegations that KOM was complicit in the coup have led the public to presume that other criminal investigations were contrived attempts by Gulenist officers to undermine the Turkish government. It was under these pretenses that in 2014, a Turkish judge overturned prior sentences for the notorious mafia boss Sedat Peker, whose right-wing politics quickly brought him into Erdogan’s orbit. Later, pro-government dailies began circulating pictures of Erdogan embracing Peker at the wedding of a prominent AKP loyalist and pundit. Such images have contributed mightily to public impressions that Turkey was turning into a de facto mafia state. 

Rather than fight actual crime, Turkish officials and their allies in the media have come to paint FETO or the “Fethullahist Terror Organization,” the state’s preferred acronym for the Gulenist conspiracy, as among the chief sources of organized criminal activities in Turkey today. Erdogan has expelled or arrested thousands of employees from KOM and other law enforcement bodies. Officers who remain in state service have been increasingly tasked with hunting Gulenists and their supposed allies. According to KOM’s own statistics for 2016, 78 percent of those arrested on charges of graft or corruption were purported members of FETO. Meanwhile, other statistics from the last year suggest that investigations into more conventional organized crime have dramatically decreased. One possible explanation for this decline could be the rapid reconstitution of Turkish law enforcement after the July 2016 coup attempt. In order to refill the ranks of the security agencies, Ankara has lowered the basic educational standards for police recruitment. New police have been sworn in without adequate training or vetting, casting doubt on the competency and professionalism of officers assigned to KOM and the Turkish National Police. “Turkish law enforcement agencies,” according to one former official, “have been profoundly traumatized and demoralized as a result of the purges. Institutional memory, experience, and many other capacities have been lost.”

The consequences of Turkey’s steady descent into lawlessness assume more ominous tones when one considers the importance of organized crime within the country’s recent past. Turkey’s geographic location has long made it a hub of illicit goods between Europe, Asia, and Africa. The incremental decline of the rule of law in the country will likely further stimulate illegal trafficking into Europe and the United States, leading to a growth in the trade of narcotics, weapons, and illicit funds, as well as migrants. The abysmal state of relations between Brussels and Ankara may mean that cooperation and coordination on these grave matters of security will suffer. Considering Erdogan’s willingness to threaten Europe with unrestrained flows of refugees across Turkey’s borders, it is possible that European politicians have little leverage to pressure Turkish leaders into taking matters of organized crime more seriously. 

As for its relationship with the United States, Turkey was once a reliable partner in fighting terrorism and organized crime. This may no longer be the case. In light of the profound disagreements over policy choices in Syria, it seems likely that U.S.-Turkish relations are at their lowest point in decades. As Erdogan’s list of allies grows thin, he and the AKP will surely continue to depict any perceived act of U.S. pressure as unwanted and subversive. There may be nothing that Washington or Brussels can offer Ankara to bridge the growing divide that separates them. Western policymakers would be well served to begin to plan accordingly. Rather than pin their hopes on future cooperation, they may find it best to lay out strategies that insulate and protect the United States and its allies from the potential dangers posed by an increasingly corrupt Turkish state.

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  • RYAN GINGERAS is Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is the author of Fall of the Sultanate: The Great War and the End of the Ottoman Empire.
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