Mark Bentley
Jan 23 2018

Son of Erdoğan in drone-strike room sparks dispute, angers opposition

A photograph of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son, Bilal, sitting in an operations room for drones during Turkish attacks on Syria has sparked controversy on social media and anger among the government's main opposition.

The publication of the photograph by Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdoğan’s son in law and a director of the drone company, on Twitter, drew swift response from the Republican People’s Party, which questioned why Bilal Erdoğan, who has no official position in the government or military, was permitted to sit beside military personnel as Turkey attacked Kurdish targets three days ago.

Some pro-government Twitter-users immediately claimed that the photograph was actually from June 2015, when Bilal had paid a visit to the base, and said followers of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Islamic preacher accused of plotting to depose Erdoğan, had started circulating it on social media to falsely undermine the president. But a closer look at the picture indeed indicates that it was taken during Turkish military action in Syria at the weekend.

“Whether or not he was interfering, it just wasn’t appropriate to see photos of the president’s son, who paid money to do just 28 days of military service, watching from an operations centre when our soldiers are pouring blood, in difficult conditions, in the name of national security,” Engin Altay, deputy leader of the CHP, told reporters in Ankara.

The photograph, accompanied by another picture showing Bilal in a line of people next to one of the drones, reveals that he was in the operations room at just after 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 21. A blown up version of the photo showed a time zone of +3 UTC, which Turkey moved to in October 2015.

Bilal drone time

Selçuk Bayraktar, who married Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye in May 14, 2016, is technical director of of Baykar Makina, a family-run business that sells the TB2 UAV drones to the Turkish military.

Turkey launched airstrikes against Kurdish militants in Syria on Saturday, prompting criticism from the United States and France. It followed up with a land incursion to eradicate the threat posed by the group, which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The fighters constitute most of the Syrian Defence Force, which ousted Islamic State from Raqqa with the help of U.S. weapons and NATO air cover.

Turkey has also used the Bayraktar drones in military operations against the PKK in its mostly-Kurdish southeast.

Bilal Erdoğan is a former bank intern and part-owner of Turkish shipping group BMZ. Most famously, Bilal allegedly featured in a recording of a phone conversation with his father, purporting to show him seeking advice on how to hide money as Turkish police officers swooped on suspects’ homes during a corruption probe in December 2013. Erdoğan swiftly quashed the investigation, arresting police, judges and prosecutors, saying it was based on false allegations. Police work from the probe was also used in a New York courtroom to sentence a Turkish banker for illegally bypassing sanctions on Iran, a verdict blasted by Erdoğan.

Bayraktar’s Twitter account also showed him out celebrating with Bilal on July 19, 2016, four days after President Erdoğan foiled a coup attempt that he blamed on Gülen.

Family connections are extremely important in Turkey, greying the lines between what is seen as proper behaviour for politicians, businessmen and their families, and what could be construed as abuse of power, or corruption. Erdoğan’s other son-in law, Berat Albayrak, is currently energy minister after serving as CEO of a large energy and banking conglomerate with close connections to the president.

Bayraktar is the son of Özdemir Bayraktar, an industrialist. The older Bayraktar was a political ally of the president during his tenure as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s, serving as a senior official for the Refah Party (RP), the predecessor of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, Hurriyet columnist Yalcin Bayer wrote in May 2016.