The corruption scandal that continues to rock Turkey reached a new high this week when taped conversations of the country’s two biggest power brokers were leaked online. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was wiretapped, police reports show, and so was his chief rival, Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric the Turkish government accuses of being behind the corruption investigation.
The wiretaps reveal previously unknown information about both men. It appears that Gülen had direct ties with Turkey’s business elite, and a police investigation is trying to tie Erdoğan to figures affiliated with Al Qaeda.
The tape wars started Monday when a Twitter user began spreading Soundcloud links containing of the four leaked recordings of Gülen’s conversations (one of the recordings mysteriously vanished later). The account was suspended in a heartbeat, but the links had already made it to the media. The phone conversations were between Gülen and “some executives from institutions established and run by the people who are inspired by [his] movement,” according to Bülent Keneş, the editor of the daily Today’s Zaman, a paper sympathetic to the Gülenist cause.
Living in the Poconos in a self-imposed exile since the late ’90s, Gülen is the leader of a religious movement that spans the globe. The Gülenist movement encompasses a wide network of businessmen and runs charter schools in 90 countries (including at least 120 in the U.S.), a media company in Turkey and a private Turkish bank that adheres to Islamic lending practices, Bank Asya. More importantly, the movement heavily influences Turkey’s police and judiciary.
The phone conversations reveal that Gülen gets daily briefings about the country’s political and economic matters. “[The recordings] would come as a surprise to many who think of Gülen only as a cleric, only praying and studying religion, but he’s a figure with a huge influence all over the world,” says Nazlı Ilıcak, a journalist who wrote a book on the Gülenists in 2011, in a phone interview. “Therefore it’s normal for businessmen to regularly visit him, him being involved in business dealings.”
According to the recordings, Gülen’s aides deliver messages from many influential Turkish tycoons, including Mustafa Koç, whose Koç Holding company generates annual sales equal to 6 percent of Turkey’s economy. The recording also features Gülen and his aide discussing whether Koç would sponsor the Turkish Olympics, an annual event in which students from Gülen’s charter schools compete to see who can make the best speech in Turkish. Koç was, indeed, one of the four sponsors of the event, along with Bank Asya. A spokesperson for Koç Holding did not return calls or emails for comment.
In one conversation, Gülen’s aide refers to Erdoğan as an “empty minister.” Two of the recordings date back to October and November of 2013. The police launched the corruption investigation on Dec. 17. The other recordings are dated Dec. 21 and Dec. 25. These, according to Ilıcak, actually reveal fears of a conspiracy against Gülen. “If rumors spread that Bank Asya is vulnerable,” his aide tells Gülen, “it would be very bad for us. We need a deposit of approximately $300 million.”
A day after the Gülen leaks, the Erdoğan files surfaced. According to police reports obtained by the independent news site T24.com.tr, Erdoğan’s son, Bilal, is closely linked with the Saudi Arabian tycoon Yasin al-Qadi—a man the U.S. has designated as a “specially designated global terrorist.” The police tapped the phone of Cengiz Aktürk, a wealthy businessman and Erdoğan ally, and concluded that Erdoğan and al-Qadi were secret partners in Aktürk’s firm, Bosphorus 360. Aktürk, speaking to Hürriyet, denied the claims but said he knows al-Qadi and “would like to help that brother to invest in Turkey.”
Aktürk also has investments in the cosmetics industry and has partnered with Usama Qutb, an Egyptian businessman. According to Hürriyet, Qutb is the nephew of Sayyid Qutb, whose writings are believed to have been the inspiration for Al Qaeda. Sayyid Qutb was executed in 1966 for his role in an assassination plot against then-Egyptian President Gamal Nasser.
More wiretaps, disclosed by Turkey’s Artı 1 news network, reveal that Usama Qutb spoke to Erdoğan’s aide to arrange a private meeting with the prime minister. Another conversation between Qutb and Bilal Erdoğan reveal the two planning a meeting. Erdoğan refers to him with a Turkish honorarium loosely translated as “elder brother.”
The most surprising aspect of the police investigation revealed that even Prime Minister Erdoğan’s phone was tapped—a conversation between Erdoğan and his close friend Latif Topbaş, the 25th wealthiest businessman in Forbes Turkey’s list. Police reports show that the two men talked about construction permits in an area reserved for a forest. Topbaş is also accused of being a secret partner of Aktürk, Qutb, and Bilal Erdoğan. A spokesperson for Topbaş could not be reached for comment.
According to Yavuz Oğhan, the news editor of Artı 1 TV, Erdoğan’s wiretaps were held for a year before being leaked shortly after the Gülen tapes.
Meanwhile, Gulen’s lawyer is preparing to file a criminal complaint against those responsible for wiretapping his phone. “I think it’s orchestrated by those who want to harm Gülen,” Ilıcak adds. But Keneş is more explicit: He implies that the government is behind the leaks.
Let the blame game begin.