GULEN IN AFRICA: PEACE, HARMONY AND GUN-RUNNING
Associates of Hizmet, the movement founded by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen which is supposedly dedicated to world peace and understanding, have purchased at least four weapons companies in South Africa and become deeply involved in arms trafficking in Africa and the Middle East.
Hizmet, which means “service” in Turkish, is used to describe the global Islamic social and religious movement inspired and led by Gülen, who since 1999 has lived in exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Gülen has been accused by President Recyp Tayyip Erdogan of instigating the failed coup in Turkey in July 2016 that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and the movement is regarded by the Turkish authorities as a terrorist organization – which he and his adherents deny.
The purchase of the gun factories comes amid a cold war on the African continent between Erdogan’s government and Hizmet which established a network of schools, charities, dialogue centers, business organizations, commercial enterprises, and individuals.
Until the failed coup, Gülen-affiliated organizations were active in almost every country on the African continent, operating in a generally opaque manner. In the countries where they were most deeply embedded, they secured powerful allies in the upper echelons of the political and commercial elite, while especially targetting the media.
The operation of the Gülenists in Africa conforms to what the author Joshua D. Hendrick describes as an “ambiguous organizational model,” which allows school administrators, business persons, editors and dialogue center directors to both freely associate as part of the movement, and to deny any affiliation whatsoever.
A key player in this ambiguous organizational model is Vuslat Bayoglu, one the most significant Turkish businessmen in South Africa, who has built up a sprawling mining empire.
In 2015 Vuslat Bayoglu and his associates purchased three related South African arms companies: Milkor, Milinvest and Milkor Special Products. Milkor is known for its multiple grenade launcher (MGL) that can fire a round of six grenades with deadly accuracy.
The MGL weighs little more than an AK47 assault rifle and is valued for its destructive power. It is turning up in wars across the African continent, including in the hands the Seleka movement, an alliance of Muslim rebel groups that overthrew the government of the Central African Republic in 2013.
In February 2016 Vuslat’s brother, Serhat Bayoglu, and another member of the Gulenist network, Raci Yetis, became directors of Milkor and its subsidiary Milkor Special Products.
Serhat Bayoglu is also a director of Milinvest, which was originally called Naldorite. A Turkish national, Ali Ihsan Naldoken, also an identified member of the Gulenist network, became the first director of Naldorite on 28 August 2015.
On 20 March 2016 Naldoken and a South African citizen Nahiem Banderker resigned their directorships of Milkor and Serhat Bayoglu and Yetis replaced them, along with a former apartheid era soldier, Marius Roos, who is CEO and 5 percent minority shareholder of Milkor.
Nic Jenzen-Jones, of Armament Research Services, a U.S.-based think tank that tracks weapons proliferation in Africa, said that Milkor MGLs have been found “all over the border region of the Central African Republic. They may have been stolen by Seleka rebels after the Battle of Bangui where South African troops were nearly overrun – but the number of these weapons that are being found suggests there are other sources.”
A South African who has worked as a military contractor in numerous combat zones said that the MGLs are “all over the Central African Republic. For that matter, they are all over Africa full stop.”
Apart from contracts to supply the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), Milkor also supplies weaponry to Rwanda, Angola and Mozambique. In addition to peddling its own products, Milkor acts as a broker and “middle man” for others, supplying a comprehensive range of lethal weapons into Africa.
Milkor’s new premises in Pretoria are owned by Vuslat Bayoglu’s holding company, Menar Holding, which bought the property shortly before Milkor moved into it in 2016.
That same year, an investment company owned by Vuslat Bayoglu and Raci Yetis added to their collection of military companies when they bought shares in a company called N4 Panzer, which manufactures armoured vehicles that are sold throughout Africa and the Middle East. N4 Panzer is partnered with Panzer Logistics, a company that sells and deals in military weaponry, as well as hunting rifles and equipment used in the security industry.
Bayoglu’s partners are a former Rhodesian soldier and arms dealer Duncan McArthur and Theodore Pistorius, the uncle of convicted murderer and Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, also known as the “Blade Runner”.
Panzer Logistics has bought large quantities of military surplus weapons from the Zimbabwe military – so much so that when the Zimbabwean army took to the streets late in 2017 in order to remove President Robert Mugabe from power, one South African army officer joked that: “There won’t be much fighting, Duncan MacArthur’s bought all their guns.”
In South Africa, the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, which regulates weapons sales from South Africa, is virtually defunct, making it easy to acquire end user certificates and to evade regulation.
One former South African Special Forces officer says the talk in industry circles is that Milkor is gearing up to become South Africa’s “new Armscor” – South Africa’s former arms production and sales behemoth.
Despite his prominence in the private sector and his connections with the ruling African National Congress, Vuslat Bayoglu has a very low media profile in South Africa.
Bayoglu set up his vast network of companies using many different ID and passport numbers to register his directorships.
In 2007, Vuslat Bayoglu along with two friends from university bought Canyon Coal in South Africa and set up Umthombo Resources.
In Turkey, their company VTG Holding invested in a highly profitable nickel mine. In Colombia VTG Mining owned Enova Resources, a mining company that operates four coal fields. VTG Holding changed its name to Menar Holding, and switched its registration to Luxembourg in July 2012.
Canyon Coal grew exponentially and from a valuation of 2 million USD in 2007 it was worth an estimated 300 million USD in 2012. Recently, Menar Holding, through Canyon Resources, purchased the Zululand Anthracite Mine from Rio Tinto. Canyon Resources, previously Umthombo Resources, is a joint venture with the Swiss oil trading giant, Mercuria.
In private discussion with business partners and in a public response to an article in the Star newspaper in February last year, Vuslat Bayoglu has denied connections to the Gülenist movement.
When an article linking Vuslat to the arms trade appeared in the City Press newspaper in South Africa on February 5th, 2017, he laid a complaint with the Press Ombudsman, denying that he was a member of a terrorist organization, as claimed by Turkish authorities, or a fugitive from the Turkish justice or had any association with arms companies.
The complaints were dismissed though the newspaper had to apologize for not going to Bayoglu for comment.
However, there is substantial evidence that Vuslat Bayoglu is a key financial figure within the Gulenist movement and there has never been any attempt to push back on reports in the Turkish media in Turkey, where his affiliations are well known and not contested.
He is a former Chairman and director of the South African Turkish Businessmen’s Association and is also linked to the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey (TUSKON), of which the Turkish Businessmen’s Association is an affiliate. Both organizations are self-acknowledged parts of the Gulenist movement.
Since the fall out between Gülen and President Erdoğan, the Turkish state has persecuted and clamped down on TUSKON as a Gülenist front.
But the links are more specific. Vuslat Bayoglu is a former director of Aksan Property Development, which constructed the Nizamiye Mosque in Midrand, South Africa, said to be the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere, and the center of Gulenist activity. It was constructed with funding from a wealthy Turkish businessman residing in South Africa, Ali Katircioglu, whose son was married to Gülen’s niece.
Bayoglu is also a former director of Kervan Property Development, along with Mustafa Talat Katircioglu, the son of Ali Katirciglu and brother in law of Gülen’s niece.
Turkish authorities have placed Mustafa Katircioglu at number 36 on a list of the 74 most influential members of what it calls the Fethulleh Gülen Terrorist Organization. The 74 on the list have been charged by Turkish prosecutors for their active participation in the movement.
There are other common forensic threads that connect Bayoglu and the Gülen movement. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook posts connect him to a large number of Gulenist associates. Shared Posts from Bayoglu’s Facebook account are virulently critical of the Turkish government and explicitly pro-Gülen.
One of his arms companies, Milinvest, was originally called Naldorite. The Twitter account of the first director of the company, Ali Ihsan Naldoken, regularly posts material from the Gülenist Turquoise Harmony Institute.
There are other connections that independently confirm the link. Title deeds show that one of Bayoglu’s mining companies, Sumo Coal, donated a farm to the Horizon Educational Trust, which runs the Hizmet schools in South Africa.
Publicity material put out by Sumo Coal mentions support for the Moonlight International School, an operating name for a Gülenist school.
There are multiple links to the Gülenist movement that make one question why Bayoglu bothers to disguise his connection.
The movement into the arms industry has happened at a point where President Erdogan and the ruling AKP, once staunch allies of Gülen, have moved aggressively to close down Gülenist operations worldwide, with special emphasis on Africa.
The schools, the charities, and the dialogue centers are the most visible manifestations of Hizmet. Much less is known about the commercial activities of the Gülenists in Africa, who shun publicity.
Gülen is not a shareholder in any of the companies that are owned and run by his followers, and there is no central authority that links the movement as a whole. Though it has a strong Islamic leaning, the Hizmet movement does not seek to proselytize or convert non-Muslims in Africa.
But the agenda of the organization is far from clear, and its activities are marked by extreme secretiveness. Do Gülenist businesses exist to support a philanthropic agenda, or are the many schools and charitable organizations a front for business or some other agenda?
In 2014, Gülenists operated over a hundred primary, middle, and secondary schools in 35 African countries. Since the July 2016 coup, that number has been much reduced following a campaign by Erdoğan to entice African leaders to replace Gülenist operations with AKP-sanctioned bodies.
The successful closure of the school in Gambia provided a template for how to lure countries away from their local Hizmet operations. Acknowledging that Hizmet investment has benefitted host populations and economies, President Erdoğan has offered a carrot rather than a stick, inciting countries to ditch their resident Gülenists by stepping up the Turkish aid agenda, opening new embassies, and establishing new Turkish Airlines routes.
In September 2016, the Turkish government formed the publicly financed Maarif Foundation to lessen the sting of giving up Hizmet educational investments by creating a replacement investor. Thus far, the Foundation claims to have opened representative offices in 33 countries and seized 32 Gülen-affiliated schools across the continent.
Turkey has been heavily involved in reconstruction efforts and aid provision in Somalia since 2011. In turn, the Somali cabinet decided just hours after the failed coup to honor the Turkish request to shut down two schools and a hospital. Within a week, all teachers and students had gone home.
Erdoğan has seen similar successes in Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.
However, in some countries where Hizmet is deeply embedded with the power elite, including Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, Erdoğan’s pleas have thus far fallen flat. The Cold War in Africa continues.