The fate of Turkey's Pelican Group in a post-Albayrak AKP
For most people the Pelican Brief recalls a 1992 legal-suspense thriller penned by John Grisham that was later adapted into a film.
The story centers on the fate of a law school student, who penned a report following the killings of two ideologically divergent Supreme Court justices in the United States.
But in Turkey, the Pelican File carries an altogether different meaning. Instead, it serves as a connotation for the Pelican Group, a wing of the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), believed to be led primarily by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's son-in-law and former Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.
But the future of the secretive group, which has gained increasing influence in Turkey by slandering opposition opponents on social networks and spreading disinformation, remains unclear with the unexpected resignation of Albayrak earlier this month.
The Pelican Group first became famous following a
document it released on May 1, 2016, named after Grisham’s “Pelican Brief,” which listed points of contention between Erdoğan and then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
The following month, Davutoğlu stepped down from his post, in a move that was widely interpreted as being sidelined by the president.
A widely held belief is that the group is led by former minister Albayrak and his older brother, Serhat Albayrak, deputy chairman of the pro-government Turkuvaz Media Group.
The group, it is believed, is looking to seat Albayrak as the head of the ruling AKP after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
But according to journalist and former member of the Istanbul-based Bosphorus Global think tank, Fırat Erez, the Pelican Group is as close to Erdoğan as it is to the Albayrak family.
Erez maintains that the group’s head, journalist Suyehb Öğüt and his wife, journalist Hilal Kaplan, give presentations to Erdoğan every three months about the group’s activities.
A 2019 meeting between Erdoğan to Pelican-run Bosphorus Global, viewed as part the Turkish government's propaganda machine, was seen as proof of close relations between the Turkish president and the group.
Bosphorus Global shared a tweet and photo, highlighting the presence of Erdoğan aide Fahrettin Altun, Bosphorus Centre for Global Affairs Chairman Ögüt, Kaplan and the organisation’s vice-chair, Ceyhun Aksoy.
According to journalist Efe Kerem Sözeri, the Pelican Group targeted Davutoğlu back in June 2015, as evidenced in an article penned by Öğüt in Aktüel Magazine, a publication of the Turkuvaz group.
When we look at the establishment of the Pelican Group, we see documents exposed in 2016 by Turkish hacker group Redhack, which released emails it claimed belonged to Albayrak.
Information revealed in the e-mails showed that academic İdris Kardaş in Sept. 2015 established the Pelican Association. This nformation regarding the association was forwarded to Albayrak not through Kardaş, but Öğüt.
Journalists who reported on the hacked Albayrak emails were sued by Albayrak and consequently jailed for months.
Some of the names suggested to form the board at the time in the email included Öğüt, Kaplan, Salih Tuna, author Sadık Unay, columnist Melik Altınok and an unidentified businessperson among others.
The association had been formed, but there was still a need for a location. A mansion, which came to be known as the Pelican Mansion, was rented for the Bosphorus Centre for Global Affairs.
But everyone knows this think-tank was the public face of the Pelican Group.
Documents revealed by Redhack confirm information released on a blog page dedicated to the Pelican Mansion that the monthly rental for the space was 20,000 liras.
According to journalist Erez, the funding for the rental came through the Medipol, a private hospital group owned by Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca.
The Pelican Group increasingly found a place for itself in the spotlight following Davutoğlu’s 2016 resignation. The group derived its power from the wide net it cast over Turkey, by way of its presence extending from media to the judiciary.
It is a well-known fact that the Pelican Group is not only working against Turkey’s opposition. There are many figures within the Islamist fold they stand against, including some Islamist journalists in the country.
The Pelicanists have been at the centre of many debates around the ruling AKP for years.
An article penned in 2019 by Dilek Güngör in pro-government Daily Sabah, calling attention to the alleged appointment of pro-Gülenist figures to critical positions in the Turkish judiciary prompted harsh criticism from Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül.
A news report in BBC Turkish claimed that the minister was being targeted due to conflict with Albayrak.
After Gül expressed his frustration to Erdoğan, he was frequently seen alongside the Turkish president, which was interpreted as a sign of being taken under Erdoğan’s protection.
The virtual silence of this group, so intertwined with the AKP’s political agenda, following the resignation of Albayrak leaves room for questions about their future.
To this end, recent statements by Erdoğan announcing a new period of reforms in Turkey, including of the judiciary, are noteworthy.
Alican Uludağ from Cumhuriyet wrote in an article dated Dec. 28, 2019 said that the Pelicanist Istanbul judiciary was having problems with the Justice Ministry.
Erdoğan’s reappointment last week of a number of bureaucrats sacked from the Finance Ministry by Albayrak is another development that may not still well with the Pelicanists.
It remains to be seen whether Erdoğan turn his back on the Pelican group. This is possible, bearing mind that Turkey’s strongman has in the past easily sidelined figures even in his closest circle.
Moreover, the prominence of a structure that stands in opposition to the group could jeopardize their place. As Albayrak’s resignation has proven, the group is not as effective as believed because of their inability to tilt the agenda on social media.
There are number of prominent media figures known for their ties to Pelicanists and if the Albayrak family’s wings clipped by Erdoğan, those media figures would switch their loyalties to Erdoğan’s palace overnight.
The resignation of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu - described as Albayrak’s biggest rival– on the other hand, just months ago, had led to pro-Soylu waves on social media to bring him back to the seat.
It would not be surprising for elements within the AKP, or the party’s junior coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to replace the Pelican group should it meet its demise.
Only time will tell how and when such a move might be made.