Diplomats, spies, and arms deals: How Turkey grows its soft power in North Africa and beyond

Turkish and other flag

By Akram Kharief

July 15, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung — TİKA, MÜSAID, TÜSAID, SADAT — all of these acronyms are actually the hidden face of Turkey’s global strategy in Africa and North Africa in particular, which has become the site of significant Turkish interventions since 2009 as the country seeks to expand its geopolitical influence in the region and beyond.

The primary reason for Turkey’s strategic shift is the move by some EU countries (mainly France) to block Turkey’s accession to Europe, despite the fact that Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan made great efforts to align his country ideologically with the rest of the EU. In 2002, he accepted Kofi Annan’s peace plan for the reunification of Cyprus and its integration into the EU, and implemented extensive reforms to upgrade the Turkish economy.

Three strategies were designed to satisfy the Turkish appetite for economic expansion: a return to Pan-Turkism by strengthening its presence and cooperation with the Turkish-speaking nations of Central Asia, maritime expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean, and a presence in Africa, which it has pursued aggressively ever since.

Africa as a Proxy Battleground 

Turkey is discretely expanding its presence on the continent, hoping to assert itself as a key geopolitical player. Diplomatically, it has expanded from 12 embassies on the continent in 2009 to 43 by 2021. The largest Turkish embassy in Africa is in Somalia. Bilateral trade has increased from 5.4 billion US dollars in 2003 to 25.3 billion in 2020. Direct Turkish investment in Africa has risen from 100 million dollars in 2003 to 6.6 billion in 2021. Turkish development aid to the continent reached 8.7 billion in 2020. First as prime minister and then as president, Erdoğan has visited Africa 27 times since 2003, while 2005 was celebrated as the “Year of Africa” in Turkey.

The country was conferred observer status by the African Union (AU) that same year, and in 2008 became the AU’s “strategic partner”, co-organizing the first Turkey–Africa Summit in Istanbul. The second summit was held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in 2014, while the third was postponed due to COVID-19. Turkey has also followed China’s lead in building infrastructure across Africa, such as a multi-purpose stadium and an airport in Senegal, an expanded port as well as its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu, and a large mosque in Djibouti.

Since 2015, Turkey has emerged as a rising power in the defence industry. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mesut Cavusoglu, “Turkey’s military base in Somalia and the training of the Somali army are signs of Turkish geopolitical efforts to make Turkey become an important political and military power in the Horn of Africa. In 2020, Turkey also signed agreements with Nigeria in the defence industry”, he says. “Turkey aims to become an economic, humanitarian and military power in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Africa has also become a proxy battleground for Turkish and European rivalries in the Middle East, while its growing presence in sub-Saharan Africa is partly intended to counter the influence of its Middle Eastern rivals, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and to a lesser extent France. Turkey’s obsession with returning to the Red Sea and competing with planned Emirati naval bases in Berbera, Somaliland or Socotra, Yemen and the French bases in Djibouti prompted it to renegotiate the former Ottoman port of Suakin in Sudan.

To a certain extent, this may explain the strong friendship between Turkey and Ethiopia despite the latter’s tug-of-war with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile. According to the Financial Times, of the 6 billion US dollars already invested by Turkish companies in sub-Saharan Africa, 2.5 billion has gone to Ethiopia.

So far, Turkey’s forays into the Sahel have mainly been an expression of soft power projection. Ankara’s activities in the region are mainly focused on development and commercial engagement. While Turkey signed a defence agreement with Niger, Turkish aid and business in Somalia subsequently led to more military engagement, although Turkish engagement there has for the most part been fruitful and not in tension with Western agendas.

Turkey’s rivals often portray its growing presence in African Muslim countries, such as Somalia and Sudan, as ideologically driven — boosting the prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups — or as an attempt to increase its geopolitical influence. This perception is not entirely inaccurate. Ankara’s strong support for Somalis facing a devastating famine in 2011 brought Turkey enormous sympathy from the international community and local populations. It then used this influence to strengthen the interests of its local allies, some of whom belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2017, Ankara opened a military base in Mogadishu, the largest of its kind outside Turkey. The country has also acquired a strong position in a seaport in Mogadishu, which is crucial to its strategy of projecting military power across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Turkey is now one of the most influential foreign actors in Somalia, a role that many Somalis view in a positive light. Faced with the fear of a US return to the region, Turkish forces favour a smooth relationship with the Somali security authorities. Ankara’s main objective seems to be to carry on its projects and investments in the Sahel, paving the way to a new market for Turkish exporters.

Through the opening of embassies in Bamako in 2010 and Ouagadougou and Niamey in 2012, Ankara seeks to appeal to religious and political elites while addressing the needs of struggling populations. In Mali, for example, Turkey built a mosque in an upscale neighbourhood of the capital for the High Islamic Council of Mali, the country’s most powerful religious association, and renovated another in the hometown of former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. The same goes for the city of Agadez in northern Niger, where the Great Mosque and the palace of the Sultan of Aïr have been renovated. This was an opportunity to reinforce Turkey’s historical links with the sultans of the region, the first of whom, according to oral tradition, was born in Istanbul in the 1400s.

Meanwhile, Turkey provided much-needed assistance in the fields of health, water, and education. The country built hospitals in Bamako in 2018 and Niamey in 2019, and fielded mobile clinics in regional Malian cities such as Koulikoro and Sikasso. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), Turkish charities, and NGOs have also worked to improve rural access to religious education and water.

Building the Blue Nation

On 27 November 2019, the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord to establish a common maritime border that would close access to the western Mediterranean to countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. This risk, taken by Ankara in the middle of the Libyan civil war and the “great game” playing out around the North African countries, reflected Turkey’s ambition to once again become an important geopolitical player in the Eastern Mediterranean and acquire the maximum amount of space at the expense of Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt.

The project has a name: Mavi Vatan, the “Blue Nation”, an old Kemalist doctrine now taken up by the ideologues of Erdogan’s Adalat ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), the Turkish ruling party since 2002. The concept emerged in response to the consequences of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the 1970s, and Turkish frustration at the failure of its EU accession process

In 2004, in an article published in the journal Marine Policy, two geographers from the University of Seville attempted to map the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the EU member-states and their maritime borders. The publication of this maritime map raised the ire of the Turks, especially as the map attributed an EEZ to the entire island of Cyprus, ignoring the north of the island claimed by Turkey, and attributed almost the entire Aegean Sea to Greece, leaving very little maritime territory for Ankara.

The task of correcting the map was entrusted to Admiral Cihat Yaycı, who would become the father of the Mavi Vatanconcept, and resulted in the Turkish vision of the EEZ, which claimed a route equidistant with Greece and acknowledging the Turkish status of the northern half of Cyprus. The latter would increase the size of the Turkish EEZ from 200,000 to 462,000 square kilometres, and would allow it to control a third of the Black Sea and a quarter of the eastern Mediterranean.

Unlike most of its neighbouring countries, Turkey has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and has based its maritime boundaries on an alternative vision of the law of the sea, which contends that islands, inhabited or not, do not possess an exclusive economic zone if they are closer to the mainland coast of another state than to that of the state to which they belong, prevent the coastal patrols of another state, or lead to the drawing of inequitable borders.

In addition to reclaiming maritime territory, this “alternative” vision of maritime law has enabled Ankara to block the Transmed gas pipeline between Israel and Greece. Turkey opposes the project and would prefer a gas pipeline through its territory.

This reconfiguration of maritime space has also allowed Ankara to propose to Tripoli a shared maritime zone, which would cut the Mediterranean in two and pave the way for a territorial union between the two countries and an extension of Turkish power in Libya. Signed on 27 November 2019, the agreement formalized Turkey’s military commitment in Libya at the very moment its capital was threatened by an offensive by the Libyan National Army (LNA). A month later, the Turkish army landed hundreds of men and thousands of Syrian mercenaries in Misrata and Tripoli.

Mavi Vatan involves more than a claim to maritime territory. Over the last ten years, it has also accompanied a steady growth of the Turkish Navy, responsible for patrolling the Black Sea, the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean. Despite the size of its claimed EEZ, Turkey has no access to the oceans, which are vital for international trade. It remains dependent on Egypt for access to the Indian Ocean, and on European countries to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. This constraint pushed the Turkish Navy to launch the construction of an aircraft carrier, TCG Anadolu. The project was set back by the cancellation of a contract with the US for F-35s, meaning the ship will now become a drone carrier instead.

Since Erdoğan took power in 2002, the budget allocated to the military has increased significantly, from just over 9 billion US dollars in 2002 to over 15 billion in 2015. With 2.1 percent of GDP allocated to defence, Turkey has joined the select club of NATO members who spend more than 2 percent of GDP on national defence. The Turkish Navy has benefited greatly from this contribution and has been able to launch numerous ship programmes, such as the MILGEM warship programme, in addition to submarines built with German assistance.

Exploiting Ottoman Heritage

Turkey often refers back to its Ottoman past when negotiating with its North African neighbours, adapting its narrative to each country.

Algeria, for example, is regarded as the warrior little sister of the Sublime Porte, with whom it shared centuries of naval victories in the Mediterranean. On 20 November 2018, the Algerian Ministry of Culture and the Turkish Embassy in Algiers inaugurated a monument to Oruç Reïs (known as Baba Arroudj in Algeria), an Ottoman corsair who ruled Algeria in the sixteenth century. Present at the ceremony, which took place in Aïn Temochent in Algeria, was the frigate TCG Oruçreis (F-245), one of the most powerful in the Turkish fleet. It belongs to the Barbaros class of frigates, whose names are all linked to Ottoman Algeria (Barbaros Pasha, Kemal Reïs, Oruç Reïs, and Salah Reïs). The construction and inauguration of the Great Ketchaoua Mosque in Algiers in 2018 was a further instance of geopolitical bridgebuilding through shared history.

The strategy is even more acute in Libya, where two-thirds of the population of Misrata, for example, claim Turkish heritage. Turkish neighbourhoods can be found in many cities in western Libya, such as Tripoli, or even in the Ubari oasis. Tripoli is the site of the tomb of Turgut Reïs, the Ottoman fleet commander killed during the siege of Malta in 1565. Citing these historical ties, Ankara views Misrata and western Libya as its preserve and natural extension in North Africa, and its troops have been officially deployed there since January 2020.

Tunisia has also faced a Turkish charm offensive. Referring to its Ottoman past, Ankara considers Tunisia a “Little Turkey”. The post-revolution opening of Tunisia and the rise of the Ennahda political party, very close to the AKP, have significantly contributed to this development.

Turkey’s Soft Power Toolbox

Politically, Turkey has proven to be a smooth operator. Like Russia and China, Turkey avoids being preachy, which is not to the displeasure of certain African leaders. In the field of crisis resolution, such as in Mali, Turkey advocates “African solutions” or, failing that, UN solutions. It also pushes for better representation of the continent in international institutions.

Where political parties close to the Muslim Brotherhood are active, Turkey finances and organizes their activities through its Alkarama Foundation, which brings together around 100 Islamist associations and parties around the world. Its objective is to assist them in creating a solid base by setting up schools and youth centres, in order to indoctrinate the population over the long term.

Yet that is just one example of how Turkey exercises soft power in North Africa and beyond. Over the last few decades, the country has developed an impressive arsenal of tools to exert influence abroad.

Religion and Education

The minarets will be our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the believers our soldiers.” It was for reciting these belligerent and religious verses by Ziya Gökalp, one of the fathers of Turkish nationalism, that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was convicted of incitement to hatred in 1998. Erdoğan has always used Islam as a political weapon, emphasizing religious affiliation in international relations, driving his rapprochement with distant Indonesia and the Turkish charity operations carried out in Africa.

If a country is Muslim, Turkey provides support for the establishment of religious schools and mosques. The slightest trace of a past linked to Ottoman Islam is highlighted, such as in Algiers or Niger. Another example is the construction of the Great Mosque of Bamako, which has become the headquarters of the Muslim Council, the main religious body in Mali.

The second option is to implant Muslim Brotherhood ideology through funding both Koranic and public schools. The seven Yunus Emre Institutes and the Turkish Maarif Foundation, which is active in 31 African countries, are part of this dynamic. In the aftermath of the 15 July 2016 putsch, the latter took over several schools previously run by the Gülen movement.

The Economy

Turkey’s employer organizations, the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSAID) and the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association (MÜSAID), as well as the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK) are constantly active. They are supported by TİKA, which maintains 22 offices on the African continent and finances numerous projects in construction, agriculture, and health. The agency also renovates monuments from the Ottoman era, such as the Ketchaoua Mosque. It contributes to the construction of Turkey’s brand in the world, and benefits from the direct support of Erdoğan and his wife Emine, who is involved in humanitarian campaigns.

TİKA also provided important support to African countries in dealing with the pandemic. Through its industry, Turkey was able to donate protection equipment and respirators to most African countries. This assistance enabled Turkey to become a key figure in the medical industry and gain market share from the Chinese and Europeans, who later dropped out of the market completely. In North Africa, TİKA supplied thousands of masks and hygiene equipment to combat the pandemic at a time when equipment was in short supply on world markets.

Weapons and Defence

Turkey uses its Bayraktar drone as an armaments ambassador in Africa. Present in Libya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Niger, and Nigeria, the star drone paves the way for Turkish companies. Tunisia chose a drone from Turkish arms manufacturer TAI for its air force.

The four major Turkish arms manufacturers — Aselsan, Havelsan, Roketsan, and TAI — used to focus only on large African markets, such as Algeria, Morocco, and Nigeria. Since the outbreak of the war in Libya, they expanded their business activities to most countries in West and East Africa, with equipment donations and credits. Tunisia, for example, took out a 200-million-dollar equipment credit.

Long avoided by Turkey so as not to upset its relations with Algeria, Morocco has also become an important client since 2020, purchasing drones and armoured vehicles. Rabat is even considering acquiring Turkish Goturk corvettes and T-129 ATAK helicopters.

Turkey has concluded defence agreements with Tunisia, Niger, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana, Tanzania, Cameroon, Morocco, and Ethiopia. These agreements differ from country to country, but all provide for military and technical cooperation with possible technology transfers. The defence agreements with Niger, Ethiopia, and Somalia are the most important, as they provide training for the militaries of these countries both in Turkey as well as in the respective countries, and even the prospect of using these armies as a proxy military force.

The Tunisian case is revealing. For 50 years, the Tunisian army has remained a captive market for French and American military industries. The defence agreement signed in December 2017 in Tunis by presidents Béji Caïd Essebsi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan includes two components: training Tunisian military personnel in Turkey, and above all an agreement on Turkish investments in Tunisia. In other words: an agreement to import Turkish military equipment.

“The defence agreement between Turkey and Tunisia which was signed five years ago has literally saved the Tunisian army from bankruptcy. The loan that we are granting represents a significant contribution to their annual defence budget”, said a Turkish industrialist. This is a “win-win” situation, as it allows Turkish equipment to be exported and sometimes used in combat as part of the fight against terrorism.

Until 2021, Turkey offered no less than 150 million dollars to Tunisia through interest-free loans for the purchase of Turkish military equipment. The Turkish export credit agency Eximbank in particular has financed the operation with up to 80 million dollars. The defence agreement ratified by the Tunisian Ministry of Defence and the Turkish Undersecretary of Defence Industries (SSM) also includes cooperation in the military industry and technology transfer, making Tunis a privileged client of the Turkish military industry in the region.

Turkey had been trying to reproduce the same pattern with Algeria for more than a decade with only limited success, due to the uneven relationship between the two countries. But President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s takeover on 12 December 2020 allowed the Turks to re-enter the Algerian Ministry of Defence, from which they had been expelled in 2019 when it was controlled by General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, former Deputy Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff.

Tebboune’s visit to Ankara on 15 May 2022 confirmed the improvement of military relations and cooperation between the two countries. During a joint press conference with his Algerian counterpart, Erdoğan remarked: “Turkey and Algeria will take firm steps to diversify Algeria’s production sector, which is one of Africa’s gateways to the world, especially in many areas such as political, military, economic, commercial, cultural, and tourism. Turkey will stand by Algeria in all areas.” He went on to specify: “Turkey and Algeria, as major players in peace and stability in Africa, are committed to strengthening cooperation in the defence industry.”

Morocco is also an important client. Back in 2014, Turkish diplomacy was trying to get closer to Rabat to prevent it from developing relationships with the al-Sissi regime in Egypt. At the time, the Moroccan newspaper Al Massaereported that “Turkish diplomats revealed the decision of the Ankara authorities to intensify cooperation with Morocco in the military and defence field, in order to build a united bloc against the growing threats to the Middle East and North Africa region.”

In 2021, Morocco gave in to Turkey’s drone diplomacy, buying a dozen armed drones that would later revolutionize its military policy in the disputed region of Western Sahara, and even its relations with its neighbours, Algeria and Mauritania.

Multilateral Military Cooperation

Turkey hosted the UN Summit on Somalia in Istanbul in May 2010, where it pledged development aid and military assistance to Somalia through military training for Somali soldiers. In February 2012, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that Turkey was ready to provide material and capacity-building resources.

Turkey also sees itself as a legitimate mediator in the country, given its Muslim heritage. To this end, Somalia’s interim Prime Minister Abdulweli Mohamed Ali said that “Since Turkey joined the European Union, Turkey has become a legitimate mediator. You can create peace and stability by working on the security side, but also on the development side at the same time. That is what Turkey is successful at.”

The Turkish presence is also noticeable further south. Not only did Turkey offer air support to the NATO mission in Darfur in 2005 and sign a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation with Sudan in 2006, but its role has increased further since South Sudan’s secession from Sudan in 2011. Following secession, the two Sudans have engaged in frequent and deadly cross-border skirmishes. To this end, Turkey revealed that Sudan recently approached it to mediate between the country and its former enclave.

Turkey has also offered African states considerable technical and training assistance, including in the areas of capacity building and training in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism. Since 2009, Turkey has participated in the counter-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia by the US-led Combined Force 151, which it commanded from May to August 2009 and from September to December 2010. It also participates in Operation Ocean Field, NATO’s counter-piracy mission, and Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2).

In addition to training and policing, Turkey has actually sent its own soldiers to the field, mainly engaged in peacekeeping. By the end of 2012, Turkey had participated in five UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, including in the Ivory Coast (UNOCI), Liberia (UNMIL), the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), Sudan (UNMIS), and the joint AU-UN mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

SADAT: The Turkish Wagner Group?

SADAT International Defense Consultancy is a private military company founded by Melih Tanriverdi and Adnan Tanriverdi, who claimed in the Turkish daily Khabar Tork that the group has been carrying out missions in Libya since 2013. Since the launch of the offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, the private Turkish security company has been lending a hand to Fayez Al-Sarraj’s government. This information was confirmed on Marshal Haftar’s side, where sources indicate that Turkish experts present in Tripoli were dispatched by SADAT to advise the militias or command the Bayraktar drones.

On 17 December 2020, Adnan Tanriverdi gave further details, stating in a newspaper that his country “needs private security companies to employ mercenaries”. He added without hesitation: “If Turkey sends mercenaries to Libya, it will be more effective than Wagner or Blackwater.”

SADAT “supervises and provides payment for some 5,000 pro-GNA Syrian fighters in Libya”, the Pentagon wrote at the time. Well-known for his multiple relations with Islamist groups in Arab countries, Adnan Tanriverdi recently claimed that his company’s mission was to “identify the dangers that threaten the Islamic world”. Specifically, he revealed that the company was training the Free Syrian Army, now renamed the Syrian National Army, whose members are being sent to fight in Libya. General Tanriverdi told the Turkish press that the Syrian National Army as merely the “armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood”. SADAT was reportedly deployed in Libya, Chad, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

Turkish Airways

The Turkish airline operates flights to the majority of African capitals, with a total of 52 cities on the continent enjoying a direct connection to Istanbul. For 30 of these countries, it is the only air hub to Asia and the Americas. Turkish Airways has been the only airline to fly to war-torn countries such as Libya and Somalia, making it both indispensable and a perfect intelligence-gathering tool.

The proximity of the Turkish national carrier to the ruling AKP party has made it strategic for President Erdoğan. The construction of the new Istanbul airport is part of this strategy to compete with Qatar and especially Dubai on a global scale.

Turkey in the Twenty-First Century

Turkey is attempting to create a new image for itself in international affairs, using its soft power and diplomatic influence to prove that it can be an asset to the twenty-first century world order. As such, the world is likely to see a more assertive Turkey in African and North African politics in particular, which it considers part of its Mediterranean living space.

Turkey also engages in conflict resolution, particularly in the Muslim states of the African continent. The African and North African states also appear to be open to the new Turkish presence. Without endangering their growing relations with China, African states openly welcome Turkey as a military and commercial partner and, in the case of Somalia, as one of the strongest international allies they have. This new friendship, combined with the US strategy of partnering with both sides, shows the benefits of the new Turkish-African engagement in the near- and long-term future.

Meanwhile, the Russian offensive in Ukraine raises the question of a Turkish presence in Libya and in the Sahel. Some NATO members view it as a real opportunity for the Atlantic alliance to counter Moscow’s plans on the African continent.

Washington is also closely monitoring the relationship between Ankara and Moscow in Africa, and is keen to see the establishment of numerous Turkish military bases in Libya. Although relations are not always smooth between Turkey and the US, Washington appreciates Ankara’s aggressiveness in the field of arms sales, which pushes back against China and Russia in the region, and serves to impose technologies and doctrines identical to those of the US.

Akram Kharief is a project manager for peace and security at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office in Tunis and a co-founder of MENA Defense, a regional publication specializing in defence and security issues.