In addition to Bosphorus Global, there are anonymous accounts that promote pro-Erdogan arguments in the international arena. For example, in July 2016, a few days after the failed coup, a group of users began to circulate a narrative on 4chan that accused Hillary Clinton and the CIA of conspiring with Gulen to topple Erdogan. According to Buzzfeed, these users were ‘extremely likely’ to be AK trolls, although there is no evidence that confirms this claim. That question aside, the 4chan posts were ultimately picked up by American right-wing media outlets Breitbart and The Daily Caller, both of which published their own stories about so-called links between Gulen and the Clinton Global Initiative (Broderick 2019). Subsequent pieces on Breitbart and The Hill similarly claimed that ‘Gulen’s vast global network’ was a ‘cult’ and a ‘dangerous sleeper terror network’. These pieces were penned by Robert Amsterdam, an AKP attorney working on Gulen’s extradition from the US, and Michael Flynn, who at the time received payments from an AKP-affiliated businessman (Amsterdam 2016; Flynn 2016). Shortly after the publication of these pieces, the same pro-Erdogan narrative was picked up by Rudy Giuliani, who began to call for the extradition of Gulen on cable news channels, thus lending the 4chan misinformation campaign a certain level of authority (Broderick 2019).
We do not know whether the anonymous 4chan users planned for American right-wing media and even Trump’s personal attorney to pick up their allegations. Regardless, this episode shows how pro-Erdogan information operations can cross borders by leveraging the political salience of symbols foreign to Turkey’s domestic context and allow operatives to influence public opinion internationally as well as in Turkey.
On various occasions, these international operations have also taken the form of hacking. For example, in March and April 2017, a number of German and Dutch state institutions, political parties and commercial organisations had their websites and social media accounts hijacked. The hackers posted swastikas and a message that read ‘A little #OTTOMANSLAP for you, see you on #Aprill6’under the hashtags #naziholland and #nazigermany. April 16 was the date of the referendum in Turkey that would greatly expand Erdogan’s powers as president. Some AKP ministers had expressed their intention to hold rallies in Germany and the Netherlands in order to mobilise the Turkish diaspora in those countries. When the German and Dutch governments discouraged and/or rejected the ministers, tensions flared, and Erdogan accused the two countries of being ‘Nazi remnants’ and said they would ‘pay the price’ for their treatment of Turkish officials (Jones 2017). To this day, it remains unknown which group(s) carried out the online attacks and whether they were contractors hired by the AKP.
Nationalist hacker groups
Similar nationalistic campaigns have been carried out by groups that openly take responsibility for breaking into foreign websites and social media accounts and are seemingly unaffiliated with the AKP. Amongst these groups is AyYildiz Tim (Star and Crescent Team), which self-identifies as ‘a voluntary lobbying organisation to counteract cyberattacks against Turkey’. AyYildiz Tim hacked the Twitter accounts of former Fox News hosts and contributors and filled their feeds with pro-Erdogan content. The messages they posted in Turkish read, ‘You are hacked by the
Turkish cyber army AyYildiz Tim! We got your DM correspondence! We will show you the power of the Turk!’ and ‘We love the Turks and Muslims in the world. We condemn those who persecute them, especially in the United States, and we share their suffering. We love Turkish soldiers, we love Erdogan, we love Turkey’ (Russo 2018).
Another nationalistic hacker group, Aslan Neferler Tim (ANT) (Lion Soldiers Team) describes its mission as ‘defending the homeland, Islam, nation, flag’ and ‘safeguarding our country in the cyber world’ (Aslan Neferler, n.d.). Informed by ethnic Turkish nationalism, its operations target foreign countries that the group deems threatening to or critical of Turkey. For example, ANT has hacked the website of the Belgian Ministry of Defense, accusing the Belgian government of supporting the PKK, and the websites of Austrian parliament and several ministries and banks because of ‘Austria’s racism against Muslims’ and the Austrian government’s criticism of Turkey’s human rights record (Souli 2018)?