When the Carter and Reagan administrations began supporting Islamists in Afghanistan, few policymakers recognized the Pandora’s box they were opening. The great global threat, after all, was Communism. And even if radical Islamism was a threat — as early as 1946, the U.S. intelligence community predicted it would be — Afghanistan was half a world away.
While the notion that the Pentagon and the CIA once allied themselves with the Taliban or al-Qaeda is a popular but achronological myth, the blowback from Cold War support for Islamists is hard to dispute. Hand-wringing about Islamist terrorism and the post–9/11 “global war on terrorism” created a smokescreen that obscured China’s rise and distracted from Russia’s resurgence.
Cold War leaders may have chosen to weaponize Islamism against Communism, but they did not create it. Extremism comes in many sectarian shades and has evolved independently against a sense of malaise within various Muslim societies, sometimes because of European inroads and imperialism, and sometimes for entirely different reasons. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1791) preached a conservatism in central Arabia in order to reverse moral decline among his contemporary society and to return Islam to its fundamentals. Such Wahhabism was austere and extreme but, like Arabia’s interior, largely irrelevant in the broader Islamic world.
That changed in the second half of the 20th century when Saudi Arabia became the world’s top oil exporter. The late historian Bernard Lewis explained what happened next, as Saudi Arabia used its petrodollars to fuel extremism. “Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas,” Lewis explained. “And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.”
In Congress and in the broader foreign-policy establishment today, Saudi Arabia is a political football. Americans rightly resent both the complicity of some Saudi officials in the 9/11 terror attacks and subsequent efforts by the executive branch to suppress the information. Recent Saudi behavior has also been poor, whether it is arresting bloggers such as Raif Badawi, murdering columnist and former intelligence operative Jamal Khashoggi, or killing civilians in Yemen. But, as my colleague Danielle Pletka notes, “Saudi Arabia has been a problematic ally since the beginning,” but “arguably Saudi Arabia today is better than it has been in many years. For its part, Iran is worse.”
She is right. Saudi Arabia changed, not in reaction to 9/11 but after al-Qaeda terrorists began targeting the kingdom itself in 2003. Today, the most vociferous criticism of Saudi radicalism is directed against Saudi activities in the period before 2003 rather than in more recent years.
Saudi Arabia and its allies the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain may be authoritarian, but they do not promote and no longer tolerate radicalism. Turkey and Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state, are today the chief engines for Islamic extremism.
Qatar is predictable but not creative: Whenever there is conflict within a Muslim society, it bankrolls the most extreme elements, be they in Gaza, Libya, or Syria. Turkey plays a much longer game. Consider Africa: After failing with “Zero Problems with Our Neighbors” and neo-Ottomanism, and having become toxic throughout much of Europe and the Middle East, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his sights on Africa. Western diplomats may focus on more immediate disputes about Turkey’s arms purchases, its place in NATO, and its human-rights violations, but they largely ignore Erdoğan’s aggressive, expensive, and ideological campaign across the African continent.
The ‘Turkey–Africa Partnership’
In 2008, the African Union formally declared Turkey to be a strategic partner, and five years later Turkey inaugurated a “Turkey–Africa Partnership” initiative. Erdogan has become perhaps the most frequent non-African leader to visit the continent. In the first four years after assuming Turkey’s presidency in 2014, he visited 20 African states and hosted 30 heads of state in Turkey. Turkey also inaugurated regular Turkey–Africa summits, twice in Istanbul and once in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. Between 2008 and 2018, Turkey almost quadrupled the number of embassies and consulates it had on the continent.
Turkey’s initial strategy began with both investment and aid. Between 2000 and 2013, Turkish trade with sub-Saharan Africa increased exponentially, to $7.5 billion. If North Africa and the Maghreb are thrown into the mix, Turkish trade was more than double even that figure. Seldom did a high-level Turkish official visit Africa without a delegation of businessmen in tow. It was a strategy that paid off in Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania. State-owned Turkish Airlines leapt ahead of competitors and now ranks second in the number of cities served in Africa. This was part of a deliberate strategy to make Istanbul a hub for Africa. Turkey’s Anadolu Agency established a major bureau in Ethiopia and several others across the continent.
As Turkey has invested in Africa, it has sought to promote itself and more-extreme Islamist interpretations at the expense of the West and the post–World War II liberal order. That Africa can trust only Turkey is a constant theme of Turkish rhetoric. The Daily Sabah, a mass-circulation paper seized by Erdogan’s government and transferred to a company controlled by his son-in-law, suggested that the United Nations stole $55 billion meant for Somalia, and that was only one example. Cemalettin Kani Torun, a parliamentarian from Erdogan’s own party, Justice and Development (AKP), told the Daily Sabah that, while all Turkish aid goes to Africa, the U.N. siphons off more than 80 percent of donations for its own bureaucracy.
Erdogan’s court journalists often contrast a generous, benevolent Turkey with destructive Western colonialism. Erdogan himself wrote that “Turkey, unlike other colonial powers, has a history in Africa with no dark chapters,” a claim that the Ottoman-colonized peoples of North Africa and those seized by Ottoman slave traders from the Great Lakes region of Africa might dispute. Ilnur Cevik, a journalist who accompanied Erdogan on a state visit to the Côte d’Ivoire, continued that theme: “The Africans see clearly that the Turks are here as partners,” he wrote in the Daily Sabah in 2016, “as brothers and sister, and not as the people who came from the West to exploit their rich resources and oppress them.” He argued that Turkey has become a symbol for all anti-imperialists. As for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, according to Cevik, the founder of modern Turkey was the source of inspiration for Africans against the colonialists and oppressors.” Erdogan has declared Turkey’s goal to be to “heal the wounds” caused by outside, non-Turkish powers.
For Erdogan, Islam has been a foundation on which to build ties. “The Muslims of Africa see us as the bastion of the Islamic faith and have high expectations of Turkey,” Cevik explained. “We cannot let them down. We have to help them develop their system of educating Muslim clergy who will not only serve the people but also teach the people the true Islam in its purest form.” In its outreach, Turkey has promoted Islamist causes in countries ranging from the Central African Republic (which is majority-Christian) to Sudan (whose leader Erdogan embraced despite a genocide indictment) to Chad (where the Turkish ambassador suggested that al-Qaeda were not terrorists).
Many in the West know the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri ve Insani Yardım Vakfı, IHH) only for its role in the Mavi Marmara flotilla, but IHH has become a major Turkish partner in Africa. It is also a major front for al-Qaeda and for violent extremism more broadly. By 2015, the group boasted 10,000 volunteers available for international missions, mostly in Africa. While the Turkish Red Crescent regularly partners with IHH, its activities focus as much on proselytizing as on aid. The Daily Sabah, for example, ran a story in which IHH activities in Somalia were described as helping children “feel the brotherly ties between Muslims.”
The IHH agenda has become the rule rather than the exception for Turkish aid. Turkish organizations have distributed aid in northern Nigeria, for example, where Boko Haram has launched a debilitating insurgency and terrorist campaign. At the same time, Turkey appeared to distribute arms covertly to the Islamist radicals.
After the break between Erdogan and ally-turned-adversary Fethullah Gulen in 2013, the Turkish government demanded of African countries to close Gulen-affiliated schools and expel his followers. Erdogan was open about this agenda. In June 2016, the parliament created the Maarif Foundation, a pro-AKP organization coordinated by the education and foreign ministries. It is the sole entity authorized to provide a Turkish education abroad. Turkish newspapers provided regular updates on the progress of the Maarif Foundation in assuming control of Gulen schools abroad. Erdogan now ironically replicates Gulen’s strategy, albeit with a more Muslim Brotherhood than Anatolian Islam bent, as he builds a network of elites sympathetic to his own views.
Erdogan’s government has also established a network of institutes named after a 13th-century Turkish poet Yunus Emre, to facilitate education exchange. By April 2018, the program had brought 16,000 students from 160 countries to Turkey on full scholarships. As Erdogan promised Turks that he would “raise a religious generation” at home, he also sought to do so abroad, bringing to Turkey not only university students but junior-high and high-school students as well. Pro-AKP newspapers ran glowing stories about African participants who converted to Islam while in the program.
Beyond training and indoctrinating students, Turkey is also seeking to create a new generation of military officers on the continent. Turkey’s base in Mogadishu has become its major military center in Africa. As headquarters of the Turkish Task Force Command, it hosts a permanent contingent of 200 troops and has provided military training for the “African Eagles,” training 500 Somali and other African troops at any given time, with the aim to train over 10,000. SADAT, a Turkish Islamist paramilitary group founded by Erdogan adviser Adnan Tanriverdi, which has provided financial and military support to Hamas, also provided training so that, in the future, Turkey will have a cadre of Islamist paramilitary soldiers on whom it can call as it supports various movements on the African continent.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
A half century ago, Saudi Arabia pumped money to extremist organizations across the globe while, for the sake of diplomatic nicety and strategic convenience, the United States stayed silent. Today, Turkey is doing the very same thing, trying to radicalize a generation of Africans through a combination of aid, anti-Western propaganda, religious indoctrination, and military training. That the United States and Europe turn a blind eye toward Turkey’s African agenda effectively cedes to Erdogan the strategic advantage on the second-largest continent in terms of both population and land area.
Analysts and diplomats may debate how lasting Erdogan’s legacy on Turkey will be after his retirement, removal, or death. If they limit their discussions to Turkey, however, they will miss the larger picture. Earlier Turkish foreign-policy initiatives focused on the Middle East have failed, but Turkey’s turn toward Africa has had an impact that will only grow more significant with time. What Saudi Arabia was to Islamic extremism across the Arab world in the late 20th century, Turkey could be to Africa in the 21st.