By Ahmet S. Yayla
In late September, a Turkish hacker group, RedHack, released the emails of Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources and the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Hackers have claimed that they downloaded around 20 gigabytes of data from Albayrak’s email accounts.
As the group started to release the emails through social media, controversial issues have been brought to the surface once again. The Turkish government was quick to react, immediately issuing a court order prohibiting the release of the hacked emails and their publication in the media. The issuance of the court order, however, lends credence to the authenticity of the leaked emails. One of the most contentious issues uncovered with the leaked email communications and documents was the transfer of oil controlled by the so-called Islamic State and the Erdoğan family’s involvement via a company named Powertrans.
After Turkish military shot down a Russian war plane on Nov. 24, 2015, tensions between Turkey and Russia increased. The Russian government imposed sanctions to Turkey, banned tourism, and halted trade between two countries, in addition to releasing satellite images and other documents allegedly providing evidence for oil trade between Turkey and the Islamic State. The Russian defense ministry accused Erdoğan and his family of direct involvement in this illegal oil trade. In response, Erdogan vowed to resign if Russia’s claims were true.
Prior to the advances of the recent coalition air campaign, the Islamic State controlled about 60 percent of Syrian oil fields, producing 50,000 barrels of oil a day, and about 17 percent of Iraq’s oil fields, producing 30,000 barrels of oil a day. At roughly $40 per barrel, oil generated a steady income of $3.2 million a day at the height of the group’s production.
This production raised the question of who was buying and transporting this illicit oil. According to U.S. Department of the Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen, the oil was sold through a variety of middlemen, including some from Turkey, and was then mixed with legally-produced oil. Cohen stated, “Some of the oil emanating from territory where ISIL operates has been sold to Kurds in Iraq, and then resold into Turkey.” Additionally, a report by Rystad Energy commissioned by the Norwegian government determined that most of the oil sold by the Islamic State was directly sold to Turkey.
Based on the Russian satellite images, Islamic State oil entered Turkey via three different paths. The western path involved the transfer of oil from Raqqa through Azaz, a city in northwestern Syria, to Iskenderun port on the Mediterranean. The northern path is a busy one, with oil coming from Deir ez-Zor and transferred to Turkey by tankers. One satellite image from Oct. 18, 2015 shows 1,722 tankers in a queue carrying oil. The eastern path involved oil from the northeast of Syria transferred to northern Iraq and then sent to Turkey through Cizre, a town near Turkey’s border with Syria. A satellite imagefrom Nov. 14, 2015 shows 1,104 tankers along this route. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov stated that over 8,500 tankers transporting up to 200,000 tons of oil used to enter Turkey and Iraq from Islamic State-controlled territories daily. In order for oil to be transported along these routes, a large network of operations must have been set up in Turkey.
The background of this scheme to transfer oil by tanker starts with the privileges given to a company called Powertrans to transfer northern Iraqi oil to Turkey starting on Aug. 24, 2012. The Erdoğan government passed a bill on Nov. 11, 2011 prohibiting all import, export, or transfer of oil or its byproducts into or out of Turkey. The bill stated that the government could then revoke the ban in specific cases for the benefit of the country. This exception allowed the state to grant a single company the rights of oil transportation. The Erdoğan government soon contracted the rights of oil transfer to a company named Powertrans without a public bid.
Based on documents released by Redhack, Powertrans was established by Ahmet Muhassiloglu and Grand Fortune Ventures, and was registered at an Istanbul address. However, soon after Powertrans was established, Muhassiloglu’s shares were sold to a Singaporean company named Lucky Ventures on April 21, 2011. It was later revealed that Grand Fortune Ventures and Lucky Ventures were established as front companies in Singapore on Aug. 8, 2008, and they moved their operations to the British Virgin Islands on Nov. 7, 2009. It was unclear who owned these companies, and therefore who owned Powertrans. Still, Powertrans was granted the privileges to carry oil from northern Iraq through Turkish oil pipelines and ports.
As the Islamic State oil became available in 2014, Powertrans took the opportunity to set up schemes to transfer the oil to the Batman refinery in Turkey and to the Turkish international ports of Mersin, Dortyol, and Ceyhan.
The Turkish public was not aware of this structure for a long time. The first time it attracted heated media attention was on May 23, 2014, when the Iraqi government officially complained to the International Chamber of Commerce about Turkey because of Powertrans’ illegal oil trade. The Erdoğan government immediately passed another bill to extend the rights of Powertrans to transfer oil until Dec. 30, 2020—most likely in an effort to preempt a public backlash. Still, not much attention was given to Powertrans until mid-2015, when international news outlets started to investigate the Islamic State’s oil dealings. Turkish Nokta news journal published a detailed investigative article about Powertrans’ business, claiming that Çalık Holding and its CEO Berat Albayrak were behind the company. Albayrak immediately denied this allegation.
The documents released by RedHack provide evidence that Albayrak was, and still is, unofficially running the company. The documents also revealed that Albayrak’s cousin, Ekrem Keles, used to work for Çalık Holding as the coordinator for sales and marketing. Keles sent an email to Albayrak on Aug. 9, 2015 reporting on the company’s marketing in northern Iraq. Another important figure who emailed Albayrak often was Betül Yılmaz, who did not have official ties with Powertrans but was the human resources manager of Çalık Holding. Yılmaz communicated with Albayrak frequently via email to get approval for personnel issues. On Dec. 11, 2015 Albayrak wrote to his lawyer regarding a press release responding to a news report naming him as the owner of Powertrans. He asked his lawyer to edit the line by the lawyer stating, “his client has no longer had ties with Powertrans.” Albayrak got upset, firing back at his lawyer, “What does it mean? … I have never had any ties with this company!”
The RedHack email releases supported allegations about the Erdoğan family’s illicit and corrupt business activities, which included granting opportunities and contracts without public bids to concealed companies and transferring and selling Islamic State oil. This amounts to providing the terror network with the funds to pay its fighters, to purchase weapons and explosives, and to incite violence around the world. While members of the Erdoğan family were making millions of dollars through shady business activities, their dealings with the Islamic State facilitated brutal killings and displacement of people in Syria and Iraq.
Ahmet S. Yayla is the deputy director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and co-author of the book ISIS Defectors: Inside the Terrorist Caliphate.