Sarajevo (02/08 – 40.00) Huseyin Cakalli lives hundreds of kilometres away from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but he is still considered to be an authority by members of the organisation that he established in the Balkan country.
Cakalli is the founder of an informal Bosnian branch of a Turkish far-right group known as the Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar), some of whose members support neo-fascist ideas. The Grey Wolves are officially called Idealist Hearths (Ulku Ocaklari) and their organisation is affiliated with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, which is an ally of the Turkish ruling party.
Cakalli agreed to meet a BIRN journalist in the city of Sanliurfa, popularly known as Urfa, in the far south-east of Turkey, near the Syrian border. He used to study architecture in Bosnia, and after returning to his home country, he set up a company in Urfa, a city of two million people. Photos posted on his social media accounts emphasise three main topics – his marriage to a Bosniak woman, the Grey Wolves’ activities in Bosnia and his closeness with the mayor of Urfa.
Searching through hundreds of photos on social media prior to the interview, BIRN managed to identify several members of the organisation and their activities.
BIRN’s research showed that Cakalli started out in his mission to create a Grey Wolves branch in Bosnia by making contacts with members of the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, the main Bosniak nationalist party. The branch is now being run by younger people whose work he controls.
He maintains his political connections, however; he was among those who met the mayor of Sarajevo, Social Democratic Party (SDP) member Benjamina Karic, during her recent visit to Urfa.
Cakalli invited BIRN’s journalist to talk in the local office of the MHP, the far-right party that has 47 MPs in the Turkish parliament and supports the ruling Justice and Development Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The small room on the third floor of the office where the interview took place was decorated with the flags of the MHP and the Grey Wolves.
Cakalli condemned the ban on the Grey Wolves’ activities in France and the prohibition of the use of its salute in Austria and proposals in the US and the EU to declare it a terrorist organisation.
He argued that these moves are unfair when compared to how Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Ankara of leading a terrorist organisation responsible for a failed coup attempt in 2016, is treated by the West. “We always face accusations from EU countries, but Gulen doesn’t,” he said.
The Turkish authorities have been criticised for using the failed coup in 2016 as an excuse for a wide-ranging crackdown on the opposition and media that has seen thousands of alleged ‘Gulenists’, members of the cleric’s movement, arrested and jailed.
But in the interview with BIRN, Cakalli proudly declared that he personally took part in the search for Gulenists in Bosnia. “I reported Gulenists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I called the local police. They came and asked who they are,” he explained.
He said that he regarded this as a natural thing to do because he considers the activities of the Grey Wolves to be an extended arm of Turkish official policy.
‘Inciting discrimination and hatred’
The authorities in Ankara had hoped that their good relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina would help to convince Sarajevo in 2018 and 2019 to extradite suspected Gulenists so they could be put on trial.
But the extraditions that President Erdogan expected to be facilitated were stopped by the Bosnian state court, which rejected the requests saying that the United Nations had not officially declared Gulen’s movement to be a terrorist organisation, which was a precondition for Bosnia and Herzegovina to accept this definition.
Turkish citizens who had been labelled by the Ankara authorities as Gulenists fled Bosnia in fear, not knowing whether or not Sarajevo’s attitude might change in the future.
Cakalli said he was disappointed by the court’s decision, arguing that Gulen’s followers should have been detained because “if he betrayed my country, he will do the same to [Bosnians] tomorrow”.
The Grey Wolves have come under criticism in recent years in the various EU countries in which they are active. France imposed a ban in 2020 because the organisation’s members used hate speech and political violence in their ongoing dispute with the country’s ethnic Armenians. Turkish nationalists furiously reject Armenians’ insistence that the World War II massacres of their ethnic kin by the Ottoman Turks constituted genocide.
French Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin said that the Turkish organisation “incites discrimination and hatred and is implicated in violent actions”. The Turkish foreign ministry described the ban as “disgraceful”.
In the Netherlands and Germany, there are also initiatives to ban the Grey Wolves completely, while the European Parliament has urged EU member countries to declare it a terrorist group.
A European Parliament resolution in 2021 described the Grey Wolves as right-wing racists. The resolution warned that the organisation has been growing in Europe and needed to be closely monitored.
“It is especially threatening for people with a Kurdish, Armenian or Greek background and anyone they consider an opponent,” it said.
“For them, we are barbarians,” said Cakalli. But he insisted that the organisation is blameless: “They have no arguments for telling us that we are bad. We have the support of our state, [so] they can do and say whatever they want.”
In 2018, Austria added the Grey Wolves’ hand salute to its list of banned symbols. The organisation remains active in the country, as highlighted in 2020, when Grey Wolves members sparked clashes at a peaceful gathering of a Kurdish women’s organisation in Vienna which aimed to highlight the increasing number of femicides in Turkey and Austria.
In another indication of their closeness to the Turkish government, their so-called ‘wolf salute’ has occasionally been used in public by senior Turkish politicians including President Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
The executive director of Counter Extremism Project, David Ibsen, described the Grey Wolves as a “international fascist, Turkish nationalist, and pan-Turkic organisation and movement”
Ibsen explained that Turkish nationalists view the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan wars as a great tragedy that they still cannot accept, which is why they are seeking to consolidate their influence in the region.
“The Turkish state also invests in restoring mosques and historical buildings from the Ottoman period in the Balkans, which can be viewed as part of the soft-power expansion of neo-Ottomanism,” he said. He added that the activities of the Grey Wolves are probably part of this political agenda too.
Children’s clothes and slaughtered sheep
After he moved to Bosnia, Cakalli called the Grey Wolves’ central office in Turkey about setting up a branch in Bosnia. He said he was asked if this would create “a state-level problem”.
“They said if there will not be a state-level, national problem, you can pursue it. I spoke to the [Turkish] embassy [in Sarajevo], and they said: ‘Pursue it,’” Cakalli said.
Around this time, according to articles and photographs posted on the internet, the then Bosnian consul in Turkey, Hrvoje Kanta, met representatives of the Grey Wolves in Istanbul. BIRN was unable to get a comment from the consul about the meeting.
The Turkish embassy in Sarajevo and the Bosnian Foreign Ministry also did not respond to BIRN’s queries about the establishment of the Grey Wolves branch in Bosnia and the consul’s meeting in Istanbul.
Cakalli said that the Grey Wolves’ Ankara office appointed him the president of the unregistered Bosnian branch in 2014.
Since then the organisation has been involved in what it described as humanitarian activities, such as collecting clothing to give to children and distributing meat at Eid.
Its members don’t conceal their activities in the country, and the organisation has a Facebook page which has more than 5,000 followers, although the most recent post dates back to 2018.
Posts started to be published in 2020 on an Instagram page named Bosna – Hersek Ulku Ocaklari (Idealist Hearths Bosnia and Herzegovina). One photo posted in July last year depicts Cakalli holding up a banner advertising the ritual slaughter of animals for feasting on the Muslim holiday of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan. He said that the organisation has been running this project for almost a decade.
“I was there for nine Eids, I slaughtered a total of 160 sheep and seven bulls and distributed them throughout Bosnia, not only where the Muslims are,” he said.
Although he no longer lives in Bosnia, Cakalli said wants to use his return home to Turkey to establish contacts that will help the organisation, which is still operating in his absence.
Political connections in Turkey and Bosnia
The Idealist Hearths organisation has never been officially registered in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Cakalli said that this is because it was difficult to fulfil the bureaucratic requirements.
Cakalli insisted however that all the organisation’s activities are in line with Bosnian regulations, and asked BIRN’s Turkish translator to convey that nothing illegal has been done and that the organisation has only been involved in humanitarian work.
However, according to Bosnian law, in order to be involved in humanitarian efforts and collect money, a registered association must be set up, and all financial matters must be properly documented.
Ibsen explained that the Grey Wolves integrate themselves into poorer communities by doing community activities and humanitarian work.
“This allows them to recruit or, at the very least, ingratiate themselves with locals who will then support their existence and mission,” he said.
Even without official registration, Cakalli said hopes that new members in Bosnia will carry on the organisation’s humanitarian efforts.
At the beginning of the year, several members had their photograph taken in the city of Travnik doing the ‘wolf salute’, saying they were carrying out Cakalli’s assignments. One of the people in the photograph was Samil Duman, the Turkish national kickboxing champion, who has been in Bosnia for at least six months.
Posts on the Wolves’ page imply that Duman is Cakalli’s deputy. Duman initially agreed to be interviewed by BIRN, but later stopped answering his phone.
The Grey Wolves are well-connected in Turkey through the MHP and Erdogan’s ruling party. One of the Turks who attended the organisation’s meetings in Bosnia was Bekir Sengoz, who was also studying in the country. Sengoz is the son of longstanding MHP member Metin Sengoz.
Asked about political connections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cakalli said the organisation operates independently, but cooperation with politicians is necessary to achieve any bigger goals.
“If we open a school, who will help? A politician. I cannot talk to the minister on my own, I must first make a project, an argument. I go to my politician, I say we want to do that. If I go alone, the minister will say, ‘Who are you?’” he said.
A day after BIRN’s visit to Sanilurfa, a delegation from the City of Sarajevo arrived on the invitation of mayor Zeynel Abidin Beyazgul.
Shortly afterwards, Cakalli posted on Twitter that, on the invitation of Beyazgul, he met Sarajevo mayor Benjamina Karic of the Social Democratic Party.
“Good days are very close for Sanilurfa,” Cakalli wrote.
Asked about the mayor being photographed in Sanilurfa with a member of an extremist organisation, the City of Sarajevo insisted there was no official meeting.
“The delegation of the City of Sarajevo held meetings and visits exclusively with the mayor [of Sanilurfa] and representatives of the administration,” it said in a written response to BIRN.
Talking to the authorities is what Cakalli expects to be key to the development of the Grey Wolves in Bosnia, enabling them to implement projects, open schools and organise other activities.
While he was the leader of the Bosnian branch, he cooperated with Rizvan Halilovic, who was the president of Bosfor Association of Bosnian-Turkish Friendship and a member of the Party of Democratic Action.
When Halilovic died, Cakalli expressed his condolences, saying that the politician had offered support to the Bosnian branch of the Grey Wolves.
“He helped us a lot, we spoke to him about relief efforts. He helped us distribute charity donations from a man from Turkey,” Cakalli said, adding that Halilovic was friends with “our president”.
“He liked [our] programme a lot, that is how we met,” he said.
The Party of Democratic Action did not respond to BIRN’s request for an interview.
Security institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina also did not respond to BIRN’s query about whether they are familiar with the Grey Wolves’ activities.