Turkish Tweets Turn Heads

Ambassador to Chad criticizes France, downplays al Qaeda on social media site

Ahmet Kavas, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan /Twitter, AP
February 27, 2013

A senior Turkish diplomat is facing criticism after declaring that "Al-Qaeda is very different from terror" and accusing the French of intentionally exaggerating the terrorist threat in Mali.

"The word ‘terror’ is a French invention. Not the work of Muslims," Ahmet Kavas, Turkey’s ambassador to Chad, stated via Twitter last month as French forces entered Mali in a bid to impede encroaching Islamist fighters.

"Al-Qaeda is very different from terror," Kavas added in comments interpreted by lawmakers and journalists to mean that he views the global terror group as a legitimate resistance movement—a position that is at odds with Ankara’s official government line.

Turkish lawmakers launched a parliamentary inquiry aimed at forcing the ambassador to explain himself. The comments highlight simmering political divisions in Turkey, a country that has frequently straddled the line between Western ally and extremist outpost.

Kavas is considered a close ally of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has increasingly taken to appointing his politically inexperienced supporters to high-level government jobs.

Kavas’ tweets came in quick succession on Jan. 25, as French and Malian forces fought to subdue Islamist fighters.

The ambassador suggested that the French inflated the number of Islamist fighters in order to deceive the public and claimed that African al Qaeda fighters were in cahoots with the West.

"Strategists are saying that the Al-Qaeda in Maghreb is the toy in Africa of the French and Algerian intelligence services," he wrote.

France claims that terrorists "will capture the uranium market and they will sell it to others," Kavas also tweeted, according to a translation of his remarks performed by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). "Oh the Islamist terrorists, who are you? Serving to such extent the interests of France."

Kavas suggested the French are trying to steal the beleaguered African country’s natural resources.

"Oh France. Gold, oil, uranium, diamonds, cement, prosperous lands," he tweeted. "The poor Malis, it doesn’t matter if they are from Bambara or Tuareg, they would choke on them."

Kavas then claimed that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.

"Terror and Islam are two words that are the most distant to one another," wrote Kavas, who worked as a theology professor before becoming a diplomat. "France is like an acrobat on a tight rope, holding an ‘Islamist terrorist’ stick to maintain balance. There is no other."

Kavas downplayed the threat posed by Islamist forces in Mali, which are believed to have terrorized the civilian population as they sought to forcefully impose a militant interpretation of Islam.

"They [the French or the West] claim that there are 3,000 to 6,000 militants," Kavas tweeted. "What would that many militants eat and drink in [the northern town of] Azawad? The 300/500 number is very reasonable."

Kavas concluded that the French are fear mongering.

"Where are these ‘Islamist terrorists’ coming from, nobody knows the source," he tweeted. "Lots of rumors. Their numbers are exaggerated. Armed men, they scare people everywhere."

Kavas’ remarks sparked a row in the Turkish press, as well as in its government.

Leaders in Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), launched an inquiry last week to investigate the errant tweets, according to reports.

Columnists in Turkey’s leading Hurriyet Daily News also condemned Kavas’ tweets as dangerous and misguided.

Kavas’ opinions are "shared by many Turkish officials, but this conviction has not been reflected in the official line," columnist Barcin Yinanc wrote in a recent column.

"Obviously it is not proper for an ambassador to write such tweets," a senior government official told Yinanc.

Semih Idiz, another Hurriyet columnist, declared that Kavas had "stepped on a political banana peel, angering the French and casting a shadow over Ankara’s drive to muster international support against terrorism."

The appointment of government outsiders such as Kavas has become increasingly common in the Erdogan-backed Justice and Development Party, also known as the AKP, observers said.

"The Turkish Government has recently been making such appointments of outsiders, close to AKP government, diverging from the traditional practice of appointing career diplomats from within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," MEMRI wrote in an unpublished report on Kavas’ comments.

Kavas favors "establishing close ties with Africa as in the Ottoman era," MEMRI wrote.

Turkish opposition lawmaker Osman Koruturk has decried the government’s efforts to appoint Erdogan allies to sensitive diplomatic posts

"Koruturk stated that while some exceptions may exist when an outsider is appointed as Ambassador due to his special skills and qualities, recently such appointments by the government are becoming the norm," MEMRI noted in its report. "He criticized the undiplomatic language and style employed by Kavas and asked if his attitude, which is offensive to the French, reflects the policies of the government."

Kavas’ comments are being viewed by some as a window into Erdogan’s increasingly hostile approach to the West.

"The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) worldview [is] based on religious ideology [and] is creating stains on its relations with the Western world in general, as some statements coming from AKP officials do not suggest they see Turkey as part of the Western alliance," Yinanc wrote.

Turkey has increasingly positioned itself against the West, avoiding condemning the civil war in Syria while cozying up to Iran.

Turkey’s Halkbank, a majority state-owned lender, has faced Western scrutiny for trading tons of gold for Iranian crude oil in violation of international economic sanctions on Tehran.

Turkey has also softened its once-close ties with Israel in recent months, turning a cold shoulder to the Jewish state.

Outlooks such as Kavas' are becoming increasingly more common among Turkey's ruling class,Western experts warned.

"Statements like this are increasingly the rule rather than the exception in Turkey today," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who studies Turkey at the American Enterprise Institute. "Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey refuses to define as terrorists any group that embraces militant Sunni Islam and targets Jews, Christians, and Shi‘ite Muslims. Heck, this is a country in which the prime minister personally vouched for an Al Qaeda financier."

"Because the State Department continues to ignore statements such as Kavas’ and refuses to challenge them, we’re going to wake up one day to discover that our NATO ally Turkey has become a full-fledged terror financier if not sponsor," Rubin said.

The State Department did not respond to a Washington Free Beacon request for comment on Kavas' tweets.

Kavas did not respond to an email seeking comment on the controversy.