Waiting in the Wings Drone Maker Bayraktar Seen as Possible Erdoğan Successor

Selçuk Bayraktar changed the way modern warfare is waged, and some have begun calling him the Elon Musk of Turkey. Speculation is growing that he could follow in the footsteps of his father-in-law Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and rise to the top of Turkish politics.
By Şebnem Arsu und Maximilian Popp in Istanbul
Entrepreneur Selçuk Bayraktar: "We have a moral obligation to help Ukraine."

Entrepreneur Selçuk Bayraktar: "We have a moral obligation to help Ukraine."


Emin Ozmen / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL

It's a few days after the February 6 earthquakes, and Selçuk Bayraktar is standing in front of a pile of rubble in the middle of the disaster area. He looks worn out and sad. More than 50,000 people died in the disaster, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes. In the video Bayraktar posts on Twitter, he promises to build 1,000 new homes and 2,000 housing containers for the victims.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 17/2023 (April 22nd, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Bayraktar isn't actually an emergency worker. He's not even a member of the Turkish government. He's a co-owner of the Turkish defense company Baykar. He and his brother Haluk have made a name for themselves around the world as drone builders. The company's remote controlled aircraft gained a kind of cult status in Ukraine because they helped the country's military repel the Russian invasion at the beginning of the war. A Ukrainian soldier even dedicated a pop song to them, and the Kyiv Zoo christened a baby lemur Baykar.

His address to the Turkish public after the earthquakes made it look like he was striving for responsibility. Bayraktar also happens to be married to Sümeyye Erdoğan, the youngest daughter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leading many to believe that he might be in a position to succeed his father-in-law as Turkey's next leader.

"They revolutionized the way wars are fought."

Rich Outzen, Turkey expert

After 20 years in power, this is the first time that Erdoğan will have to seriously fear that he may not win re-election on May 14. Opposition candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu is currently leading most polls.

But whatever the outcome, Erdoğan has already announced that this will be the last time he runs, and observers believe he's looking for a successor to whom he can hand over the reins. His own children don't stand any real chance of getting into office for various reasons, and Berat Albayrak, the husband of his elder daughter Esra, failed in his post as finance minister. Which is why the focus has increasingly been on Bayraktar, whose name has popped up more and more in the debate over an Erdoğan successor. When asked about it on a TV show recently, Bayraktar dismissed the speculation as "gossip."

Even if Erdoğan is voted out of office, Bayraktar's success has made him so popular in Turkey that no government is going to be able to ignore him and his company. His influence on Turkish politics is only likely to increase.

President Erdoğan (center) with his family, including Selçuk Bayraktar (left)

President Erdoğan (center) with his family, including Selçuk Bayraktar (left)

Foto: M. Cetinmuhurdar / Turkish Presidency / AA / Getty

Baykar became Turkey's largest arms exporter in 2021, with annual sales of $664 million, and the company has grown further as a result of the Ukraine war. Last year, Baykar delivered drones and other technology worth $1.18 billion to 18 countries.

Militaries have deployed the Bayraktar TB2 drones on the battlefields in Libya as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ethiopia. "This enabled a fairly significant operational revolution in how wars are being fought right now," Rich Outzen, a former Turkey expert at the U.S. State Department, told  New Yorker magazine.

Baykar's headquarters on the outskirts of Istanbul look more like a university campus than a weapons factory. One afternoon last summer, predominantly young employees could be seen walking across an expansive site in jeans and T-shirts. A group played volleyball on the company's own sports field.

Selçuk Bayraktar has decorated his office on the top floor of a glass and concrete building with model airplanes, a flight jacket hanging on a coat rack.

A Calling Card for the Defense Industry

Bayraktar is 43 years old and looks not unlike a movie star with his designer stubble, square chin and short, dark hair. His father, Özdemir, founded the company in the 1980s as a supplier to the automotive industry. His mother, Canan, was an economist and computer scientist. Bayraktar says he was fascinated by anything to do with technology as a child, especially airplanes. "For me, it's a way of life."

Bayraktar later moved to the United States, where he studied engineering in Pennsylvania and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to Turkey in 2007 and helped establish the drone division at Baykar. The breakthrough came seven years later, when the company equipped the Turkish military with drones in the fight against the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Bayraktar is fond of sharing the story of how he traveled to the front lines in the mountains of southeastern Turkey himself to further develop the drone.

The Bayraktar TB2 drone has a wingspan of only 12 meters (39 feet), a tail propeller and three wheels. It is armed with up to four laser-guided bombs or missiles. It can't fly quite as far as American or Israeli models, nor can it carry the same heavy loads, but it costs only $5 million, about one-sixth as much as the U.S. Reaper drone. This makes the drone extremely attractive to small and medium-sized military powers.

Bayraktar drones are also attractive to small and medium-sized military powers.

Bayraktar drones are also attractive to small and medium-sized military powers.

Foto: Emin Ozmen / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL

In Libya, Bayraktar TB2 drones helped the official government in Tripoli stamp down an uprising by warlord Khalifa Haftar. In Nagorno-Karabakh, they played a decisive role in Azerbaijan's victory over Armenia, after which autocrat Ilham Aliyev celebrated by presenting footage of drone strikes on video screens in the capital city of Baku. The Ukrainians mainly deployed them in the first months of the war, before Russian air defenses adapted their strategy. The fact that the drones are supplied primarily to countries that are close to the Erdoğan government is conspicuous.

Baykar is the flagship of Turkey's defense industry, which has grown tenfold since Erdoğan came to power in 2003. "We are no longer beggars," Erdoğan said during a speech to Turkish military recruits. "Everybody wants them from us," he has said of the drones. During the election campaign, he has been showcasing defense products, including a warship from which drones are to be launched in the future. But experts warn that the largely uncontrolled proliferation of drones like the Bayraktar TB2 are making conflicts unpredictable.

There are also reports of civilians being struck in attacks. Ismail Shamdin had built a new life in Qamishli, in northeastern Syria, after he and his family escaped the Islamic State terrorist militia. As his sister Huriya relates over the phone, Shamdin - who has a daughter and a four-month-old twins - was able to find employment as a car mechanic in the city. He was in the workshop last summer when he was struck by a Turkish drone, Huriya says, killing him instantly. His sister believes the actual target had been an officer in the Kurdish forces in Syria who had brought his car in for repairs.

Comparisons with Elon Musk

Turkey has been waging war against the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG, for years, and increasingly, it is TB2 drones that are deployed for this purpose. According to the Kurdish autonomous administration in Syria, several dozen civilians have died in Turkish drone attacks in the past year alone. United States Senator Bob Menendez of the Democratic Party has called the Turkish drone sales "dangerous, destabilizing and a threat to peace and human rights."

In an interview in his Istanbul office, Selçuk Bayraktar rejects any criticism of the drone program. He argues that drones are more accurate than other weapons, and because the attacks are filmed, he insists that there is greater accountability.

Bayraktar likes to present himself as a tech nerd, a tinkerer who cares more about computer code than politics. In fact, though, he has been carefully shaping his image since his marriage to Sümeyye Erdoğan in 2016. He regularly posts Islamic blessings on Instagram and Twitter, where he has around two and a half million followers on each platform. He also provides backing to education initiatives. When he appears in public, he often dons a red flight jacket.

And whereas President Erdoğan is pursuing shuttle diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow in the Ukraine war, Bayraktar has clearly sided with Ukraine. "We have a moral obligation to help Ukraine," he says. He then quotes Benjamin Franklin: "People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both." But he refrains from commenting directly on political current affairs.

When asked about his political ambitions, Bayraktar says only that his main responsibility at the moment is for Baykar. He must have followed very closely how his brother-in-law Berat Albayrak crashed and burned during his short stint in the government.

Bayraktar brings a lot to the table that could help ensure success in Turkish politics. For example, his father Özdemir was a confidant of former Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, and the prototype of the Bayraktar TB2 drone was dedicated to Erbakan. Through his marriage to Sümeyye, Bayraktar also has access to Turkish circles of power. And he has a successful career in the private sector he can point to. Some in Turkey are already comparing him to entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Erdoğan is busy securing his re-election at the moment. But Bayraktar is young enough to wait in the wings until it is his turn.

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