Selcuk Bayraktar, the engineer behind Bayraktar TB2 drones, is now seen as a potential heir to his father-in-law, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

By Jared Malsin and Elvan Kivilcim

March 30, 2024

The Wall Street Journal


IZMIR, Turkey—Selcuk Bayraktar’s TB2 drones played a pivotal role in stalling Russia’s invasion on the plains of Ukraine, blowing up the Kremlin’s military convoys on their way to Kyiv.  The drones remain a part of Ukraine’s long-term plans for its defense. Bayraktar’s company is building a manufacturing plant in the country as Western support wavers. Azerbaijan used them against Armenian forces in 2020. In Libya, they helped thwart an attack by a Russian-backed warlord.

In Turkey, the Bayraktar drones have made the 42-year-old MIT-trained aerospace engineer something of a folk hero for putting the country on the global stage—and, possibly, its next leader.

Often clad in a flight jacket and aviator shades, he is married to one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s daughters and is swarmed by fans everywhere he goes. Polling data show he is one of the country’s most popular public figures.

Now his supporters are pitching him to succeed his father-in-law as the country’s president as orders continue to flow in. NATO members Romania and Poland recently joined the growing list of countries signing up to buy his weapons.

Bayraktar said he has no political ambitions but also wouldn’t rule it out if Erdogan asked him to run in a future election. After more than 20 years in power, the 70-year-old Erdogan is facing a term limit in 2028 and speculation is beginning to build about who will follow him as a series of local elections takes place this weekend. “Maybe I would say yes, but that will depend on the circumstances,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last fall, sitting on a leather couch and smoking an electronic cigarette in a pilot trainers’ lounge on a military base in Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast.  “I’m not in politics,” he said, before correcting himself. “I’m not in active politics.”

Outside, thousands of people gathered on the tarmac for Teknofest, a military and technology festival series he founded. Nominally intended to promote science and technology, the event is part Coachella, part air show, and part campaign rally.

Earlier in the day, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” blasted over the speakers while F-16 warplanes screamed overhead, drawing cheers from the crowd that gathered under a

beating sun. Erdogan then took the stage where he denounced the Turkish opposition as fascists. The crowd chanted back, “Erdogan, world leader!”

Bayraktar joined his father-in-law onstage where the pair handed out jumbo-sized checks to young tech entrepreneurs—prize money from Bayraktar’s science and technology foundation.

Erdogan has made himself Turkey’s most powerful leader in a century during two decades as both prime minister and president—years in which he jailed critics, outmaneuvered opponents, and sent Turkish forces into wars in three different countries. He survived a difficult re-election last year after the opposition failed to oust him despite the country reeling from a deadly earthquake and an economic crisis.

The question of who will succeed Erdogan is now swirling after the president said earlier this month that the country’s local elections this weekend would be his last campaign, “according to the law.” The Turkish leader could still change his mind, but close observers of Turkish politics say the race to succeed him has already begun.  “You have him being a proper and well credentialed son-in-law of Erdogan. I think the perfect storm is pointing towards Bayraktar,” said Burak Kadercan, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and an expert on Turkish politics.

Born in Istanbul to a family of engineers, Bayraktar has long moved in well-connected circles. His father, Ozdemir Bayraktar, knew Erdogan from their time growing up on the Black Sea coast. They stayed in touch as he established his auto parts company, Baykar, in the 1990s.

The young Bayraktar spent much of his youth in the family factory, sometimes building radio-controlled model aircraft from kits, sometimes tinkering with his own. It became the focal point of his studies in the early 2000s, first in Istanbul, then at the University of Pennsylvania, around the same time that U.S.-made Predator drones began to make a decisive difference on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

From there, it was a short step toward experimenting with his own prototype drones back home at the family factory in Turkey.

At the time, Turkey was working to build an independent, indigenous arms industry that could withstand supply disruptions from Western producers. Bayraktar’s father saw that his son’s projects could have some value and helped arrange for him to test them with the Turkish military.

Executives and engineers at the company credit Bayraktar with helping oversee the earliest test flights of his first drone, which he called the Mini U.A.V. Documentary footage from 2003 showed him explaining the importance of uncrewed aircraft to a group of military officers. His master’s thesis was titled “Aggressive landing maneuvers for unmanned aerial vehicles.”

In 2014, Bayraktar introduced a prototype for a larger drone capable of carrying weapons: its breakthrough product, the TB2.

It might not have been as sophisticated as counterparts made in the U.S. but Bayraktar had filled a niche by building reliable drones that could outfox air defenses by flying low and slow. The

TB2 is now regarded by many in the industry as the Kalashnikov of drones, playing a crucial role in Syria, where the Turkish military used it to evade Russian-provided air defenses to strike at government forces.

Ukraine built up a stockpile of them, and orders came in from governments elsewhere as drones increasingly showed their ability to alter the dynamic of conflicts around the world.

Human-rights groups sometimes raised concerns about who was buying them after Ethiopia’s government used TB2 drones in its civil war in 2021. Turkish officials say they attach humanitarian provisions to sales.

Bayraktar maintained a relatively low profile in Turkey, even after his marriage to one of Erdogan’s daughters, Sumeyye, in 2016. But as his drone’s reputation took off so too did his.

By the time of Turkey’s presidential election last year, Bayraktar drones had become a core part of Erdogan’s brand, which featured them as a symbol of national pride and Turkey’s aspirations for global influence. The president appeared in one campaign poster wearing similar aviator shades and a flight jacket to the young Bayraktar, with a TB2 flying over his left shoulder. Turkey’s growing defense industry, which recently produced the country’s first aircraft carrier, has been a central part of Erdogan’s campaigns in which he says he aims to restore the country to global power status.

Since then, Bayraktar has echoed some of Erdogan’s nationalist rhetoric, sprinkling his speech with mentions of Turkey’s Ottoman past and has joined government-backed street protests against Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Bayraktar and particularly his brother, Haluk, who became chief executive of Baykar after their father died in 2021, are among Erdogan’s inner circle of advisers and have taken on a more prominent role representing the country abroad. Haluk Bayraktar is a frequent visitor to Ukraine and was pictured last year welcoming President Volodymyr Zelensky at the airport when he visited Turkey.  Among Erdogan’s potential heirs, few other viable candidates have emerged.

None of Erdogan’s own children has a résumé of achievements comparable to Bayraktar’s. His other son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, faced widespread criticism after a disastrous run as finance minister from 2018-2020.

Erdogan has sidelined his challengers within his own party, while Turkey’s opposition parties have yet to come up with a breakthrough candidate. One potential challenger, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, is facing an important test at weekend elections as he tries to fend off a candidate from Erdogan’s party.

Bayraktar’s fans say his success instead points to a more meritocratic future, describing him in terms normally reserved for the likes of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. His image as an engineer and entrepreneur represents a subtle but important departure from aspects of Erdogan’s rule, which has weakened Turkish institutions and centralized power around the presidency, analysts say. “There is no bias in religion, no bias in race, no bias in political leanings,” said one of the

attendees at Teknofest, 22-year-old engineer Kadir Burak Tandogan, struggling to make himself heard over the blaring music and jet fighters thundering overhead.

As the sun set, Bayraktar left the lounge and hopped in a golf cart that whizzed him out to the festival grounds. Throngs of people circled around him, asking for selfies and autographs. One woman thrust a baby into his hands. Another, a Ukrainian woman, pushed to the front to say she had cried when she saw the TB2s parked around them on the runway.

People called to him as he struggled to part the growing crowd around him, “Selcuk brother! Selcuk brother!” He shook hands, waited while they took selfies, and cradled the baby against his chest before handing it back. “You can’t find a single citizen in Turkey who is against him,” said Ozge Yilmaz, the 35-year-old head of a furniture company who had lined up to take a photo with Bayraktar. “He’s the first and only one that we want to see as leader of Turkey in the future, after Erdogan.”


Jared Malsin is a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Istanbul, covering Turkey, Syria and the wider region.  During more than a decade of working as a foreign journalist, Jared’s work has often focused on the struggle over democracy and authoritarianism across the region and the world. He lived for about five years in Cairo reporting and writing on the long aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution and 2013 military coup.  Jared joined the Journal in 2018 as a correspondent based in Cairo covering North Africa. Since moving back to Istanbul in 2021, he has covered political and economic crises in Turkey and the ongoing civil war in Syria. He has contributed to the Journal’s coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine including as a reporter on the ground in the country during the war.  In a previous job as Middle East bureau chief for Time Magazine, Jared reported from the front lines of wars in Iraq and Syria and covered the 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey. During his career he has also reported from places including Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. As a freelance journalist Jared has also written for the New York Times, the Guardian, Bloomberg Businessweek and other publications. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale University and a master’s in journalism and Near Eastern studies from New York University. He has also dedicated years to the study of the Arabic language.