Analysis: Unease in Europe as Turkey intensifies espionage abroad

BND GermanyEarlier this week, it was revealed that the German government rejected a request by the head of Turkish intelligence to spy on Turks living in Germany. The rejection was an important moment in German-Turkish relations and highlights the growing unease in high-level exchanges between Turkey and the European Union.

On Monday, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper alleged that the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), gave his German counterpart a list containing the names hundreds of Turks living in Germany, and asked him to spy on them. According to the newspaper, the list was given by MİT chief Hakan Fidan to Bruno Kahl, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The two men reportedly met at a security conference held in Munich last February. The Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that the list given to Kahl included 300 individuals and approximately 200 groups and organizations that the MİT wanted the BND to monitor.

It is extremely uncommon for information of this kind to be communicated informally between directors of intelligence organizations. Typically the exchange of information between cooperating intelligence agencies happens in a very formal and prescribed environment, not circumstantially during a conference. The episode described by the Süddeutsche Zeitung demonstrates a degree of amateurism on behalf of Turkey’s MİT. It is also symptomatic of the pressure that the agency is under by the Turkish government, following last July’s failed military coup in Ankara and Istanbul.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the failed coup, which included an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey. The Gülen movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims that its members have stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s. In responding to the post-coup security pressures, MİT has been stretched to its limit. Asking the BND for assistance illustrates the Turkish agency’s limitations, especially when it comes to spying abroad.

But the BND flatly refused to comply with the Turkish request. Instead of spying on the targets identified by MİT, the BND warned them that the Turkish state was after them. The German spy agency also warned them to refrain from any contact with Turkish authorities in Germany and to avoid traveling to Turkey. It is clear that the BND is not willing to allow a war of spies between rival Turkish factions in Germany. The last time something similar took place on German soil it led to the 1972 Munich Massacre. In the summer of 1972, Palestinian militants stormed the Olympic Village during the Olympic Games in the capital of Bavaria and killed nearly a dozen Israeli athletes. Germany has learned from that experience and is determined not to let another ethnic- or religious-based civil war between foreign entities erupt on its soil again.

But this will not be easy. Some experts estimate that there are now more MİT intelligence operatives in Germany than the total number of Stasi spies in West Germany during the Cold War. Such estimates are unsettling and may point to an international intelligence-collection operation of near-unprecedented in scale by the Turkish state.

Of course, there are major differences between officers —actual trained intelligence professionals— and agents, people who are hired or otherwise enticed to provide sporadic information to an intelligence agency. There is little doubt that MİT has been reaching out to members of the Turkish diaspora abroad and soliciting information from them. At this point, therefore, we can safely assume that the network that MİT has built abroad is impressive in numbers; but the quality of its information is a different story. The network has been haphazardly built and often produces inaccurate intelligence. So it is sizeable in numbers and scope, but rather amateurish and circumstantial in terms of quality. What is certain, however, is that the deepening political crisis in Turkey will continue to spill over into Europe, prompting the country’s intelligence services to become increasingly active on European soil.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 March 2017 | Permalink

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