Trump thought Erdoğan was “bluffing” about invading Syria, sources claim

Turkey SyriaSenior White House officials close to United States President Donald Trump believed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was bluffing when he threatened to invade northern Syria, according to sources. For over two years, most of northern Syria has been controlled by American-supported Kurdish militias, who were instrumental in helping Washington defeat the Islamic State. But the growing strength of the Kurdish forces alarmed Turkey, which views Kurdish nationalism as a bigger threat than the Islamic State.

Since 2016, Ankara repeatedly threatened to invade northern Syria and disarm the Kurdish groups, which it sees as terrorist. It had refrained from doing so due to the presence of American troops in the area. However, according to news website Axios, key officials in the Trump White House were convinced that Turkish President Erdoğan would not have his troops invade northern Syria even if the American forces pulled out. In making this claim, the website cites six unnamed sources “with direct knowledge of the situation”, some of whom were allegedly “in the room with the two leaders and had access to their phone calls going back several years.

In one of these phone calls, which took place in 2017, President Erdoğan allegedly informed the US leader of his government’s intention to “move in to take care of the Kurdish threat” in northern Syria. But President Trump cautioned him about making such a daring move. He reminded the Turkish leader that, by invading northern Syria, Turkey would become responsible for the tens of thousands of Islamic State supporters and their families who are kept in detention camps. Ankara would also face mass international condemnation and possible sanctions from the United States and Europe. Moreover, the US-trained and -supplied Kurdish forces would arguably create a military quagmire for Turkish troops in the region. At that point Turkey “would own” the problem and would not be able to “come to [the US] for help”, according to Trump.

The Axios report claims that, until last week, the White House thought that “Erdoğan would never actually go through with his long-threatened Syria invasion”, because doing so would be detrimental to Turkish interests in the region. Based on that conviction, President Trump finally decided to call Erdoğan’s bluff by pulling American Special Forces troops out of northern Syria, in the belief that Tukey’s response would amount to nothing further than a few airstrikes and small-scale cross-border incursions. That belief was behind the White House’s surprise decision to suddenly pull its troops from northern Syria, according to Axios’ sources.

The report did not mention whether the US Intelligence Community’s reports to the White House concurred with the US President’s conviction that Turkey would not invade northern Syria even in the absence of US troops. The question is, in other words, did Trump made up his mind about Erdoğan’s intentions to invade northern Syria because, or despite the conclusions of his own Intelligence Community?

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2019 | Permalink

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Concerns about mass breakouts of jailed ISIS fighters if Turkey invades northern Syria

Turkey ISISOfficials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East have warned that thousands of jailed members of the Islamic State could escape from Kurdish-controlled prisons in northern Syria if Turkey invades the region. For more than two years, the area has been controlled by American-supported Kurdish militias, who were instrumental in helping Washington defeat the Islamic State —also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. But the growing strength of the Kurdish forces has alarmed Turkey, which views Kurdish nationalism in the region as a bigger threat than Salafi jihadism. Ankara has repeatedly threatened to invade northern Syria and disarm the Kurdish groups, which it sees as terrorist.

The continuous presence of American troops in northern Syria has served to dissuade Turkey from invading. Yesterday, however, the White House surprised observers by announcing its sudden decision to pull its troops from northern Syria. Washington’s unexpected move drew criticism from Kurdish commanders who spoke of betrayal, as well as by members of both political parties in Congress. Security officials also expressed fears that Turkey’s focus on the Kurds could allow ISIS to regroup in northern Syria. A statement issued by the White House on Monday said that Turkey would assume control of over 10,000 captured ISIS fighters who are currently being held in Kurdish-administered prison camps in northern Syria. But experts said that the wider Kurdish-controlled region of northern Syria, which Turkey intends to capture, is home to dozens of prisons with over 60,000 captured ISIS supporters in them. What will be the fate of these prisoners under Turkish control?

Security observers have repeatedly accused Turkey in the past of turning a blind eye to ISIS, whose members fought a prolonged and bloody war against Iraqi and Syrian Kurds from 2016 to 2018. There are no guarantees that the Turks will not utilize a resurgent ISIS to suppress Kurdish nationalism in the region. In fact, some experts, including retired American generals, warned on Monday that a Turkish invasion of northern Syria would give ISIS “a golden chance to regroup”. There are concerns of mass breakouts of ISIS members from Kurdish-controlled prisons in Syria, amidst the widespread chaos caused by a Turkish military onslaught. Such breakouts have been encouraged by ISIS leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. Escaped prisoners would most likely join the nearly 20,000 estimated ISIS fighters who are still at large in Iraq and Syria, thus contributing to a potentially catastrophic regeneration of the militant Sunni group, according to experts.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 October 2019 | Permalink

Turkish spy agency develops phone app to help ex-pats inform on dissidents

BfV GermanyTurkey’s spy agency has developed a smart phone application to enable pro-government Turks living in Germany inform on their compatriots who speak out against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The existence of the phone application was revealed in the annual report of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s primary counterintelligence agency. The report covers terrorist and foreign intelligence activity that took place in 2018 in Baden-Württemberg, a state in southwest Germany that borders Switzerland and France. Deutsche Welle, Germany’s state broadcaster, which cited the BfV report, said that 2018 saw a significant increase in intelligence activities by several countries, including China, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Much of the intelligence activity by Turkish spy agencies concentrated on the Turkish expatriate community in Baden-Württemberg. The federal state is home to approximately 15 percent of Germany’s 3-million-strong Turkish population.

According to the BfV report, Turkish intelligence operations in Baden-Württemberg have focused primarily on two groups since 2015. One group consists of supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed separatist group that fights for the independence of Turkey’s Kurdish population. A ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government collapsed in 2015, leading to the outbreak of a low-intensity war in Turkey’s southeastern regions, which is ongoing. The other group consists of sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who is seen by the government of Turkey as the primary instigator of a coup that unsuccessfully tried to unseat the AKP in July 2016. The BfV report also states that pro-government Turks living in Germany are known to use a smart phone application developed by Turkey’s police force, the General Directorate of Security (EGM). The application allegedly enables supporters of the AKP to inform on suspected members of the PKK or followers of Gülen who live in Germany. These individuals are then questioned or even apprehended when they travel to Turkey to visit family members and friends.

The report also names several Turkish pro-AKP organizations that allegedly operate as intelligence collectors for a host of Turkish spy agencies. Among them are civic groups like the Union of International Democrats, or religious organizations like the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs. Known as DİTİB, the organization administers the activities of several hundred Turkish Muslim organizations and mosques throughout Germany and is believed to be closely associated with the AKP and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Several German intelligence officials and reports have claimed in recent years that the DİTİB operates as an intelligence collection arm of the Turkish state in Germany.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 June 2019 | Permalink

Family of alleged UAE spy who died in Turkish prison call for investigation

Zaki Mubarak Hassan and Samer ShabanThe family of a man who died in a Turkish prison on Sunday while awaiting trial for allegedly spying for the United Arab Emirates has called for an international investigation into this death. Zaki Mubarak Hassan and Samer Shaban —both Palestinians— were reportedly arrested by Turkish police on April 21 and charged with espionage. Turkish counterintelligence officials suspect that at least one of the suspects may have been involved in a spy operation that relates to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was killed last October inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by a 15-member team of Saudi intelligence officers.

Shortly after the two men were arrested, the Reuters news agency cited an anonymous “senior Turkish official” who said that one of two men arrived in Turkey just days after Khashoggi’s murder. He was allegedly monitored by Turkish counterintelligence for a period of six months and his activities led investigators to the second man. The latter is believed to have traveled to Turkey in order “to help his colleague with the workload”, said Reuters. The source added that the two UAE nationals had undergone several hours of interrogation, during which they had confessed that they were employees of the UAE intelligence service. They had also admitted to recruiting local residents as informants. Their activities and targets were consistent with intelligence operations aimed at exiled Arab nationals and students living in Turkey, said the source. The unnamed Turkish official told Reuters that authorities had amassed “extensive evidence” on “covert activities on Turkish soil” by the two men, and described the case against them as “airtight”.

Yesterday, however, the Turkish government announced that one of the men, Zaki Mubarak Hassan, had been found dead in his prison cell in Istanbul. Press reports said that Hassan was found “Sunday morning hanging from a bathroom door” in his cell, and that prosecutors were investigating the formal cause of his death. Late on Monday, his family told the Saudi Arabian Arab News channel that they did not believe Hassan had killed himself. Speaking to Arab News from his home in Bulgaria, Hassan’s brother, Zakeria, said that agents of the Turkish government killed his brother because they realized he was not a spy for the UAE and “they didn’t want to show that they made a mistake”. He added that he had notified the Palestinian ambassador in Ankara of his brother’s arrest, but the ambassador did not seem interested in assisting the family. Meanwhile, the uncle of the second man, Samer Shaban, told another Saudi news channel, Al Arabiya, that his nephew had left the Gaza Strip in 2007 for Egypt. Zaki Mubarak said that Shaban, a Palestinian police officer, was a Fatah supporter and eventually moved from the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip to the UAE, where he began working as an employee of the Palestinian Authority’s consulate in Dubai. His goal, said Mubarak, was to immigrate with his family to Turkey and from there to Europe.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 April 2019 | Permalink

Turkey announces arrests of two alleged UAE intelligence officers in Istanbul

UAE nationals arrested in Turkey on espionage charges

Covert surveillance photograph of two UAE nationals arrested in Turkey on espionage charges (TRT Haber)

Turkish authorities have announced the arrest of two men believed to be intelligence officers for the United Arab Emirates; the two have already confessed to recruiting local informants, according to Reuters. The news agency said Turkish counterintelligence officials suspect that at least one of the suspects may be involved in a spy operation that relates to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was killed last October inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by a 15-member team of Saudi intelligence officers.

Last Friday, Reuters cited an anonymous “senior Turkish official” who said that both men are Emirati nationals and that one of them arrived in Turkey just days after Khashoggi’s murder. He was allegedly monitored by Turkish counterintelligence for a period of six months and his activities led investigators to the second man. The latter is believed to have traveled to Turkey in order “to help his colleague with the workload”, said Reuters. Turkey’s state-owned news agency, TRT Haber, published Turkish police photographs of the two men in custody, but did not name them. It also published covert surveillance photographs of the two men, presumably taken by Turkish counterintelligence. A source told Reuters that Turkish counterintelligence officials had entered an Istanbul apartment used by the two men as a safe house, where they found an encrypted computer “in a hidden compartment”. The source added that the two UAE nationals had undergone several hours of interrogation, during which they had confessed that they were employees of the UAE intelligence service. They had also admitted to recruiting local residents as informants. Their activities and targets were consistent with intelligence operations aimed at exiled Arab nationals and students living in Turkey, said the source.

The unnamed Turkish official told Reuters that authorities had amassed “extensive evidence” on “covert activities on Turkish soil” by the two men, and described the case against them as “airtight”. However, when contacted by Reuters, Turkey’s Ministry of Interior declined to comment on the arrests. A spokesman for Istanbul’s Police Department confirmed that a police operation against the two Emirati nationals was ongoing. Turkish media reports on Saturday said that the two men had appeared before a court in Istanbul and that they were being kept in custody on charges of espionage against the Turkish state.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 April 2019 | Permalink

ISIS using Turkey as strategic base to reorganize, Dutch intelligence report says

Turkey ISISIslamic State cells are using Turkey as a strategic base in which to recuperate, rebuild, and plan an underground war in Europe, according to a new report by Dutch intelligence. This assessment is featured in a report published on Monday by Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service, known as AIVD. The document, which is available in the Dutch language on the website of the AIVD, is entitled The Legacy of Syria: Global Jihadism Remains a Threat to Europe.

The 22-page report argues that the government of Turkey does not see Sunni Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), as a pressing national security threat. Instead, Turkish security services are far more concerned with the ethnic Kurdish insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. Therefore, although Turkish authorities do sometimes take action to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS, “Turkish interests do not always correspond with European priorities on the field of counter-terrorism”, says the report. For that reason, Turkey served as a large transit center of tens of thousands of foreign fighters who poured into Syria to fight for Sunni Islamist groups during the height of the Syrian Civil War. At least 4,000 of those fighters are believed to be Turkish citizens, according to the AIVD report.

Today Turkey is home to tens of thousands of sympathizers of both al-Qaeda and ISIS —two organizations that maintain an active presence throughout the country— claims the report. The hands-off approach of the Turkish government is giving these groups “enough breathing space and freedom of movement” to operate relatively freely on Turkish soil. Additionally, al-Qaeda and ISIS members exploit the relative peace and stability of Turkey to forge plans to attack Western target, claims the AIVD report. It is from Turkey, it argues, that the Islamic State plans to shape and direct its pending underground war on the European continent.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2018 | Permalink

Suicide bomb threat reportedly leads to evacuation of Iranian envoy to Turkey

Iran embassy in AnkaraThere were conflicting reports yesterday in Ankara of an alleged evacuation of Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, following credible reports of a suicide bomb attack, possibly by the Islamic State. Several Turkish media outlets reported on Monday afternoon that authorities in Ankara had communicated an urgent intelligence warning to the Iranian embassy there of a possible suicide bomb attack. According to the reports, members of the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were behind the planned attack.

At 2 pm local time, reports stated that Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian Fard, had been hurriedly evacuated from the Iranian embassy by Turkish security forces. By that time, all roads leading to the Iranian embassy, located next to the Ankara Hilton in one of the Turkish capital’s leafiest areas, had been cordoned off. Reporters from the Reuters news agency and Agence France Presse said that Turkish police and special forces had shut down Tahran Road, where the Iranian embassy is located, and were searching cars. Armed security forces had also surrounded the Iranian embassy, according to Reuters.

Strangely, however, reports of a possible bomb attack and of the ambassador’s evacuation were strongly refuted by the Iranian government, which denounced them as “sheer lies” and “complete fabrications”. In a statement published online on Monday afternoon, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that its diplomats in Ankara had noticed “an increased Turkish security presence” around the Iranian embassy. However, they continued working normally, as they were unaware of the reasons for the heightened security. They assumed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was appearing nearby, said the statement. A statement by the Iranian embassy in Ankara said that consular employees were present at the embassy and that all scheduled services were being offered without interruption.

In the past month, the embassies of Iran in Paris and Athens have come under attack by Kurdish separatists and leftwing groups protesting against Tehran’s alleged oppression of ethnic minorities in the country. In the past, the Islamic Republic has been rarely targeted by ISIS, whose members dismiss Shiite Islam as a heresy. In June 2017, two attacks were carried out simultaneously in Tehran, targeting the Iranian parliament and the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of post-1979 Iran. In September of this year, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in Iran’s southwestern city of Ahvaz, which killed 25 soldiers and civilians during a military parade.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 October 2018 | Permalink