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. Read more of this post

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Germany publicly rejects Turkish spies’ request to monitor dissidents

KurdsGerman intelligence and security agencies have publicly rejected a direct request made by Turkey’s intelligence chief to gather information on Turks who are living in Germany and are critical of the Turkish government. The request reportedly relates to attempts by the Turkish government to round up its critics, following a failed military coup in July of last year. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the 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.

Since the end of the failed coup, the Turkish state has initiated a nationwide political crackdown against alleged supporters of the coup. Over 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, while hundreds of thousands have been demoted, censured or warned. Another 41,000 are believed to be in prison, charged with supporting the failed coup or being members of the Gülen network. But many observers in Europe view the coup as a catalyst that was exploited by the government in Ankara neutralize its political opponents.

On Monday, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper claimed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT, gave its 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 allegedly 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.

But instead of spying on these targets, the BND wrote to them and warned them that the Turkish state was after them. The German spy agency also warned them to stay away from any contact with Turkish authorities in Germany and to refrain from traveling to Turkey. On Tuesday, Germany’s Interior Minister, Thomas De Maiziere, confirmed the Süddeutsche Zeitung article and warned Turkey to respect Germany’s territorial sovereignty. “Here German jurisdiction applies”, said De Maiziere, “and citizens will not be spied on by foreign countries”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 March 2017 | Permalink

Turkish diplomats stepping up espionage in Europe, claims German report

Turkish embassy in GermanyTurkish state agencies have asked the country’s diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in an effort to identify those opposed to the government, according to a German report. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating a military coup in July of last year, which resulted in 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.

According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the Erdoğan government has now tasked its diplomats stationed abroad to engage in intelligence collection targeting alleged Gülen sympathizers. The report cited “a confidential analysis by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution” (BfV), Germany’s counterintelligence agency. The analysis allegedly states that Turkish diplomats are now conducting systematic espionage activities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and other Western European countries. The BfV report allegedly claims that much of the espionage conducted by Turkish diplomats is directed by the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate, known as Diyanet. The agency is seen as the institutional guardian of Turkey’s Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. It provides schools with religious education that is carefully tailored to be compatible with the country’s secular constitution, and trains the country’s imams, who are employed by the state. Der Spiegel claimed on Monday that Diyanet has asked its religious representatives stationed in Europe to look for Gülen sympathizers. According to the German newsmagazine, information is now pouring in from Turkey’s embassies and consulates. It includes names of individuals, as well as student groups, cultural organizations, schools and day-care centers that are seen as not sufficiently critical of the Gülen movement. Der Spiegel said it had seen a report sent to Diyanet by the Turkish embassy in Berne, Switzerland, which warned that many Gülenists had left Turkey and were now operating in Switzerland.

Late last summer, Der Spiegel claimed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (known by its Turkish initials, MİT) secretly contacted its German counterpart, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and asked for assistance to investigate and arrest supporters of the Gülen movement living in Germany, some of whom are German citizens. The BND reportedly refused to cooperate with the request. Another German news outlet, Die Welt, cited an unnamed German security official who said that the MİT employed more operatives in Germany than the East German spy agency did at the height of the Cold War.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2017 | Permalink

Leaked EU intelligence report says Islamists were not behind Turkey coup

Turkey coupA leaked report by a European Union intelligence body states that Islamist forces were not behind last July’s failed coup in Turkey, and that the ruling party used the coup to neutralize its few remaining political rivals. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the 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.

But a report compiled by the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre, known as IntCen, states that Gülenists had nothing to do with the coup, and that the current crackdown against them by the government was planned years in advance. Founded in 2012, IntCen is the intelligence-sharing body of the EU. Its reports are the results of collaborative efforts of intelligence officers from all EU states. They are distributed on a confidential basis to senior EU officials and to the ambassadors of EU states in Brussels, Belgium. The report on the coup in Turkey is entitled “Turkey: The Impact of the Gülenist Movement”. It was issued on August 24 and is marked “confidential”. But it was accessed by British newspaper The Times, which published extracts on Tuesday.

According to the leaked document, it is “unlikely” that the Gülen movement had the “capabilities and capacities” to launch a coup against Erdoğan. It is even more unlikely, it suggests, “that Gülen himself played a role” in the operation. A far more plausible explanation is that the coup was launched by a relatively small group of Kemalists (secular Turks who oppose President Erdoğan’s religiously-based politics), some Gülenists, and various opportunists within the ranks of the military. Once the coup began to unfold, a few low-level military officers with Gülenist sympathies may have “felt under pressure” to participate in order to ensure its success. That was mostly because they knew that, if the coup failed, the Erdoğan government would go after them and accuse them of staging it, states the report.

Indeed, once the coup failed, the Erdoğan administration launched a coordinated campaign designed to dismantle the Gülen movement, which was its “one and only real rival” in Turkey. Since the end of the failed coup, the Turkish state has initiated a nationwide political crackdown against alleged supporters of the coup. An estimated 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, while hundreds of thousands have been demoted, censured or warned. Another 35,000 are believed to be in prison, charged with supporting the failed coup or with being members of the Gülen network. But the IntCen report suggests that the crackdown against Erdoğan’s opponents had been conceived and designed years in advance. Last July’s coup acted as a catalyst and was “exploited” by the government to neutralize all its political opponents, says IntCen. The lists used to arrest individuals across the country had been complied by the Turkish intelligence services many years ahead of the failed coup, according to the IntCen report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 January 2017 | Permalink

Greece jails member of alleged network of German retirees spying for Turkey

Kos GreeceA German retiree living in Greece, who admitted in court that he was part of a network of German and other Western European residents of Greece recruited as spies by Turkish intelligence, has been jailed for 14 years. The 65-year-old man, who has not been named, was arrested two years ago in the southeastern Aegean island of Kos. He was born in Cold-War-era East Germany and worked as a locksmith before serving for 15 years in the East German National People’s Army. From 2009 to 2012, he lived in Turkey before moving permanently to Greece.

On the morning of October 15, 2014, the German national was arrested by Greek police, who said they spotted him taking pictures of a Greek military outpost while sitting in his parked car. The police officers confiscated his camera and searched his vehicle, finding a pair of binoculars, various camera lenses and several memory sticks. His camera contained photographs of Greek military installations and government buildings on the island, which is located less than 3 miles off the Turkish coast. More photographs of Greek defense installations, military vehicles and communications facilities were found in the man’s house on the island. Police also found there documents in the Turkish language and notepads bearing coordinates of Greek military bases, public buildings and bridges located on Kos. The prosecution claimed that the German man was also monitoring the activities of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency that maintains a base on the Greek island.

During the trial, the accused said he was recruited by Turkey’s intelligence service, known as MİT, in 2011, when he was living in Turkey. He also told the court that he was one of many German and other Western European retirees living in Greece, who have been recruited by Turkish intelligence to spy on Greek military and civilian government facilities. He added that, in return for his services, his Turkish handlers deposited €2,000 every month to his bank account in Germany. He had also been instructed to meet his handlers in Germany, not in Greece or Turkey. A court in the Greek island of Rhodes convicted the German man to 14 years in prison, one year less than the 15-year sentence requested by the prosecution.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 Dec 2016 | Research credit: Strategy Reports | Permalink

Analysis: Turkey’s entry in Syrian war further-complicates a chaotic conflict

Syrian troopsEver since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, Turkey has refrained from directly intervening in the conflict, other than to provide material support to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The hope in Ankara was that Islamist and pro-Assad forces would exhaust each other. There is no evidence that Turkey was at any point seriously alarmed about the rise of Sunni militancy in Syria. Instead, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no secret of its primary concern, which was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria.

However, a possible demise of the Islamic State may strengthen Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and could leave the al-Assad regime in place in Damascus. That would be the worst possible outcome for Turkey, which has always viewed the Syrian president a direct threat to its national security, surpassed only by Kurdish separatism. In a desperate effort to avoid such an outcome, Turkey is now increasingly intervening in the war. Its current goal is to have a strong say in how the region will look like once the Islamic State has been defeated.

With the exception of some pro-Turkish rebels, such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, who openly welcome Ankara’s intervention, no rebel factions in Syria are especially elated by Turkey’s entry in the war. Most recognize that the sole reason for Turkey’s intervention is the protection of its own national interest, which centers on preventing a rise of an independent Kurdish state —either official or de facto— in northern Syria.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war will further complicate the conflict and is likely to prolong it. The more international actors are involved in the war, the more convoluted it gets and the longer it will take for it to end. Currently we have the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and several European powers involved in the war. The last thing this conflict needs is yet another foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.

Moreover, Ankara’s overall role in the Syrian conflict has been inconsistent, as the country has at times sharply distanced itself from both Russian-led and American-led efforts in the region. President Erdogan’s policy on Syria —as on most other matters— has been spasmodic and haphazard, and has been primarily shaped by domestic concerns, as Turkey’s political strongman tries to solidify its rule inside the country. Consequently neither Moscow nor Washington have much faith in the reliance of the Turkish military contribution to the conflict.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States could further-complicate the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. If a rapid rapprochement takes place between Washington and Moscow in 2017, Turkey will feel increasingly uneasy about its regional role. The Kurds, who have been working closely with Russia in Syria and with America in Iraq, will expect to be rewarded and compensated once the dust settles in the region. There have been voices in Moscow and Washington calling for the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. If that happens, it will signal a massive setback for Turkey’s foreign policy and negatively affect its relations with Russia and possibly the United States.

Over a million people have now died in the Syrian civil war. Millions more have been displaced internally and abroad. Things could get immeasurably worse if Russian-led and American-led forces launch all-out attacks in Aleppo and Mosul respectively. There is no reason to believe at this point that the Islamic State and other rebel groups will abandon these cities, where over a million people remain trapped between the warring sides. We could be seeing the largest slaughter of civilians since World War II. At that point, there will be little that Ankara or anyone else can do to restore stability in that desperately troubled region.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2016 | Permalink

Dozens of Turkish diplomats apply for asylum in Germany following July coup

Embassy of Turkey in BerlinAt least 35 Turkish nationals with diplomatic passports have applied for political asylum in Germany following last July’s failed military coup in Turkey, according to German authorities. The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the 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 its members have stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s.

Since the end of the failed coup, the Turkish state has initiated a nationwide political crackdown directed at alleged supporters of the coup. An estimated 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, while hundreds of thousands have been demoted, censured or warned. Another 32,000 are believed to be in prison charged with supporting the failed coup or with being members of the Gülen network. Many of those targeted in the crackdown belong to the country’s diplomatic corps. It is believed that the 35 Turkish holders of diplomatic passports members of the country’s diplomatic community who were stationed abroad when the coup took place and are now hesitant to return to their home country for fear of being arrested.

On Monday, German Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Dimroth told reporters in Berlin that the Turkish nationals had filed applications for asylum with Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, known as BAMF. He added that the number of 35 asylum seekers included diplomats’ family members, who are also carriers of diplomatic passports. He did not specify whether the asylum seekers had been based in Germany prior to the July 15 coup. In response to a question from a reporter, Dimroth said that 35 was “not an absolute and final figure” and that it could change in the coming weeks. When asked about the reasons given by the asylum seekers for their applications, Dimroth refused to speculate. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Turkish embassy in Berlin did not respond to questions on the matter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 October 2016 | Permalink