Turkey's global spy network exposed

Nordic Monitor has had access to secret documents that prove how Ankara has kept nationals critical of the government under surveillance in nearly twenty countries
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

AP/FRANK AUGSTEIN  -   Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Serious setback for the Turkish secret services. A leak of secret documents has exposed the complex surveillance system that Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has deployed in at least nineteen countries to keep individuals critical of the regime under control. The documents to which Nordic Monitor has had access describe an intricate structure involving intelligence agents, police and even diplomatic staff. 

According to the research of journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, Ankara has been collecting intelligence on specific individuals - Turkish nationals who oppose Erdogan's totalitarian drift - in about 20 countries on several continents for years. The documents prove that these operations have been carried out, above all, in the United States, Germany and Greece, but also in Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Brazil, Angola, South Africa, Egypt, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. 

The entire surveillance system was put in place with the full knowledge of the president himself. Its aim was to gather information that could be used to build criminal cases against dissidents, many of whom were affiliated with the movement of the opposition leader Fetullah Gülen.

El clérigo turco Fetullah Gülen en su casa de Saylorsburg, Pensilvania, EEUU
REUTERS/CHARLES MOSTOLLER - Turkish cleric Fetullah Gülen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, USA
How it works

How did this network operate, with a strong presence across the globe? The system was established within the famous Emniyet, which is how the General Directorate of Security in Turkish. Within this powerful institution, Erdogan created four new departments in the spring of 2016 (shortly before the failed coup d'état). The name of one of them has remained hidden until now. 

Time has shown that this secrecy was, in a way, justified. This is the Department for Combating Crimes against National Security, which, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has been responsible for passing on specific instructions to intelligence-gatherers on the ground. The data obtained were ultimately sent to the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which compiled and stored them.

Oficiales de la policía antidisturbios se paran frente a la sede del municipio de Diyarbakir, en el sudeste de Turquía, el 30 de octubre de 2016, durante una manifestación pro-kurda
AFP/ ILYAS AKENGIN - Riot police officers stand in front of the Diyarbakir municipality headquarters in south-eastern Turkey on 30 October 2016 during a pro-Kurdish demonstration

Who were the sources? Typically, information-gathering operations were commissioned from specialists who had been placed on the ground by MIT. However, the work was not exclusively reserved for intelligence officers. As documented by the Nordic Monitor, Turkish diplomats in London, Denmark and Uzbekistan have been known to provide the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with secret reports containing surveillance data on certain individuals - functions that are clearly illegal under the 1961 Vienna Convention governing diplomatic law. 

The intelligence obtained was not left in a drawer. At least some of it was shared with the Emniyet's Organized Crime Department (KOM). This institution, led by Resul Hologlu, has been in charge of, on multiple occasions, fabricating accusations of terrorism and membership of criminal groups against citizens who have been critical of the Erdogan government, including journalists and lawyers.

El ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Turquía, Mevlut Cavusoglu
Who's in the spotlight? 

Some of the people who have been subject to surveillance abroad are, in fact, information professionals. The Nordic Monitor investigation claims that some of the individuals monitored were sympathisers or affiliates of the movement led by Fetullah Gülen, one of the president's most prominent opponents. Although Gülen himself is based in the United States, the ramifications of his organisation extend to many countries. Others were on the radar screen for opposing Erdogan's expansionist campaigns in Syria and Libya. 

Among the individuals mentioned in the leaked papers, some are facing various criminal charges of dubious legal validity. Some of the most prominent are journalist Metin Yikar, who worked as editor-in-chief of the news channel Samanyolu Haber TV, which was shut down in 2016 after a journalistic investigation into corruption cases involving members of the president's family at the time. 

Another of those under surveillance is Ibrahim Aytaç Anli, who spent time in Iraq before settling permanently in the United States. In Washington DC, he serves as executive chairman of Rumi Forum, a non-profit foundation dedicated to promoting inter-religious and intercultural dialogue.

Un grupo de kurdos anti-Erdogan grita consignas a un grupo de manifestantes pro-Erdogan en el parque Lafayette de Washington, en una foto de archivo de 2017
PHOTO/REUTERS - A group of anti-Erdogan Kurds shout slogans to a group of pro-Erdogan protesters in Washington's Lafayette Park in a 2017 archive photo
Fear of a leak

It was precisely one of the priorities of the Turkish government to keep this surveillance system as secret as possible. Among the documents to which the Nordic Monitor had access was a letter signed by Kahyan Ay, deputy chief of police of Ankara province.  

In the letter, Ay insisted to his subordinates that it was essential that information should be transmitted only in strictly necessary cases. He also pointed out that it should not be shared with unauthorized persons or agencies. Thus, it seems that the Turkish authorities had a well-founded fear that their surveillance strategy would be revealed. 

However, this is somewhat contradictory, as Erdogan himself has publicly called on members of the Turkish diaspora to denounce those who do not comply with official doctrine. In fact, an anonymous call has resulted in the investigation by Ankara of several citizens critical of its government who are resident in Germany, according to the Nordic Monitor.  

It is therefore good to have a network of informants, even if it is the citizens themselves who accuse their neighbour, but not to make it public that there is a department dedicated exclusively to the surveillance of the most critical individuals; that seems to have been the position taken by the president and his people.

Complejo penitenciario de Silivri cerca de Estambul
PHOTO/REUTERS - Silivri prison complex near Istanbul
Will there be consequences? 

What practical consequences might result from the fact that this network has come to light? It remains to be seen. Internally, Turkish society has become increasingly polarised as Erdogan has consolidated an increasingly authoritarian way of doing politics. His supporters are increasingly enthusiastic in their defence, while his detractors are increasingly unhappy. 

The president has strengthened his position by trying to silence any kind of criticism. This strategy, which is rooted in a constant violation of human rights, has only been half successful, as dissonant voices continue to appear everywhere. In the current context of the coronavirus crisis, prominent political opposition figures, such as the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, have shown themselves to be very opposed to the government's management. Furthermore, in a broader context, the deep economic crisis that the Eurasian country is going through may generate even more discontent. 

Personas con banderas kurdas se manifiestan contra el presidente turco Recep Tayyip Erdogan y la represión política que siguió al fallido golpe militar de julio en Leipzig, Alemania, el sábado 19 de noviembre de 2016
AP/JENS MEYER - People with Kurdish flags demonstrate against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the political repression that followed the failed military coup in July in Leipzig, Germany, on Saturday 19 November 2016

On an external level, the truth is that Turkey has less and less support in the geopolitical arena, partly due to the drift of its president. The abuses perpetrated by the government, with a separation of powers that has been blurred in the last five years, have raised blisters in several organizations for the defense of Human Rights, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. 

At state and intergovernmental level, Turkey has been a very persistent headache for NATO, of which it is a member, but more because of its military campaigns in Syria and Libya than because of its internal problems. The European Union, however, is an increasingly distant target for Ankara. President Erdogan's campaign of internal repression makes it impossible for the time being for the country to join the EU club.