Turkey's spy agency, Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), has expanded its clandestine operations in Greek territory while Turkish and Greek diplomats have been engaging in what appears to be a thaw in bilateral ties in the wake of devastating earthquakes that killed 50,399 people in Turkey's southern provinces.
According to secret documents recently obtained by Nordic Monitor, the Turkish intelligence agency filed a report dated March 2, 2023, a little over two weeks after Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited the quake zone to express his country's solidarity and continued support for rescue and relief efforts.
The MIT report makes clear that the diplomatic gestures and niceties at the political level did not really translate into curbing or restraining clandestine work by MIT. Rather, the opposite took place as MIT intensified its spying and surveillance in Greece.
MIT operates directly under orders from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who entrusted the running of the agency to his long-time confidant Hakan Fidan, an anti-Western Islamist figure, more than a decade ago.
The report details the work of the spy agency in Greek territory in identifying and locating members of the Gülen movement, a group that is critical of President Erdogan on a range of issues, from irredentist and aggressive foreign policy to pervasive corruption in the government and Turkey's aiding and abetting of armed jihadist groups.
It included the names of hundreds of Turkish nationals who had managed to flee to Greece to find sanctuary from a brutal crackdown carried out by the Erdogan regime and to escape wrongful imprisonment in Turkey on politically motivated charges.
A review of the report shows that it was shared with the Security General Directorate (Emniyet), which in turn distributed the information on March 8, 2023 to police departments in multiple provinces for further action on the intelligence.
The cover letter, stamped secret and signed by police chief Salih Yıldırım at the Security General Directorate, warned provincial police departments to treat the information with the utmost of care. He stressed that the information must only be shared on a "need to know basis" and "not ... with any unauthorized persons or agencies." He was apparently concerned about fallout in the event the documents were exposed and wanted to make sure no leaks took place.
MIT's name was also masked in the report, with the agency identified only by the Roman numeral IV.
The paper trail also shows that MIT had sent another report in December 2022 on its work in Greece and that the March 2023 report was an expansion of the earlier report. The documents that were obtained did not provide a full account of all those who were targeted in Greece. But according to a letter signed by police chief Hüseyin Oğuz Namlı at the Istanbul police department on February 2, 2023, an investigation was conducted into 38 people in Istanbul alone.
Considering that the MIT intelligence was shared by the Emniyet with police departments in 54 Turkish provinces, the intelligence agency must have spied on hundreds of people in Greece, obtaining their names and locations.
MIT's spying activities in Greece are not limited to dissident groups. The agency also targets strategic Greek assets to discover security vulnerabilities and aims to map out the extent of the help provided to Greece by its allies, especially the US, in shoring up the country's defenses, specifically in the Thrace region near the land border with Turkey and on islands in the Aegean Sea.
The Turkish president has in the past repeatedly threatened Greece with invasion and said Turkey would act without notice unless Greece behaves, which prompted criticism from the US and the EU.
The spying activity on foreign soil, especially in Europe and the US, targeting critics, journalists and activists has also elicited reactions from a number of countries in recent years. MIT agents, operatives, informants and assets have faced criminal investigations in several European countries resulting in convictions in some cases.
Erdogan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, resident in the US, since corruption investigations in December 2013 into Iran sanctions-violation schemes incriminated then-prime minister Erdogan, his family members and his business and political associates.
Erdogan branded the judicial cases as a coup against his government and accused the movement of launching the probes. The crackdown on the group was intensified further in the aftermath of a false flag failed coup that was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence in 2016 to criminalize the group.
In Turkey over half a million people affiliated with the Gülen movement have been subjected to punitive legal actions on fabricated terrorism charges since 2014 as part of the Erdogan government's unprecedented crackdown on journalists, human rights defenders, civil society organizations and others. Many were imprisoned and were handed down lengthy prison sentences.
More than 130,000 civil servants have been dismissed by the government with no effective judicial or administrative investigation, 4,560 of whom were judges and prosecutors, and were replaced by pro-Erdogan staff. As a result of the massive purge, the Turkish judiciary and law enforcement authorities have become tools in the hands of the Islamist government of President Erdogan to punish critics, opponents and dissidents.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.