The appointment of Hakan Fidan — the notorious intelligence chief who has run torture centers, executed false flags and kidnapped critics from abroad — as foreign minister in Turkey's new cabinet of trusted loyalists comprising 17 men and one woman on June 3, signals that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will increasingly rely on clandestine activities to sustain his regime.
Fidan has been Erdogan's "go-to" man for the dirty business of executing secret plots to help shape the national agenda for the benefit of the Turkish president's political ambitions. His taking over the foreign ministry after serving 13 years as spymaster at the National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MIT) suggests that Erdogan intends to complete his goal of transforming the diplomatic service into part of a mammoth intelligence apparatus that he has been relying on to rule the country, suppress the opposition and dismantle pockets of dissent.
There's no doubt that MIT is the main intelligence agency in Turkey, but it's not the only one. Many might not be aware of the little-known fact that the Turkish Foreign Ministry has one of the five most important intelligence agencies in Turkey, the Security and Research Directorate (otherwise known as the intelligence section, or Araştırma ve Güvenlik İşleri Genel Müdürlüğü in Turkish). With Fidan at the helm of the foreign ministry, this directorate will become the most critical section of the diplomatic service.
With privileged access to key foreign officials, government entities and intergovernmental platforms, diplomats are in a unique position to gather intelligence and information. Turkish intelligence services have been using this access quite aggressively in recent years, not necessarily to protect Turkey's national security interests but often to help the political viability of the Erdogan regime, crack down on the opposition and conduct influence operations on foreign soil.
Merging the foreign ministry and MIT under a single intelligence community umbrella has long been a project intensely lobbied by Fidan, who seeks to control all the intelligence services and perhaps to rule the country one day after Erdogan's departure from politics. He sold this idea in 2015 to then-prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and resigned from MIT to run for a seat in parliament. The deal was to become foreign minister in Davutoğlu's cabinet.
Fearing that he might be sidelined, Erdogan intervened and thwarted Fidan's plans and forced Davutoğlu's ouster from chairmanship of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and by extension from the position of prime minister. Fidan, unable to run for parliament, returned to MIT and had to postpone his plans. It appears he has now convinced Erdogan to take the leap, and with no faction threatening his strongman position within the party, the Turkish president does not feel threatened by this change.
There are quite a few indications of how Fidan would move forward in transforming the foreign ministry into a vast intelligence tool for President Erdogan's arsenal. As he did after becoming MIT chief in May 2010, Fidan would move quickly to bring in outsiders to expand the directorate and would issue orders to all other departments to help support its operations. To some extent, he had already put such a project into motion after 2014 when Mevlut Çavuşoğlu was foreign minister.
Thanks to a false flag coup bid in 2016 that was orchestrated by MIT, Turkish embassies and consulates were to a significant extent turned into hubs for intelligence operations, especially in gathering information, building proxies and kidnapping critics of President Erdogan. More MIT agents than ever have been posted abroad under the cover of diplomat, consular officer or attaché in the last decade. That practice would surely be expanded further.
It is worth recalling that the Erdogan government has dismissed some 30 percent of the entire diplomatic corps, more than 700 employees, including veteran ambassadors, from the ministry since 2016, jailing many on fabricated charges. A large number of vacated posts were filled with loyalists, partisans and political appointees. The fear factor on the part of the career foreign service remains an important motivation for compliance if they ever contemplate questioning the changes.
Other than running surveillance on Erdogan critics and opponents abroad in blatant violation of the immunities and privileges of diplomats and consular staff that are governed by international conventions, Fidan is also planning to use the foreign service to strengthen existing proxies and create new ones for President Erdogan to further his political agenda. Those proxies will come in handy when Erdogan wants to use them as leverage in his government's affairs with other countries. Erdogan has shown in the past how he is willing and able to mobilize Turks and Muslims for the Turkish government's political objectives.
Fidan has nothing to gain by playing nice diplomat but everything to lose if he fails in his efforts to demonstrate his utility to his political patron, President Erdogan. Frankly it would be a futile attempt even if Fidan wants to engage in a charm offensive, given the dirty baggage he carries from the past in arming and funding terrorist jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Everybody knows of his ties to Iran, motivated by an ideological commitment to the mullah regime from his youth, when he was educated in Shiite study circles. He has befriended IRGC's Quds Force operatives, some sanctioned by the US government, and exposed Mossad's operations that targeted Iran from Turkish territory.
That does not mean, of course, that his foreign counterparts won't engage with him. He is the foreign minister, and his position carries more weight than the man himself. An outpouring of congratulatory messages from his foreign counterparts after his selection by Erdogan was not unexpected. He will be watched carefully, however, and his people at the foreign ministry will be monitored over whether they respect the privileges and immunities described in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs, or if they interfere in the internal affairs of their host countries.
Fidan is undoubtedly the number one person in transforming the Turkish parliamentary democracy into an authoritarian state ruled by a strongman with dozens of plots, crackdowns on opposition groups and cross-border clandestine operations. Under his watch MIT directed major legal cases in Turkey to hammer dissidents and imprison not only Turkish nationals but also foreign citizens as part of what is it called "hostage diplomacy." In many abusive legal cases, MIT agents and assets were secret witnesses, offering fabricated statements to build sham cases against Erdogan opponents.
For that, he knows he has no future in Turkey if the rule of law makes a comeback and Turkish democracy is one day restored. If that happens, Fidan will most certainly not ever see the day of light for the serious crimes such as murder, torture and other human rights violations he and his people at the agency committed.
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.