In a clear indication of Turkey's expanded spying activities abroad and its strengthened efforts to gather information on opposition groups, a confidential document issued by the government in early June has revealed that hundreds of dissidents have become targets of Turkey's notorious intelligence agency, MIT.
The document, marked secret and obtained by Nordic Monitor, was issued by the Security General Directorate (Emniyet) on June 6, 2023 and exposes a worldwide espionage network, apparently run by MIT, with the purpose of targeting a group that is critical of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Furthermore, the document highlights the fact that Turkey is not deterred by the warnings and concerns communicated by other countries, which asked the Erdogan government to cease and desist from carrying out covert operations on their territories.
According to the information disclosed, MIT submitted a report to the Security General Directorate on May 5, 2023 bearing document ID number 151199188. In this report MIT requested that the police take additional measures concerning individuals who were the subjects of surveillance by MIT intelligence agents in foreign countries.
The MIT report specifically identified more than a hundred individuals associated with the Gulen movement, a group that opposes the authoritarian rule of the Erdogan government. According to the intelligence assessment, the individuals mentioned in the report are believed to hold senior positions within the group.
According to intelligence analysts and experts who provided insight to Nordic Monitor, conducting a large-scale intelligence campaign spanning multiple countries necessitates significant resource mobilization in terms of assets, operatives and financial means. They emphasize that establishing such a mechanism cannot be solely aimed at gathering information on a single group; rather, it is likely designed to serve the strategic objectives of the Erdogan government over an extended period.
Considering that a significant number of exiled Gulenists reside in Western countries, it appears that the intelligence operations were particularly intensified in European nations, Australia and North America.
According to the document, the Turkish government is concerned about possible leaks that might reveal MIT operations abroad. While sharing the information with provincial police departments to further investigate the profiled Gulenists, the Security General Directorate warned that the information passed from abroad must be treated on a "need-to-know" basis and was "not to be shared with unauthorized people/institutions."
The warning serves as a precautionary measure to prevent potential diplomatic backlash and problems at the bilateral level with foreign countries in the event of disclosure of the unlawful spying activities conducted on foreign soil. With emphasis on secrecy, the Security General Directorate wanted to safeguard Turkish assets and operatives deployed abroad and to not risk exposing the mechanisms established by MIT for gathering information.
In recent years, the Erdogan government has faced criticism for its intelligence operations abroad, and the activities of MIT on foreign soil have become a matter of concern at both bilateral and multilateral levels. In June the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), a prominent intergovernmental body that upholds the principles of the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy, strongly criticized Turkey's notorious intelligence agency, MIT, for its covert operations conducted overseas with the intention of intimidating critics, opponents and dissidents.
A PACE report prepared by British lawmaker Christopher Chope emphasized the involvement of MIT in the abduction of critics from foreign countries, which constitutes a clear violation of both international and national laws. PACE specifically called for punitive measures to be taken against states that engage in such acts within the territories of its member states and urged the expulsion of individuals involved in these activities.
Legal cases have indeed been initiated against Turkish government operatives in Europe. Swiss authorities conducted an investigation into an attempted kidnapping by two Turkish diplomats, both suspected to be undercover MIT agents.
In June 2018 a prosecutor with the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland issued arrest warrants for then-Press Attaché Hacı Mehmet Gani and Hakan Kamil Yerge, then-second secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Bern, for plotting to drug and kidnap a Swiss-Turkish businessman in 2016.
German authorities have also conducted investigations into Turkish intelligence operations within its borders. Some of these investigations have resulted in the development of criminal cases, leading to indictments and, in certain instances, convictions of the Turkish intelligence operatives or assets involved.
The Erdogan government even plotted to abduct Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric resident in the US who inspired the movement, from US soil, as The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2017. Kamil Ekim Alptekin, a 44-year-old Turkish government operative who was indicted by US federal prosecutors, tried to run surveillance on opponents of President Erdogan in Washington, D.C.
Alptekin's secret efforts on US soil on behalf of the Erdoğan government were exposed during the trial of his associate Bijan Rafiekian, who was convicted of acting covertly as an agent of the Turkish government in the US without disclosing that relationship to the US government.
The plot included using the services of the Flynn Intel Group (FIG), a company founded by Rafiekian and retired general Michael Flynn to publicly and privately influence US politicians and public opinion, according to a statement released by the US Department of Justice.
Testifying as a government witness at Rafiekian's trial on July 17, 2019 in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Brian McCauley, a former deputy assistant director of the FBI, revealed how Alptekin asked him to plant incriminating evidence against Gülen and run surveillance on Erdogan critics in the Washington, D.C., area.
Since being re-elected in May, President Erdogan has further consolidated his power in Turkey, transforming the country into a state where the police and intelligence apparatus have significant control. Any form of criticism of his rule is frequently labeled as treachery, terrorism or other criminal acts.
Turkish citizens have routinely been dragged to state-controlled courts based on intelligence reports and often imprisoned on charges unrelated to criminal activities. The Erdogan government has curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms, cracked down on opposition parties, critical voices and dissident groups. Furthermore, it has unlawfully seized hundreds of media outlets and carried out a mass purge, resulting in the dismissal of approximately 150,000 government employees from various institutions, including the military, police, judiciary and intelligence agencies.
The Gülen movement is inspired by US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who also faces multiple arrest warrants and an extradition request from Turkey. However, the US government has repeatedly asked the Turkish government for solid evidence of wrongdoing, and Turkey has so far failed to present any direct evidence that would incriminate Gülen.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Sweden-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.