By Abdullah Bozkurt
Given the track record of notorious Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), which contracted out the murder of three Kurdish women in the heart of Paris in January 2013, threats raised against Turkish government critics and dissidents who are forced to live in exile in other countries must be taken seriously.
Among those targeted are prominent journalists who had no choice but to flee Turkey to escape imprisonment, torture and even murder. Yet, judging from threats uttered publicly by thugs who are allowed to parade on government-controlled TV and newspaper pages, this new batch of political migrants from Turkey are certainly not in the clear. The other day, appearing on TV, Cem Küçük, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s loquacious implant in the media, threatened veteran journalist Bülent Keneş, formed editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, who is wanted for arrest on farcical charges like dozens of other media workers. Küçük, who has links to the Turkish intelligence agency, said Keneş and others like him will be snatched from wherever they are and brought back to Turkey in covert operations. “I hope they smash their faces in on the way back”, he said.
Küçük, whose name was not really known to Turkish media professionals just a few years ago, has suddenly emerged as a chatterbox for Erdoğan, doing his dirty bidding of spreading fear across the board for Turkish media workers. He was generously given a space to write in a pro-government daily and offered abundantly free airtime on TV. This thug, whose leash is apparently in the hands of Erdoğan, has called for the killing of Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, who had to flee Turkey over legitimate concerns about his safety. He belongs to a cast of characters who have campaigned for the seizure of media outlets affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, the Kurdish political movement, Alevis and the social democratic base. Acting on an insider accounts, Küçük revealed impending police raids, arrests and seizure of Turkish media outlets before they actually took place.
Since it is well established that this sidekick speaks for the King who rules Turkey with absolute power, whatever Küçük said must be taken at face value. After all President Erdoğan said on Oct. 14 that “those who fled abroad, you shall not feel safe. They cannot get away with it.” Küçük tweeted on Tuesday that the government formed a special operations unit to target members of the Gülen movement abroad and that funds for such an action were already provided. That means foreign law enforcement agencies and intelligence services must be vigilant for any movement that may disrupt the safety and security of these vulnerable people. Perhaps this is an act of desperation on the part of Erdoğan, who was rebuffed in getting what he wants through official channels. Most countries have simply balked at Turkish government requests to hand over dissidents because they do not believe the false charges the Erdoğan regime makes up. The free world considers Erdoğan’s moves as nothing but part of a politically motivated charade.
That said, one ought to be careful about Erdoğan, who is willing to go to any length to get what he wants including destroying the nation’s political, economic and judicial institutions, venturing into a war with neighbors, aiding and abetting radical groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda to use them as proxies. Just as Turkey’s oppressive regime under this dictator does not recognize the rule of law at home, it also feels no obligation whatsoever to comply with international conventions in acting in a foreign territory. The presence of Turkish troops in Iraq and Syria without permission from Baghdad or Damascus is a clear violation of sovereignty, yet Erdoğan says he’ll do as he pleases no matter what others say or do about it. He openly entertains the idea of annexing former Ottoman lands to Turkey, questioning the Lausanne Treaty by raising the status of the Greek islands in the Aegean. Hence, any threat to expatriates in foreign countries must be considered a valid threat, and action must be taken to deter any clandestine operations likely to be launched by Turkish intelligence services or their contractors.
Here is what we know so far. Turkish intelligence already abducted three Turkish citizens from Malaysia in October. It has surveilled and photographed prominent journalists in the US and Canada, turned over their photos to government media so that a target can be painted on their back. Appearing on a TV show, Ersoy Dede, another thug in Erdoğan’s troll army, threatened journalist Tuncay Opçin, whose pictures in the US were plastered on the front pages of government media, with assassination. It is clear that Turkish intelligence operatives, either working out of embassies and consulates under diplomatic cover or using contractors and informants within Turkish expat communities, have been monitoring the activities of critics and dissidents abroad.
This is hardly surprising given the fact Erdoğan is following the tactics of Iranian mullahs in consolidating his power in Turkey, using Ayatollah Khomeini’s playbook in seizing power, intimidating opponents, using ferocious anti-Western religious zealotry to fire up his supporters. We know that Iran’s clandestine intelligence services were greatly influenced by the 11th century sect called Hashshashin, a root word for assassin, that used assassinations to take over fortresses and that operated out of northern Iran. The mullahs had also carried out similar campaign of assassinations abroad targeting critics and dissidents for some time after the so-called Islamic revolution in 1979. Erdoğan, who called Iran his second home and whose family was handsomely bribed by Iranian operative Reza Zarrab (who is being tried in US federal court on charges of violating Iran sanction laws), obviously tapped his intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, a known pro-Iranian asset, to plan attacks and assassinations targeting opponents and critics outside of Turkey.
No doubt that the operations conducted by Turkish intelligence services overseas could easily be detected by their counterparts in routine daily reconnaissance work. However, that is not enough by itself to respond the fundamental challenge as it requires a political directive with a specific focus and targeting to really counter Turkish intel penetration. Some European countries especially ones that host major Turkish communities such as France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, have already adopted a comprehensive counter strategy against Turkey. The US and Canada have both set up priority intelligence gathering on Erdoğan’s parallel networks in North America that aim to recruit people not only from a Turkish background but also from other Muslim nationalities, a move they consider part of the radicalization of their populations. They are well aware of the fact that Erdoğan’s spies have been trying to infiltrate Turkish and Muslim communities, creating front NGOs, running propaganda machinery, funding networks, organizing rallies, disseminating false campaigns, trying to isolate dissidents and harassing critics.
Erdoğan thinks he can act much more comfortably on the African continent, where members of the Gülen movement have established networks on education, health, social inclusion and charity work. If the reporting is true, MİT orchestrated the assassinations of six teachers in an attack on a school bus in Mogadishu in March of this year. Two teachers were Turkish nationals who were working for a Gülen-affiliated school in Somalia. However, most African countries have strong counterintelligence services that can very well respond to plots cooked up by the Turkish intel service, but even just one who escapes scrutiny may cost the life of an innocent man or woman.
Perhaps it is time to declare the Turkish intelligence service, apparently turned into a private detective agency that organizes posses and hunting parties for Erdoğan, as a hostile intelligence service that poses a direct threat to the security of other nations. The classification of friendly intelligence service no longer applies to MİT, which is poised to stir up conflicts in other countries so that Erdoğan can use that as leverage. This hazardous operation infringes upon liberties, violates the rule of law and the fundamental rights of immigrants who seek safety in other countries. Utmost vigilance, closer scrutiny and definitely more resources are needed to expose and track down Erdoğan spies.
Surely, Turkey would retaliate for any arrests or the expulsion of intelligence operatives or assets that were blatantly directed to subvert the rules and laws of host nations and break the undeclared rules of engagement of the intelligence community. But the benefit of sending a clear message to Erdoğan outweighs potential negative repercussions. I believe that is what Germany did with respect to Erdoğan’s personal aide Muhammed Taha Gergerlioğlu, who was detained in 2015 on espionage charges in Germany and was being tried in a court of law before he was let go after Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a deal on refugees with Erdoğan. From wiretap records, Gergerlioğlu and his associates are staunch opponents of the West in general, Germany in particular. Regarding Germany as the enemy of Turkey, Gergerlioğlu and his partners had been profiling expatriates, conducting illegal surveillance and manipulating and polarizing members of the German community of Turkish descent until his arrest by German authorities.
It appears Erdoğan now requires stories of the abductions of Turkish nationals from abroad to solidify a perception that there is no escape from his wrath. For that, a campaign of intimidation, plots of kidnapping and even planning murders either directly by intelligence operatives or through using criminals in foreign countries are in the works. A diplomatic notice with the Turkish embassy or lodging an official complaint with the Turkish government won’t resolve this issue. They will be futile attempts in helping resist Erdoğan’s attempts. This major challenge needs forceful action, perhaps launching an official prosecution to investigate the size and scope of these clandestine activities by Erdoğan’s henchmen on foreign soil and to indict and convict culprits. Erdoğan won’t cease his attempts to infiltrate, but the clandestine network he relies on for operations would not be so willing to undertake any more missions if they are given hard lessons on red lines.