Turkey zeroes in on enemies abroad

12/1/20 | 0 | 0 | 105 εμφανίσεις

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week the Turkish intelligence agency, MIT, which has seen a vast expansion of its budget in recent years, would be drawing down its domestic operations and increasing its covert activities abroad.

The U.S. assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the murders of opponents of the Russian government in Britain and Germany have led to fears that other states could also take to killing their enemies abroad. Analysts say Turkey is actively in surveillance operations against dissidents in Germany, may have hired local proxies to carry out hits in the past and could consider doing so again.

“It’s not completely impossible that such a thing could happen,” Kristian Brakel, Istanbul head of the Berlin-based think tank the Heinrich Böll Foundation, told Ahval in a podcast. “We’ve seen other countries such as Russia ramping up assassinations abroad, including in Germany.”

Erdoğan has repeatedly said some 10,000 Turkish terrorists are allowed to move freely in Germany, a reference to the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Turkish preacher that Turkey blames for a failed coup in 2016, and Kurdish separatists linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has led an armed insurgency in Turkey since 1984.

The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by the United States, the EU, and Turkey. But from Berlin’s perspective, there is little it can do to prosecute the thousands of law-abiding Kurdish activists and Gülenists within Germany.

Erdoğan has also said that Turkey could soon launch an operation like the United States undertook to kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while Turkish officials have said they know the location of Adil Öksüz, a Gülenist academic they believe coordinated the 2016 coup attempt. He is said to be hiding somewhere in Europe.

Alexander Clarkson, lecturer for German and European Studies at King’s College London, saw a growing belief within German security services that MIT would hire local operatives, such as Turkish biker gangs, for some sort of violent operation, in order to be able to deny responsibility.

“This wouldn’t be the first time,” Clarkson told Ahval in a podcast, pointing out that MIT was extremely active in Germany in the 1980s and 90s, targeting the PKK and Kurdish activists. “There’s a long tradition of this, hiring local groups, sending operatives, using disinformation.”

The problem for Turkey is that the political landscape for Turkish dissidents in Europe has changed significantly in recent years. For starters, a strong and well-organised network of lobbyists has emerged to advocate for the Kurdish movement and Kurdish rights.

“There is now a substantial Kurdish middle class,” said Clarkson, pointing to networks of Kurdish doctors, lawyers, academics, and politicians in Germany and the Netherlands who have developed sizable fundraising mechanisms. “They have a voice, they are very effective lobbyists, and they have a set of shared strategic goals.”

Turkey tends to think it can counter Kurdish lobbying by mobilising the Turkish diaspora in Europe, which it sees as backing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Some two-thirds of Germany’s 4.5 million Muslims are of Turkish origin, representing the largest Turkish community outside Turkey and Germany’s largest immigrant group.

But in countries like Germany the diaspora tends to divide along the same lines as Turkish citizens back home – between conservatives who support Erdoğan and the more progressive-minded who dislike what they see as his growing authoritarianism.

“The Kurdish diaspora is relatively united and acts as a united actor, whereas the Turkish diaspora is at war with itself,” said Clarkson. “It’s the Kurdish diaspora that has the reach and the sympathy.”

This helps explain why Turkey’s defence of its offensive in northeast Syria, which has targeted the Kurdish-led YPG, has largely fallen on deaf ears. Rather than accepting Turkey’s view, the EU restricted arms sales to Ankara for the incursion.

Last year, the European Court of Human Rights urged Turkey to release leading Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, and followed up that move in July, finding Turkey guilty of violating his rights.

Then there are the exiled supposed followers of Gülen, who in most European countries have received a warm welcome and been allowed to carry on with their lives.

“In Germany, the Gülenists were very successful in generating an image of being moderates and engaged in multi-faith dialogue at a local level,” said Clarkson, adding that the federal government maintains some scepticism toward Gülen.

Still, Kurdish activists and lobbying groups, Gülenists and Turkish intellectuals have become a part of everyday life in Germany. “These are people who are now finding places within the German institutional system. They are influencing the debate,” said Clarkson.

When these groups call for Kurdish rights and autonomy, or highlight problematic Turkish policies abroad, such as Ankara’s global hunt for Gülenists, Turkey’s moves in the eastern Mediterranean or Turkish imams spying in Germany for the Turkish government, they receive a fair hearing in Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere. The political ground has shifted and Turkey appears not to have noticed.

“This has been misread and profoundly misunderstood by Ankara,” said Clarkson. “The more Ankara sends in hit squads or incites Turkish biker gangs or organised criminals to attack Kurdish or Turkish dissident targets, the more it alienates the German side it will eventually need.”

Relations between Germany and Russia have turned frosty since the German government determined that Moscow was behind the August killing of a Georgian-Chechen militant in a Berlin park. Berlin expelled two Russian diplomats in early December, to which Russia vowed to retaliate. Still, things could have been worse for Moscow.

“The consequences for Russia have not been so bad so far,” said Brakel. “So maybe Turkey is thinking, well, the consequences will be bearable.”

Any Turkish assassination or major violent attack would likely end security cooperation between the two states and push relations back to their low point in 2017.

“There are wise heads in MIT who know this, and know not to push it,” said Clarkson. “There are also people in the AKP inner circle who are not wise and not attuned to the red lines.”

Category: International

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