Berlin suspects Turkish intelligence of targeting opposition in Germany

Ankara is said to spy on hundreds of Turks as well as members of the Bundestag.
Saturday 30/05/2020
Demonstrators gather for a rally against Turkish President Erdogan in September 2018, in  Cologne, Germany. (AFP)
Demonstrators gather for a rally against Turkish President Erdogan in September 2018, in Cologne, Germany. (AFP)

Recent reports revealed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) has expanded its activities in Germany for years, while German authorities accused the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) in Berlin of carrying out intelligence work for the Turkish regime and receiving suspicious funds from Ankara.

A new study issued by The Berlin-based European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies accused Ankara of using Islamic organisations and public institutions to spy on its opposition in Germany.

Since a failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, tensions have increased between Ankara and Berlin, especially after the Turkish regime intensified its intelligence activities against its opponents.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Turkey against conducting such covert operations, including those aimed at tracking alleged supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blames for the coup attempt.

The study also indicates that Ankara sees some of its citizens who live in Germany as opponents and adversaries, and considers German authorities as condoning their activities.

Those linked to the Gulen movement are among the most prominent targets.

In a document dating back to March 2017, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) revealed that the Turkish government had failed to convince Berlin of the movement’s involvement in the alleged coup.

Bruno Kahl, the president of the BND, said that the Gulen movement is a nationalist current,  not an extremist group as depicted by Ankara.

Turkey is wary of the support the movement enjoys among segments of the German public and media, and considers that justification for its intelligence operations.

In March 2017, Deutsche Welle, a German government-funded public international broadcaster, reported that German authorities suspected the Turkish intelligence agency of spying on hundreds of Turkish individuals and organisations inside the country.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the German lower house of Parliament Bundestag in Berlin. (AFP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the German lower house of Parliament Bundestag in Berlin. (AFP)

German intelligence also confirmed that Turkey spies on members of the Bundestag (the German federal parliament) and collects information on them. A list stating entities, institutions and bodies infiltrated by Turkey names more than 300 people, the most prominent of whom are opponents of the government in Ankara, along with 200 institutions, schools and clubs.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said that “what Ankara does in our country is unacceptable, regardless of its criticisms of the Gulen movement.”

Germany’s parliament discussed with the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) the dangers of the Turkish activities, while German federal prosecutors began a preliminary investigation into Turkey’s alleged espionage activities in July 2017.

Another political movement that Turkey targets is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara believes is being aided by Germany. Government connected research centres accuse Berlin of violating Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws.

On January 8, 2020, the SITA Institute claimed that Germany violated Section 129 in the Code Of Criminal Procedure regarding the prosecution of members of terrorist groups by welcoming sympathisers of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara considers a terrorist group.

Within Germany and in various other countries in the European Union, Turkey relies on institutions and organisations as intelligence arms. The most prominent is the DITIB. German authorities suspect DITIB reports back to the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Turkey’s top religious authority, about alleged activities of supporters of the Gulen movement residing in Germany.

The German government sought to limit DITIB’s influence, suspecting its involvement with the Turkish government.

In July 2018, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior announced that the government would not finance any of its projects. In September 2019, the BND considered putting the group on a probation list, according to Deutsche Welle.

Increasing German intelligence concerns about Turkey is its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.

An intelligence report issued by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) warned of the growing security threat that the Muslim Brotherhood poses to Germany.

There are indications of growing opposition in the German parliament to Turkish intelligence activities inside the country.

A member of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Committee, Hans-Christian Strobele, called for the expulsion of Turkish intelligence agents, noting that he was sure some agents were working for Ankara on German soil.

Hans stressed that his country maintains intelligence cooperation with NATO countries to combat terrorism, but does not deem the focus of Turkey’s intelligence and espionage activities acceptable.

The European Centre for Counter-terrorism and Intelligence Studies recommended that Germany take stricter steps to deal with Turkish intelligence activities, provide protection to those targeted by them and build more awareness of such activities within the German parliament.

It also recommended that Berlin receive guarantees from Ankara that the rights of German citizens of Turkish origin living in Germany are not violated, including when they visit Turkey.