Cloak and Dagger in German-Turkish Relations

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BERLIN — The news that the Turkish intelligence agency MIT was not only spying on German citizens in their home country, but had requested help in this pursuit from the German intelligence service BND, signaled a new low-point in Berlin-Ankara relations. Relations had already been poisoned by wild accusations made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the German government and Chancellor Angela Merkel that she was “Nazi-like” and “using Nazi methods.” The resulting controversy regarding whether or not to allow AKP politicians to campaign in Germany for a “yes” vote on the upcoming referendum ended in a decision, by Ankara, to cancel all such planned events. That seemed to lower the political temperature.

Then last week several German press outlets revealed the espionage activities. As reported, the MIT had given a list to its German counterpart during the Munich security conference at the beginning of the year. The list had 358 names of people the Turkish secret services alleged were terrorists and/or linked to the Gülen movement which Erdogan holds responsible for the failed coup attempt last summer. The MIT was seeking help from its German counterpart in gathering information about these people. Instead, the list arrived on the desks of the government, the German Criminal Police BKA, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and police. Interior ministries of the federal states then informed the individuals named, out of concern for their security. Among the names were political figures; Michelle Münterfering, wife of the former SPD leader Franz Münterfering, and Chairwoman of the German-Turkish Parliamentary Group was the most prominent.

Backlash

It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Not only did the news become very public, but political figures took the gloves off. Televised talk shows on national channels have been focusing increasingly on Turkey and the growing tensions. During popular round table discussions hosted by Maybrit Illner or Anne Will on prime time shows, typically there are a couple of prominent German politicians, an intelligence expert or two, and one or two Turkish-Germans, one of whom will struggle to argue for the AKP position. On March 31, Parliamentarian Münterfering herself appeared, and said, though in that position she had always been open to dialogue even with difficult interlocutors, here a new limit had been reached with such methods. Sabine Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger, a former Justice Minister from the liberal party FDP, who had met with journalists in Turkey, denounced the list, stating, “There is no danger represented by these people. The list is a notion to the German intelligence services [that they should] violate fundamental rights.”

The pro-Erdogan position ritually presented in these talk shows is that the Gülen crowd are terrorists, having attempted a violent coup, and that it is the duty of the Germans to hunt them down for prosecution. The most explosive response to this line of argument came during this show from Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, an intelligence expert, who exposed the charges of Gülen’s culpability as phony. “Turkish espionage was always known,” he said, “but it has gotten more aggressive since 2013.” Following the protests at Gezi park, he said that German-Turks came more under surveillance, “and then the pseudo-coup in July only increased Turkish paranoia.” When the term “pseudo-coup” provoked objections from Haluk Yildiz, from the Turkish side, Schmidt-Eenboom went on to say that the BND and CIA had concluded that it was “a pseudo-coup, staged by Erdogan, to prevent a possible real coup.” As for the Gülen movement, he said the BND shared the view that it “is definitely not the party responsible for the coup.” Commenting on the extent of Turkish espionage in Germany, he said, “Even the Stasi [Communist East German Security] did not manage to build such a vast network of agents in the Federal Republic of Germany.” (He also had pertinent remarks about “something like a jihadist highway,” that Turkey had until 2014, along which “it sent fighters from Libya and other countries over the border.”)

That the network is vast has been documented in recent weeks. In February, law enforcement agencies raided homes, mosques and offices of DITIB, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, the largest organization representing the Turkish community in Germany. It depends directly on the Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs) in Turkey and came to the attention of German authorities after reports that its representatives, especially imams, were collecting information on persons of Turkish background who had contacts to the Gülen schools or other entities. Teachers and imams were supposed to report such persons. DITIB has also come under scrutiny for allegedly promoting violence; since September 2016 all imams who tend to persons in prisons have been required to undergo checks by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, but the vast majority of DITIB imams in North Rhine Westphalia, for example, declined to do so. Thus, if 117 DITIB imams worked in the prisons in 2015, only 12 now do so.

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The scandal of spying on German citizens suspected of links to the Gülen movement has generated fear among Turkish-Germans who are opposed to Erdogan and has created a serious conflict between the pro- and anti-Erdogan factions in the Federal Republic. Not only: as Zeit online, among other press reported recently, increasing numbers of Turkish citizens who fear for their safety at home are seeking asylum in Germany. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has received 262 applications for asylum, presented by Turkish diplomats and military officials.

Spying in Turkey

Not infrequently, pro-Erdogan representatives in the talk shows will accuse Germany of spying in Turkey. Schmidt-Eenboom was blunt in his response. Yes, the BND spies in Turkey, and also in other countries, as other foreign intelligence agencies also do. In fact, the information about Turkish support for jihadists had been obtained through wiretapping of phones in the presidential palace, by the NSA among other western agencies. Schmidt-Eeboom justified the actions thus: “Erdogan is a neo-Ottoman. He is striving to establish a Eurasian Islamist state, with territorial claims vis-a-vis Greece, Bulgaria and northern Iraq.” That is something that needs to be monitored.

(The author can be reached at mirak.weissbach@googlemail.com)