A Turkish intelligence officer and retired colonel who had extensive knowledge about links between the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and radical jihadist groups was most likely sent to certain death in Libya in order to eliminate a key witness to the crimes of the Islamist government in Turkey, sources have claimed.
According to the three sources who have access to military intelligence, retired Col. Okan Altınay, who was reportedly killed during shelling of the Port of Tripoli, is believed to have been deliberately set up for assassination by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Altınay had significant differences with a major faction within the intelligence agency that was working with radical jihadist groups in Syria, and he reported those clandestine MIT activities to the General Staff command along with his objections.
Col. Altınay had worked for the Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff for years and attended secret meetings of the Syrian opposition and radical groups with Turkish officials. The General Staff, uneasy with MIT’s close links to jihadist groups including al-Qaeda affiliates, sent him to these meetings in Ankara and Istanbul to monitor and record what was going on. “He knew a lot of secrets and could very well blow the whistle on the Erdoğan government in the end,” one source told Nordic Monitor.
Another source said Col. Altınay had frequently clashed with Kemal Eskintan, a 55-year-old former soldier who is now the head of the special operations department at MIT, but was often overruled because of Eskintan’s backing by MIT Undersecretary Hakan Fidan and President Erdoğan, both of whom used Eskintan and his rogue team of intelligence officers to run secret operations to arm al-Qaeda groups in Syria.
“’These men are truly traitors to the nation, they don’t act like the intelligence service of Turkey but rather an organized crime syndicate that helps radical elements in Syria,’ Altınay told me,” a third source told Nordic Monitor, speaking anonymously. “He had just come back from attending meetings between MIT officials and radical groups when he said this,” the same source added. The secret meeting, held with representatives of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), negotiated the terms of access to the tomb of Süleyman Şah — the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
The tomb, which was located in Syrian territory 30 kilometers from the Turkish border, was being guarded by some 40 Turkish troops, and the Turkish military could not send replacements or logistical supplies for months in 2014 because ISIS militants had surrounded the tomb. The soldiers were trapped near the tomb, and the change of guard that usually takes place every two or three months did not occur.
Turkish military sources describe Col. Altınay as a successful military man who learned Arabic in Syria and later served in Jordan as deputy military attaché between 2010-2012. After returning to Turkey, he had served on the Middle East desk at General Staff headquarters for three years. Altınay retired from the military in 2015 but was transferred by the government to a position at MIT on the advice of the General Staff so that the Turkish military could continue to keep tabs on MIT operations, according to the accounts provided by two of the sources. When Eskintan engaged in empowering jihadists on Libyan soil under an order from the Erdoğan government, Altınay was also assigned to Libya. “We don’t know the exact circumstances of how he got killed, but I suspect he was executed to shut him up in the event the crimes of the Erdoğan government and MIT are exposed in the future,” one source explained.
Reports indicated that Altınay and another Turkish intelligence officer, Sinan Caferler, were killed on February 18, 2020 when the Libyan National Army (LNA) shelled the Tripoli seaport. A Turkish ship reportedly carrying weapons and ammunition was targeted while docked at the port, as well as a hanger where arms brought in by Turkey are stored. The two were located near the port. “For all we know, they were executed separately, or their coordinates were leaked to the LNA,” the sources claimed.
When asked about reports that Turkish military members were killed in Libya, President Erdoğan’s spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, denied the claims at a press briefing on February 18 and said: “This was brought to the agenda [during a cabinet meeting chaired by Erdogan]. There was harassment fire [by the LNA]. It missed the target. There was immediate retaliation with more firepower. This was an incident that took place overnight. After our retaliation, we can say the situation is quite calm now.”
It was clear that the cabinet wanted to stick to a strategy of denial, hoping that the allegations would fade away. However, three days later something very strange happened. President Erdoğan inadvertently revealed it during one of his public speeches in Izmir on February 22, 2020. “We are in Libya with our hero soldiers and teams from the Syrian National Army [Free Syrian Army] against Haftar. Naturally we have several martyrs. But we killed close to 100 mercenaries there in response,” he said. Erdoğan effectively undermined his own cabinet decision while he was trying to brag about how many LNA militia were killed by Turkey in Libya. His remarks angered the opposition, who asked why he was vague on the number of fallen soldiers and accused him of being disrespectful to soldiers.
It later turned out that Altınay was brought back to Turkey and secretly buried in his hometown in the western province of Aydın. The burial was reported by two journalists, Batuhan Çolak and Murat Ağırel, who work for the nationalist Yeniçağ newspaper, when they posted the news on their social media accounts on February 23. MIT hacked into these journalists’ accounts using the mobile phone carrier infrastructure and deleted their messages without the knowledge or approval of the journalists.
Although they did not identify Altınay as the MIT agent, the story of them being killed in Libya alone was enough to spook Eskintan and his gang, who wanted to get rid of any trace of information about the murder of Altınay. Both journalists were arrested and later jailed on false charges. On February 26, a far-right, nationalist lawmaker, Ümit Özdağ, of the İYİ Party, who has connections to MIT, announced in parliament that two MIT agents were “martyred” in Libya and blamed the Erdoğan government for the killings. “Why are you trying to hide the reports of the martyrs?” he asked.
This confirmed the ongoing rivalry among factions within the intelligence service. The Eskintan team wanted it hushed it up, while another faction, affiliated with Altınay, wanted all the details revealed. On March 3 the anti-Semitic, hate-spewing news website OdaTV ran a story about the dead MIT agents and published photos from the burial ceremony. Two journalists from the website were jailed, while the Telecommunications Authority blocked access to the website under a judge’s order. The Erdoğan government and his people in MIT went to great lengths to suppress any information about the killing of Col. Altınay in Libya, which raises further suspicions about their motives.
Interestingly, the burial of Altınay was not in line with the ceremonial procedures awarded to martyrs in Turkey, which sparked the ire of the military. His colleagues from military college years posted a photo of a wreath on Facebook, expressing their sorrow at his passing.
Intelligence officer Caferler, who had worked for MIT for four years, was also quietly buried in his hometown of Akhisar, located in the western province of Manisa. His grave is not marked with his name.