Turkish intelligence agency MIT (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı) has recruited spies from diaspora communities in Europe, using nongovernmental organizations as a conveyor belt to reach out to candidates, Nordic Monitor has learned.
According to a well-placed government insider, MIT planted operatives in several key government agencies that deal with Turks and non-Turkish Muslim communities abroad to run the vetting and recruitment program.
The agencies that were used for covert intelligence operations are identified as the Turkish Development and Cooperation Agency (Türk İşbirliği ve Koordinasyon Ajansı, or TİKA), the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı, or YTB) diaspora agency, the government’s cultural arm abroad, the Yunus Emre Institute, and indoctrination and proselytizing entity the Maarif Foundation.
The source, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said he personally witnessed how the intelligence agency developed assets in Europe, naming Austria and France as two countries where he had first-hand knowledge about the espionage programs. “First, assets that were selected as candidates for future operatives were hired on a temporary contract basis by government agencies such as YTB, TİKA and others. Once a determination was made that they would be valuable to the spy agency, they were transferred to MIT and put permanently on the payroll,” the person explained.
According to the whistleblower, the regulations were designed to bypass the standard recruitment process for employment in government jobs for such candidates. “We saw some people hired on a temporary contract basis by the YTB and TİKA, but they were later shipped to the spy agency,” the source noted.
The way the government insider described the entire process presents a picture of a revolving door policy adopted by Turkish government agencies whose stated mandate is to help Turks abroad and to promote Turkey through educational, cultural and charitable activities. However, the agencies apparently run clandestine operations to extend the long arm of the government of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in foreign territory, especially in Europe, where some 5 million Turks live as expatriates.
One of the platforms used in Europe by the intelligence agency to identify potential recruits is the Association to Support International Students and Student Activities (Uluslararası Öğrenci ve Öğrenci Aktivitelerini Destekleme Derneği, or Wonder) in Austria, according to the source.
Wonder is an Austrian affiliate of Turkey’s Önder Foundation, a powerful alumni network for religious imam-hatip schools where President Erdoğan, his son Bilal and daughter Sumeyye were all taught during their high school years. Önder members have been top contenders for government jobs in Turkey, where pervasive favoritism gives preference to graduates of religious high schools. Likewise, Wonder has sent many members to Turkey to take up government jobs throughout all the years the Erdoğan government has been in power. Erdoğan visited Wonder and delivered a speech there when he visited Austria in March 2013.
Hakan Fidan, currently the head of MIT, brought some Islamists to TIKA from overseas, including from the US and Europe, when he was running the organization until 2010, when Erdoğan appointed him to lead the intelligence agency. Many positions in MIT were staffed with people from Islamist and nationalist backgrounds as a result of this secretive program. Referrals from Wonder unlocked the key to critical positions in the intelligence agency as well other government institutions.
For example, Fatih Yavuz Yiğit is one such recruit from Austria’s Wonder group, according to the source. He first took a job in the diaspora agency YTB and later transferred to the intelligence agency.
Several of the YTB deputy presidents are in fact MIT agents who are tasked with overseeing the entire scheme. Some at the department head level as well as some who are listed as experts were involved in day to day operations, running backdoor intelligence operations for MIT while pretending to be working for the YTB.
Gürsel Dönmez, 56-year-old immigrant from Bulgaria, had spent 22 years in Austria and led the Austrian branch of the Union of International Democrats (UID, formerly UETD), an organization that functions as the lobbying arm of the Erdoğan government. He was named one of the first deputy presidents of the YTB when the agency was established in 2009. During his time there until 2015, he maintained close ties with MIT and coordinated operations in parallel with the spy agency. He even wrote a book on intelligence methodology and currently works in the president’s office. His name was rumored in Ankara circles as one of the potential successors of Fidan at MIT.
The YTB holds strategy meetings every week with the participation of the intelligence agencies in order to develop policies on how to expand their operational arm using the programs that were funded by the YTB. “There is quite a contrast between the declared goals of the YTB-financed projects in Europe and what the policymakers really intend to accomplish,” the source underlined. “They are striving to develop proxy groups under various schemes and names in order to use them for political goals. They recruit people in particular who know the language, culture and foreign territory,” he added.
The YTP runs multiple programs including government scholarships to reach out to foreign students. This year 2,500 students who received Turkish government funds graduated from Turkish universities. In a ceremony held in July 2020, YTB President Abdullah Eren, whose family roots are in the Turkish diaspora in Greece, openly asked the students to support Turkey in its global campaign. The YTB organizes special youth programs in Europe, drawing hundreds of young people from Western European countries as well as Canada every year to training and indoctrination programs.
The YTB has 312 employees with 146 in permanent positions and 26 on contract. Presidential decree no. 4, issued in 2018, described the mandate of the YTB as very broad when it comes to the scope of its operations. It states that the YTB is required to do “any task given by the president.” The YTB’s 2019 budget was TL 321 million, an increase of 12.3 percent over the previous year. Yet it overspent and had to get an additional TL 43.6 million to cover increased costs. The 2020 budget allocation is TL 385 million, and 2021 is projected at TL 462 million. The budget does not reflect secret discretionary funds used by the YTB at the direction of President Erdoğan.
Mehmet Kılıç is another operative who was transferred to MIT using the same revolving door policy that is active in TIKA. He was part of Fidan’s team in the intelligence agency and played a key role in the purge from government jobs of nearly 150,000 perceived or real critics and opponents of Erdoğan’s government. In summer 2014 he was sent to Ukraine as a Turkish member of an observer delegation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) but was detained for a month by pro-Russian separatists in southeast Ukraine.
Mehmet Köse is another person mentioned by the whistleblower, who said he was an active MIT agent who ran screening programs for people from abroad and devised government scholarship programs for foreign students. He had served as deputy president of the YTB since its establishment. He was described as the man who was really calling the shots for the entire YTB operation when he was deputy. He was eventually promoted to president of the YTB in 2016 and stayed on the job until 2018. He established multiple NGO groups to cover his tracks in the intelligence and clandestine operations. The Foundation for Migration Studies (Göç Araştırmaları Vakfı, or GAV), established in 2010, is one of his special projects. GAV develops policies for the Turkish diaspora in Europe and the Americas, and runs research not only on Turkish expatriates but also on non-Turkish Muslim communities and minorities.
According to the source, the funding of NGOs abroad is done on two main tracks. One is the the use of Turkish state banks such as Vakıfbank and Ziraat to transfer funds directly to the accounts of NGOs under the guise of charitable and community work. “Open funding for such entities abroad has a real impact in the diaspora communities in terms of promoting the Erdoğan government. It is a clear message that the Turkish government is fully behind its proxies, and Ankara is not really afraid of host government concerns in bankrolling such groups that pose a threat to the host country’s security,” the source said. “This gets advertised very quickly among expatriates, and those people and entities who receive the funding feel more emboldened and get immediate recognition and respect in their own parallel societies,” he added.
Some of the funding for secretive operations is done through cash carried in diplomatic pouches and by national flag carrier Turkish Airlines, said the source. Front businesses were set up to bankroll operations in Europe, and some of the businesspeople who finance projects are compensated in Turkey through various means such as awards of government contracts and tenders.