The Turkish intelligence agency (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MIT) has launched a psychological and influence operation (PSYOP) to shore up Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity, which was recently dealt a huge blow with a series of failures in earthquake preparedness and response.
According to information obtained by Nordic Monitor from reliable sources, Hakan Fidan, a long time Erdoğan confidant who has been running MIT since 2010, ordered the execution of several influence operations simultaneously, mobilizing agency personnel and assets to shape the prevailing narrative around an earthquake, set in motion on the second day after a major earthquake struck the southeastern part of the country, killing over 35,000 people as of February 15.
The PSYOP centered around a highly divisive and polarizing Islamist and nationalist narrative, which has been the main campaign theme of President Erdoğan for upcoming elections, which are scheduled for May 14, but are subject to debate for a postponement after the devastating quake.
The agency also ordered its assets planted in the government-controlled media to aggressively push religious talking points, which mainly attributed the huge toll in the quake to fate and God’s work rather than to poor construction, the absence of building code enforcement and pervasive corruption. A privately shot video that showed Erdoğan telling a grieving quake victim last week that the earthquake could be attributed to destiny and that such things are bound to happen is an indication that such a PSYOP was sanctioned at the presidential level.
In the field MIT also deployed assets, especially operatives in some religious communities and groups, to the quake zone and embedded them with rescue and relief teams. The effect of this clandestine mobilization was seen during rescue efforts that were carried live by government-controlled TV outlets for a nationwide audience. It was quite unusual to see religious slogans chanted while TV cameras were rolling to record rescue teams extricating people stuck under the rubble for days.
Although prior warnings were repeatedly made by rescuers and first responders to stop saying such things because of the possible shocking impact on victims at the critical moment when they saw light and the crowd for the first time after days of an agonizing wait in dark, confined spaces, these operatives continued to chant. In the videos the voices of rescue workers were heard complaining to people chanting religious slogans as they struggled to rush victims to waiting ambulances. These operatives defied sound recommendations made by psychologists and trauma experts on how to behave in such situations, and the pleas made by rescue works on the ground fell on deaf ears.
According to the PSYOP plan, such an ugly and public display of religious slogans would also elicit angry responses from the secularist bloc of the political opposition, which would in turn would play right into Erdoğan’s hands. The plan worked like clockwork. The secularists fell into this trap, starting to debate religion, which is what Erdoğan wanted to see happen. This helped him stop the bleeding from defections in his conservative/religious base and frightened voters on the center right of the political spectrum.
The politicians from Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) who were sent to the quake zone comprising 10 provinces were also told to amplify religious messages in their speeches and comments. The goal was to shift the accountability away from Erdoğan’s government, which not only failed to take necessary measures to prepare the region for a long-anticipated quake, but also aggravated problems by granting occupancy permits for hundreds of thousands of buildings that were constructed without the required permits and licenses.
Erdoğan blamed destiny for the earthquake disaster:
MIT also recommended mobilizing the Diyanet, the government’s mammoth religious arm that employs some 140,000 people, most of them as imams, and controls some 90,000 mosques. That advice was put into motion quickly. Prayers called Sala were recited from loudspeakers of minarets, which is quite unusual because Sala is usually only recited nationwide on Fridays an hour from the main prayer or locally if a death occurs, with the neighborhood mosque using the loudspeaker to recite Sala to inform locals about the deceased and invite residents to prayer.
This decades-long tradition was broken for the first time in Turkey during a false flag coup attempt in 2016 that was orchestrated by President Erdoğan and his intelligence and military chiefs to grab power, transform government institutions with the purge of some 150,000 people and push the reluctant army into a military incursion into Syria. The court documents at the time revealed that MIT chief Fidan was in a secret meeting with the Diyanet’s then-president Mehmet Görmez at intelligence headquarters just before the limited military mobilization took place on July 15, 2016. All of a sudden Sala prayers were recited from the loudspeakers of tens of thousands of mosques across Turkey.
The execution of the second leg of MIT’s PSYOP was assigned to the shadowy neo-nationalist group Aydınlık, led by pro-Russian politician Doğu Perinçek, a de facto partner of the Erdoğan government. While the rescue efforts were underway and everybody was talking about rushing supplies and volunteers to the quake-hit provinces, Perinçek’s Vatan Party suddenly launched a bizarre anti-American campaign.
Özgür Bursalı, general secretary of the neo-nationalist, pro-Russia Vatan Party, claimed the US was aiming to invade Turkey under the pretext of providing earthquake assistance:
The campaign was first announced by Özgür Bursalı, the general secretary of the Vatan Party, on February 9 and expanded a day later by Perinçek on his Ulusal TV network. It claimed that the US was preparing to invade Turkey under the pretext of sending aid. The party picked up on the Pentagon’s announcement on February 8 which stated that the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea was instructed to sail closer to Turkey in the event of a need for earthquake assistance.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, told reporters that “We’re trying to do everything we can to lean forward to be responsive to their requests, and help them as they try to save lives and recover.” The ship would join other US military assets such as helicopters and cargo planes that were already deployed by Biden administration to help in search and rescue operations.
“The US aid with an aircraft carrier and the like can’t be accepted. We say to them, ‘May your ships sink.’ These American ships conducted a drill for the invasion [of Turkey],” Perinçek claimed on TV. “We will not fall victim to this fraud that the US is pretending to bring us aid,” he added.
Pro-Russian politician Doğu Perinçek claimed the US was behind the earthquake:
Perinçek further claimed that “the earthquake is under the ‘command’ of the US. … The earthquake is like a weapon used by the US, like a nuclear bomb dropped on Turkey by the US. … They say they are destroying [Turkey] with the earthquake.”
The Vatan Party’s campaign was aimed at helping shift the debate by directing the Turkish public’s focus to Turkey’s perceived external enemies, the US being the prime villain. The campaign was sanctioned by the Erdoğan government, whose talking heads expressed similar far-fetched conspiracy theories to muddy the waters of the information channels.
In fact, even Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu took a moment to comment on the US aircraft carrier right after a visit by Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias, who visited the quake zone on February 13.
“We decide who can enter Turkey’s territorial waters,” he declared while briefing reporters on Dendias’s visit and added that Turkey would not allow the US carrier to enter Turkish waters if the US asks for permission. “There is no need for it. Why do we need a [US] warship? There’s no need for a US warship to enter our territorial waters,” he said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu lent his support to pro-Russia groups, saying his gov’t wouldn’t allow a US aircraft carrier to approach Turkey:
MIT, however, faced a problem in pushing the xenophobic narrative that Turkey has been under attack by the West, claimed repeatedly by Erdoğan and his deputies in their public remarks in recent years, after 81 foreign countries sent 9,456 people to contribute to rescue and relief efforts and brought aid to help Turks cope with post-quake problems. That needed to be dealt with. For that, MIT teams were deployed to exert pressure on foreign rescue teams, which led to security and safety concerns on the part of many countries that sent them to Turkey.
The German and Austrian teams had to suspend operations for a while; the Spanish teams halted their efforts earlier than planned; and Israeli teams stopped their rescue work and departed Turkey, citing threats directed at their members. Credible reports from the field indicated a pattern in which foreign rescue teams were in many instances pushed to the back burner right after they managed to reach out to people under the rubble and were about to pull them to the safety. Instead, Turkish teams on standby replaced them to prevent foreign rescue teams from claiming credit for the success.
Compounding matters further, police and vigilante-led violence against alleged looters in quake zones and extrajudicial punishment that in some cases resulted in the death of alleged perpetrators, made the security environment worse. There have been several public incidents during which innocent volunteers were taken for looters and beaten by a mob or members of law enforcement, apparently sanctioned by the Erdoğan government and allowing the abusers to act with complete impunity in the streets.
In the meantime, some of the neo-nationalists who had worked with MIT in the past started floating claims that foreign intelligence services secretly planted operatives in rescue teams deployed to Turkey, saying that needs to be carefully watched. Cihat Yaycı, a former admiral who helped President Erdoğan purge most pro-NATO officers from the military in 2016, asserted that there could be spies among the foreign rescue teams coming to Turkey and advised the government to be careful. Others like Metin Külünk, a close confidant of the Turkish president, alleged that Christian missionaries had infiltrated rescue teams and that Turkey’s Diyanet needs to monitor them closely.
Anti-migrant politician Ümit Özdağ mobilizes young people against Syrians and other migrants:
The last card played by MIT to shape the debate around the earthquake was the mobilization of anti-migrant politician Ümit Özdağ, leader of the far-right Victory (Zafer) Party. Özdağ, a long-time MIT asset, started touring quake-struck cities with the goal of channelling public anger to Syrian and other migrant groups. He claimed that migrants engaged in looting in areas affected by the earthquake, robbing the deceased and burgling vacated homes. He asked the government to issue a kill order for looters.
In one video he was seen coordinating with a group of young people who were later spotted in another section of the city chanting for the death of Syrian and Afghan migrants.
Özdağ shared footage from the quake zone on February 10 claiming that a young Syrian man was seen stealing a mobile phone from a rescue worker. It later turned out that the young man was a Turkish volunteer and that he was putting his own phone back in his pocket. Özdağ refused to apologize when his lie was exposed.
MIT’s PSYOP appears to be largely successful thanks to the Turkish media, which has by and large been under the control of the Erdoğan government for nearly a decade. As a result, exposing the Erdoğan government’s influence operations for a domestic audience and MIT’s clandestine activities to frame the national debate and shape talking points is mission impossible. The very few opposition media outlets that remain in Turkey have not reached out to the masses.
The government still allows a few publications and TV stations to operate after closing down nearly 200 media outlets in 2015 and 2016 because they serve as good window dressing. Erdoğan government officials often pointed to these small outlets when they were criticized internationally over the lack of press freedom in Turkey and hence they try to claim some sort of democratic legitimacy.