Appointments to various departments within the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, signed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were published in the Official Gazette on Friday. After the appointment of the former spymaster as the new foreign minister in June, as anticipated, officials who had previously worked closely with him have now assumed critical roles within the ministry.
Erdogan’s closest confidant, Hakan Fidan, who served at the helm of Turkish spy agency MİT for 13 years, was named minister of foreign affairs in the newly formed government on June 4.
In the appointments announced on Friday, the name that captured the most attention was that of Nuh Yılmaz, MİT’s former press counselor and head of the counterintelligence section. Yılmaz, who is rumored to become a deputy minister, initially joined the ministry as an advisor along with Fidan in June.
Yılmaz was appointed to lead the Center for Strategic Research (SAM), a think tank within the ministry, on Friday. However, this appointment is symbolic, indicating that he will continue working closely within Fidan’s inner circle.
Yılmaz ran a number of agents, assets and informants in traditional Turkish media outlets as well as online news websites, some of which are obscure and served to muddy the waters by floating conspiracy theories in the past. The leaked emails of President Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak revealed in 2016 that MİT was feeding information to his agents planted in the Sabah daily, owned by Erdogan’s family. Emails from 2012 showed that Sabah journalists Abdurrahman Şimşek, Ferhat Ünlü and Nazif Karaman were in the loop and receiving information from the agency.
Yılmaz attracted attention during an attempted coup on July 15, 2016, when his name appeared on the phone screen during a staged FaceTime interview on CNN Türk between President Erdogan and Hande Fırat, a journalist associated with MİT.
Most recently, Yılmaz was involved in a dispute between the ODA TV news website and Hilal Kaplan, one of Erdogan’s most loyal journalists. Kaplan had referred to Soner Yalçın, the owner of the website, and Toygun Atilla, its then-editor-in-chief, as “Nuh’s dogs” after they published a news story implying infidelity related to Kaplan’s divorce. Kaplan’s statement further reinforced the claims of ODA TV’s alleged affiliation with MİT, which have been circulating for a while.
Nuh Yılmaz’s article in an Iranian-funded magazine that was titled “Israel must be wiped out”nuh_Yilmaz_Yeryuzu_Iran_consulate_event
An investigation by Nordic Monitor in 2022 revealed that Yılmaz maintains strong connections with the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH) a Turkish charity known for its role as a logistical provider to al-Qaeda groups worldwide. Yılmaz, a dedicated Islamist at 49 years of age who harbors anti-Semitic views, took deliberate steps to conceal his controversial background and association with the IHH in his publicly available resumé.
Ümit Ulvi Canik, MİT’s former legal counselor, has been appointed to the Directorate General of Legal Services at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Canik, who had represented MİT in numerous legal cases, was previously involved in a scandal that made headlines in 2014.
On January 1, 2014 Turkish prosecutors, acting on a tipoff, intercepted a truck loaded with arms and ammunition destined for al-Qaeda groups in northern Syria near the Syrian border. The people in the truck and an accompanying escort vehicle told prosecutors that the truck belonged to MİT and was loaded with humanitarian aid supplies, attempting to prevent the search. Canik contacted the then-prosecutor in Adana, Aziz Takçı, informing him that the vehicle belonged to MİT, in another attempt to obstruct the search. The prosecutors documented this communication in the official record. Later, a search of the truck uncovered a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition.
Ulvi Canik tried to convince prosecutors to halt the search for illegal arms.
Despite the fact that MİT personnel were not authorized to transfer weapons abroad at the time under the prevailing laws, the gendarmerie commanders and the prosecutors who stopped the truck were tried on charges of attempting to overthrow the government and received sentences ranging from 15 to 18 years in prison. The sentences were upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals in 2023.
In 2019 Nordic Monitor published secret MİT documents that revealed the extent of pervasive profiling of unsuspecting citizens in Turkey and abroad, leading to the prosecution of legitimate government critics and opponents. In a letter sent to the Istanbul 29th High Criminal Court on September 26, 2017, Canik attached the confidential intelligence notes kept by the agency on 31 defendants who were facing trial on charges of alleged terrorism. Canik signed the letter on behalf of Fidan.
Canik was one of the lawyers who drafted a controversial bill passed by parliament in April 2014 that granted extraordinary powers to MİT.
One of the most crucial appointments from MİT to the ministry is the assignment of Hacı Ali Özel as director general of personnel. Özel, who previously served as a deputy to Fidan, was responsible for corporate relations at MİT. In 2018 Özel, who had been nominated as a parliamentary candidate for President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), returned to his role at MİT after his failure to be selected as a candidate. Prior to this Özel had also served as a deputy undersecretary in the Prime Ministry. During the time when MİT was under the jurisdiction of the Prime Ministry, numerous high-ranking intelligence officials held positions as undersecretaries or deputy undersecretaries. In 2017 Turkey transitioned to a presidential system of governance, leading to the abolition of the Prime Ministry, and MİT came under the jurisdiction of the presidency.
As a side note, the Erdogan government has removed around 30 percent of the total diplomatic staff, more than 700 employees, including veteran ambassadors, from the ministry since 2016. Many were unjustly imprisoned. A large number of the open positions were then occupied by loyalists, supporters and politically appointed individuals who were not career diplomats.
With Fidan’s ex-deputy leading the human resources department, it’s clear that Fidan is building his own team in the ministry. This involves removing diplomats who aren’t aligned with his goals and actively shaping new hires.
Gürsel Dönmez, who previously worked with Fidan at MİT, has been appointed Fidan’s chief advisor. Dönmez, a 59-year-old Bulgarian immigrant who spent 22 years in Austria, led the Austrian branch of the Union of International Democrats (UID, formerly UETD), a group functioning as Erdogan’s long arm in Europe. He also served as one of the initial vice presidents of the Presidency of Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) after its establishment in 2009.
It is no secret that the Turkish intelligence agency recruits spies from diaspora communities in Europe, using nongovernmental organizations like the YTB to reach out to candidates.
Back in 2018, there were stories in the Turkish media that Dönmez was being considered by Erdogan as a possible replacement for Fidan at MİT.
Dönmez, who had attempted to become a member of parliament from Erdogan’s party twice before, in 2013 and 2018, was unsuccessful in achieving this goal.
Perhaps the most significant appointment in Friday’s reshuffle was the assignment to the Security and Research Directorate (Araştırma ve Güvenlik İşleri Genel Müdürlüğü in Turkish), also known as the intelligence section of the ministry. It might come as a surprise to some that the Turkish Foreign Ministry hosts one of Turkey’s top five intelligence agencies.
Benefitting from privileged access to key foreign figures, governmental bodies and intergovernmental platforms, diplomats are in a unique position for intelligence gathering. In recent years, the Turkish intelligence services have utilized this access assertively, not solely to safeguard Turkey’s national security interests but often to bolster the political standing of the Erdogan administration, suppress opposition voices and engage in influence campaigns on foreign turf.
Fatma Ceren Yazgan, who frequently engages in polemics and discussions with Erdoğan critics on social media, will lead the ministry’s Security and Research Directorate. The former ambassador to Georgia had previously served as the deputy director of the same directorate prior to 2017. Former diplomats previously contacted by Nordic Monitor had said that Yazgan is known for her profane language and that it is common to hear Yazgan’s curses in the ministry’s corridors.
Yazgan is a diplomat who had been closely involved in collaboration with MİT when she was tasked with identifying and profiling hundreds of critical diplomats and personnel who were purged from the ministry after 2016. Her appointment to this crucial position following Fidan’s assuming office underscores the satisfaction with her previous performance in the directorate.
She is a member of a notorious secular faction within the ministry that collaborated with the Islamist Erdogan government to eliminate its critics. Yazgan, known for her ultranationalist views and hostility towards the Gülen movement, a group critical of Erdogan, has played a significant role in purging individuals suspected of links to the movement since 2016.
Yazgan may be one of the defendants in the prosecution of people involved in human rights violations after the Erdogan government is voted out of office. In 2019 arrest warrants were issued for 249 diplomats, with 100 of them detained in an operation. Reports from the Ankara Bar Association provided evidence that many diplomats who were arrested as a result of the unlawful profiling campaign conducted by Yazgan were subjected to brutal torture.
Although there is as of yet no solid evidence of Yazgan’s employment at MİT in the past, it seems her appointment could have been influenced by her potential willingness to engage in various shady operations to demonstrate loyalty to Fidan and consolidate her position.
It looks like Fidan has already moved forward in transforming the foreign ministry into a vast intelligence tool for President Erdogan’s arsenal. As he did after becoming MIT chief in May 2010, Fidan will move quickly to bring in more outsiders and will issue orders to all other departments to help them.