The hoisting of a Turkish flag at the Netherlands Consulate General compound in Istanbul in 2017, amid strained ties between Turkey and the Netherlands, was part of a clandestine operation orchestrated by the Turkish intelligence agency (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MIT), as uncovered by Nordic Monitor.
The scheme, hastily executed by MIT operatives following approval at the highest political level, was designed to retaliate against the Netherlands for denying a Turkish minister the opportunity to hold a rally in the Dutch city of Rotterdam and subsequently deporting her from the country.
Throughout both the execution and the aftermath of the operation, MIT closely collaborated with select officials in the office of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ensuring that he remained informed about the unfolding developments.
The incident was strategically crafted to provoke religious and nationalistic fervor, intending to sway the outcome of the referendum that ultimately granted President Erdogan unprecedented powers, resembling an imperial style of rule, with minimal checks and balances in the country’s governance.
On a rainy Saturday morning on March 11, 2017, an unidentified individual climbed to the roof of the Palais de Hollande, a historic building used as the residence of the Netherlands consul general in Istanbul’s historical Beyoğlu neighborhood.
The individual exchanged the Dutch flag with a Turkish one on the flagpole. He then flashed the Rabia hand sign associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, recognized as a signature election campaign sign for Turkish President Erdogan, and loudly shouted the religious chant “Allahu Akbar” while facing about a dozen protestors permitted to linger in front of the consulate.
During that time, both the consulate and its surroundings were entirely encircled by riot police and special forces units who were deployed to thwart hundreds of protestors who had gathered overnight from breaching the consulate’s security perimeters.
However, following the conclusion of the protests in the early hours of March 11, a mysterious individual somehow infiltrated the secure diplomatic compound, committing a crime that blatantly violated the international treaties to which Turkey is a party and several domestic laws.
The operation was just one of several scenarios contemplated by Turkish intelligence concerning foreign embassies and consulates in Turkey that it rigorously monitored and surveilled round the clock for information gathering and eavesdropping activities.
In an extreme scenario considered for exceptional circumstances, the plan entailed the possible forcible takeover of an embassy or consulate by a proxy group affiliated with intelligence. This action would be justified on the pretext that angry protesters during a demonstration might breach security and seize control of the building. The objective was to highlight the depth of public anger, establish bargaining leverage and potentially compel a significant shift in Turkey’s foreign policy alongside a radical change in domestic politics.
Another scenario involved the raising of a Turkish flag in a foreign diplomatic representation, symbolizing the conquest of foreign territory and likely to provoke nationalistic fervor among the public. These scenarios were previously tested in drills that were discreetly conducted and subsequently shelved in secure storage rooms at MIT headquarters in Ankara.
According to confidential information acquired by Nordic Monitor, President Erdogan chose the flag scenario after receiving a briefing from then-intelligence chief and current foreign minister Hakan Fidan, who outlined various possible scenarios.
The incident served as an indirect response by the Erdogan government, expressing its displeasure over the deportation of former Turkish minister of family and social policy Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya. She was expelled from the Netherlands on March 11, 2017 as she sought to conduct a campaign rally in Rotterdam a day earlier for the April 16 referendum that granted Erdogan an executive presidency.
Kaya, expressing her readiness to die or have a confrontation with the Dutch police, traveled from Germany to the Netherlands by land with the intention of holding a rally with Erdogan followers in the Turkish diaspora, despite the cancellation of her program by the Dutch government. Prior to this, the Netherlands had revoked flight clearance for then-Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s airplane, stating that he was not permitted to conduct an election campaign on Dutch soil.
Kaya was declared persona non grata and subsequently expelled at the German border after being denied entry to the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam. This occurred amid clashes between Erdogan supporters and the Dutch police.
During that period, Germany and Austria canceled planned events involving Turkish ministers due to security concerns. European governments conveyed their opposition to the Erdogan administration regarding the exportation of polarization to diaspora communities through Turkey’s domestic election campaigns. Such actions were viewed as potentially undermining the integration of migrants in these countries, creating tension and posing a risk to law and order in European cities.
The resulting diplomatic crisis provided President Erdogan with an opportunity to leverage it for his domestic campaign, effectively mobilizing nationalist and religious voters — the backbone of his Islamist and far-right allies. The act of raising a Turkish flag on the grounds of the Netherlands Consulate building in Istanbul, legally considered Dutch territory, was deliberately designed to provoke nationalist fervor, and it undeniably achieved that effect.
Immediately following the expulsion of the Turkish minister from the Netherlands, numerous protestors were mobilized to stage rallies in front of the Dutch Consulate building in Istanbul. These protestors were led by intelligence-affiliated groups utilizing professional sound systems and loudspeakers, generating noise for hours well into the night. The protests were broadcast live on pro-government networks, strategically amplifying the message to a wider audience of voters.
Following the conclusion of the protests, MIT executed its covert plan to switch flags. However, during the operation, the Turkish intelligence service left behind footprints, suggesting that the entire scheme was indeed orchestrated by the Turkish government.
The deliberate actions of the man who switched the flags, taking the time to address the crowd before climbing down from the roof, flashing the Rabia sign borrowed from Muslim Brotherhood protests in Egypt, and chanting a religious slogan, were evidently intended to resonate with the religious sensitivities of President Erdogan’s support base in the predominantly Muslim nation of 85 million. It was obvious that the entire act had been rehearsed in advance and carefully choreographed.
Indeed, another indication pointing towards the involvement of intelligence in the incident was the rapid dissemination of coverage aimed at constructing a false narrative. The state-run Anadolu news agency quickly released a report claiming that consulate staff was responsible for raising the Turkish flag on the roof.
Similar assertions were made by private news agencies, citing sources from either the president’s office or the foreign ministry. This suggests that the post-incident influence operation and narrative-building effort were premeditated and coordinated with other government agencies.
On March 13 then-Dutch consul general Robert Schuddeboom refuted the reports, denying any involvement of consulate staff in the flag switch. He characterized the incident as a criminal act that violated Dutch sovereignty. Schuddeboom mentioned that upon learning about the incident, he personally brought the Turkish flag down and replaced it with the Dutch flag.
While the Turkish flag was still flying on the roof, another man was seen hanging a Turkish flag on the second-floor window of the building located right next to the entrance of the consulate. This coordinated action strongly implies that these incidents were planned and executed in a synchronized manner.
The ability of an unidentified man to enter the compound amid the presence of hundreds of police and intelligence officers around the building suggests that he had received assistance from some people in Turkish police and intelligence units. Despite the area being heavily monitored by surveillance cameras at all times, the identity of the man remains a mystery as of today.
The video and still shots from the area at the time reveal that the police parked several buses in front of the consulate building, deployed armored riot cars for crowd control, installed a steel fence grid around the entrance and closed one side of the street to pedestrian traffic. Given these security measures, it appears highly improbable for a lone individual to breach the area without assistance from police or intelligence officials.
The timing of the incident, occurring in broad daylight, suggests that intelligence intended to make the incident as public as possible. At the time the Turkish flag was hoisted, there was no ongoing demonstration in front of the consulate building by government-directed groups, which had held a rally until early in the morning of March 11. This timing indicates a deliberate effort to maximize the visibility and impact of the flag-raising.
The demonstrations were broadcast live on multiple networks until they concluded sometime after midnight. Once the press corps had left the area, only a few people remained in the vicinity on that rainy Saturday. Consequently, no video coverage was available when the man managed to get on the roof and began replacing the flag.
The only footage that was broadcast covered the already raised Turkish flag, and the man leaving the roof as he flashed hand signs and shouted religious slogans. This footage appeared to be recorded by an amateur camera rather than a professional news crew and was shared with the media after the fact.
In several post-flag-raising videos, a man’s voice can be heard directing others’ attention to the Turkish flag flying on a flagpole on the roof of the consulate compound building. Another voice is heard asking reporters who came to the scene to record the Turkish flag. In one video a reporter’s voice is heard in the background asking an unidentified man whether he had footage of the entire incident. These audio cues suggest coordination and a directed effort to draw attention to the flag-raising.
Approximately a dozen protestors were strategically positioned in front of the entrance to the consulate building while the Turkish flag still flew on the flagpole on the roof. The press corps was invited to cover the incident. Similar to the man on the roof, the protestors standing in front of the fence grid also flashed Rabia signs and waved Turkish flags for the cameras, indicating a coordinated effort to convey a specific message through media coverage.
It was obvious that the man was a professional, receiving logistical support and tactical information on how to execute the flag replacement on the roof. He demonstrated a clear understanding of his actions, acting in accordance with instructions he had received. While he could have entered the building from the roof entrance, he chose not to do so. His mandate seemed to be a showcase display on the roof for maximum visibility and impact, and not to escalate the situation by forcing his way into the building.
The incident was immediately reported on X, then known as Twitter, with state media and pro-government networks actively broadcasting the coverage. Turkish intelligence-affiliated journalists were also quickly informed, emerging as early reporters on social media regarding the incident. Among these journalists was Zihni Çakır, who has long been associated with intelligence and who reported the incident shortly after its execution.
Despite the Netherlands Consulate filing a complaint with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, urging an investigation into the incident and the punishment of the perpetrator and any accomplices, the identity of the man on the roof has never been publicly revealed. Moreover, there has been no public statement issued by the Turkish government regarding the status or outcome of the investigation. Instead, the Erdogan government has actively worked to divert attention from Turkish agencies and protestors, attributing the flag switch to consulate staff.