Erdogan’s Spies Track Regime Opponents on German Soil
Hussein Demir, a former law professor at the University of Ankara, sat inside a Turkish cafe in the Spandau district of Berlin, with his friend Omar, a Turkish businessman, drinking coffee and whispering.
As I joined them, the conversation moved from Turkish to English. The two men seemed more comfortable talking in a language that the cafe owners could not understand. They told me that they avoid speaking aloud in Turkish when they are in places frequented by Turks. Even when they speak English, they are always wary of what they say.
Hussein and Omar, who declined to have their real names published, are political exiles who arrived in Germany in 2017, less than a year after the failed coup attempt in Turkey. Hussein was dismissed from his job following the coup and decided to leave the country, fleeing the wave of arrests that targeted judges, professors, and public sector employees.
The academic does not hide that he belongs to the Fatah Allah Gulen movement, the Turkish cleric who lives in exile in the United States and who is accused by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt. But he says, his affiliation with Gulen has nothing to do with politics, stressing that the movement is religious and social.
The coup attempt occurred on the night of August 15, 2016. Two weeks later, Hussein was on his way to Georgia, after he used his brother’s ID card to flee the country.
“My brother told me you must leave because they may torture you and they will not allow you to see a lawyer for 30 days, which is the period of pre-trial detention,” he recounts.
He moved from Georgia to East Africa, from where he sought asylum in Germany in October 2017, after his passport was about to expire.
As for Omar, he also left Turkey after the arrest of his father, who assumed a senior position in the country. But he was more fortunate than others, because he managed to enter Europe without much difficulty as he was married to a European.
But the two men’s concerns did not end with leaving Turkey. They are always worried about being chased.
In 2017, when Hussein arrived in Germany, the German Ministry of Immigration and Refugees was struggling to maintain its credibility, following the scandal of the expulsion of more than 15 Turkish translators who were working for it. Those turned to be spies in Ankara, conveying confidential information to the Turkish embassy in Berlin about asylum-seekers.
However, the Immigration Service confirms that it has since become vigilant about this matter. In a written response to Asharq Al-Awsat, a spokesman for the department said that the applicant “has the right to report any information in this regard to the security services so that appropriate steps can be taken, and he can also request a different interpreter if he has a valid reason.”
These concerns have prompted Hussein Demir to refuse to be interviewed in the Turkish language, and asked to speak in English instead.
“I asked to have my interview done in English because I was afraid of the translator,” he said. “They understood my concerns and I felt safer to speak through an English rather than a Turkish translator.”
Expert in Turkish intelligence affairs Eric Schmidt-Eenboom told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Immigration and Refugee Service was one of the places where Ankara was targeting to recruit agents.
He added that Turkey uses the information leaked about the refugees, not only to chase the families of those who remain in the country, but also to refute the reasons that prompted them to seek asylum.
In 2014 and 2015, Turkish refugees in Germany accounted for 1,800 asylum seekers, most of them Kurds, according to official figures obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat from the Immigration Department.
Those numbers have increased significantly to reach 5,700 applicants in 2016 and 15,000 last year.
As the number of refugees increased, so did that of Turkish agents spying on opponents.
Schmidt-Eenboom, who has written a book on Turkish intelligence work in Europe, estimates that there are more than 8,000 Turkish agents in Germany, in addition to hundreds of spies directly affiliated with Turkish intelligence, who recruit agents on German soil.
“There is an unknown number of Turkish intelligence elements, many of whom reside in Germany, who work through the Turkish embassy,” he says.
Indeed, the Turkish authorities arrested a number of citizens who hold dual German-Turkish citizenship upon their return to Ankara, which caused in the past a lot of tension between the two countries.
Turkey has asked Germany to hand over a number of wanted persons it considers as “terrorists”. During a visit to Berlin in 2018, Erdogan handed the list again to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But Berlin has rejected these requests. Instead, the German police moved to warn the people whose names are on the list against returning to Turkey because they might get arrested.
If Turkish translators play a role in spying on opponents, the imams assume a bigger and more important task in these operations.
According to Schmidt-Eenboom, nearly 700 Turkish imams who are deployed in more than 900 mosques of what is known as the DITIB - the Islamic Union for Religious Affairs in Germany - play an important role in identifying agents to recruit them.
“These imams exchange information with the Turkish circles and they mediate between Turkish informants in Germany and Erdogan’s government in Ankara,” he says.
The German authorities are aware of the work assumed by those imams.
In 2017, Berlin tried to open an investigation against 19 Turkish imams on suspicion of spying on opponents. But the story sparked a lot of political controversy, and before the prosecution could issue arrest warrants, Ankara had withdrawn the imams and returned them to Turkey.
In an attempt to address this matter, Germany is seeking to introduce laws that prevent the arrival of imams from abroad, but instead, training clerics in Germany to preach sermons in German, not Turkish.
The Ministry of Interior also tried to implement a “tax” on mosques, similar to that collected from Christians to finance churches, in an attempt to reduce Turkish influence and funding. But the proposal was rejected by the Muslim community in Germany and was put on hold.
In 2017, the Hamburg Supreme Court sentenced a 32-year-old man to two years in prison for spying on Kurdish opponents in favor of Turkish intelligence. Initially, the charges also included planning to kill a Turkish dissident, but the prosecution was unable to prove this claim.
However, Turkish intelligence has considered resorting to kidnappings and murders of its opponents in Germany, according to German expert Schmidt-Eenboom.
Although Germany does not take political measures to put pressure on Turkey in order to avoid escalating tensions, especially with Erdogan's continued threat to send a new wave of refugees to Europe, it may consider a different strategy now after it assumed the rotating European Union presidency.
In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat, member of the German Parliament Frank Schwabe said that his country could resort to threatening to expel Turkey from the European Council if it refuses to submit to the decisions of the Human Rights Council in Strasbourg, which is currently listening to a range of issues related to the prosecution of Turks only because they are opposed to the regime in Ankara.
It would not be in Turkey’s interest to exit the European Council, Schwabe noted, adding that he believed that such threats would push Ankara to stop chasing its opponents abroad.
Turkey joined the European Council in the 1950s shortly after its founding, and its expulsion from it may have major repercussions in terms of its relationship with the European Union.