Turkey Pulse

Gauging the aftermath of Turkey’s great intelligence gaffe

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Article Summary
Turkey's government and media are keeping mum about what appears to be the biggest blunder in the recent history of Turkish intelligence.

The latest scandal coming out of Turkey reads like a novel by Tom Clancy or John le Carre: spies, kidnapping, assassination attempts and terrorists. Given the seriousness of the allegations, the utter lack of reaction by Turkish officialdom and media is stunning.

Last week, Al-Monitor reported that militants in Iraqi Kurdistan claimed to have captured two high-level Turkish intelligence officials. Cemil Bayik, one of the top leaders of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), claimed the officials had been sent to assassinate him.

Although Turkish media outlets are strictly controlled by the Turkish government and subservient to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the importance of the failed operation is extraordinary and unprecedented in the country's recent history, and there's no excuse for the silence of the Turkish mainstream media.

Under normal circumstances, the failure of such an intelligence operation would demand that a high price be paid — maybe not the resignations of myriad government officials, but at least the sacking of spy chief Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT). However, that hasn't happened.

Bayik had issued a statement Aug. 29 tacitly accusing the Kurdistan Democrat Party (KDP) of Iraq, led by Massoud Barzani (who is also president of the Turkey-friendly Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG), of being involved in MIT's supposed assassination plot against him.

Bayik also accused “the colonialist fascist Turkish state," in particular the government of Erdogan and Devlet Bahceli, chairman of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP, or Gray Wolves), of "constantly hatching conspiracies and plans to disband our movement."

"They want to include southern forces in this, namely forces like the KDP and the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in Iraq]. They even have their own special organizations outside of the KDP and the PUK," he said.

"Their special effort is to include the KDP and the PUK in their dangerous and sinister plans,” Bayik's statement said. “No Kurdistani force or individual can or should serve the genocidal policies of the colonialist fascist Turkish state against the Kurdish people. If they fulfill the Turkish state’s desires in this issue, they will be the ones to suffer the greatest from it. I am warning them on this issue because of this; they should never fall for such traps.”

Bayik did say, however, that he doesn't believe the PUK was not involved.

ANF news agency, which is affiliated with the PKK, published some additional information Aug. 30 about the dramatic event.

“The two Turkish intelligence MIT administrators being captured by PKK guerrillas is still hot on the agenda. … Both MIT administrators were the heads of MIT branches active against the PKK in the region. They work directly under Hakan Fidan. This is the only piece of information released about their identity for now,” the news report said.

“They were traveling in southern Kurdistan with diplomatic passports. They reported their preparations to Hakan Fidan. Fidan said to Erdogan, ‘We can carry out abductions or assassinations against PKK administrators — we have this opportunity,’ and he got approved. With Erdogan’s and Fidan’s approval, the MIT officials in question sprung into action. But they ended up in the spot where they were captured due to a counterintelligence leak,” the report added, stating it had gathered the information from the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) and other sources.

ANF also claimed to have information that Turkey aimed to start a conflict among Kurds by carrying out the attack in PUK territory. 

On Sept. 4, more detailed information and allegations were revealed by an anonymous author in the Kurdistan Post, a media outlet based in Europe. An article claimed that the two intelligence officials were MIT deputy undersecretaries. Allegedly, one was in charge of foreign operations; the other was the head of the PKK desk. Apart from those two, the article claimed that 16 other MIT operatives were trapped in Dukan, Sulaimaniyah, and the PKK had arrested all 18 on Aug. 3. According to the article, the Turkish government reportedly asked KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to secure their release. When that effort failed, Ankara blamed KDP coalition partner PUK (former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s organization) and deported the PUK’s representative in Turkey.

The PUK office in Ankara had been operating since 1991, and its closure and the deportation of its representative added a diplomatic dimension to the already mysterious background. The PKK's friction with the KDP and the PUK has increased, and the situation has become even more annoying amid preparations for the controversial Kurdish independence referendum, which is set for Sept. 25 despite official objections from Turkey and Iran. The KDP is known to be a proxy of Turkey, while the PUK and the oppositionist Gorran movement have closer relations with Tehran. Turkey’s intelligence blunder may exacerbate local tensions and could even reach to regional levels.

Pro-PKK media outlets are claiming that the issue has topped the agenda of recent talks between Erdogan and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. There are diametrically opposed appraisals of how the matter is being tackled between Turkey and the United States, while the American cooperation with PKK-affiliated Kurdish forces is in full swing for the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State. The immediate future will either dispel the clouds of mystery surrounding the Turkish intelligence blunder or the clouds will become even denser to conceal what really took place.

Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Stockholm University Institute of Turkish Studies (SUITS). On Twitter: @cengizcandar

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