BND Warns Turkey Not to Challenge NATO Line
German-Turkish relations keep plummeting as Berlin and Ankara argue over the threat posed by U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen and his movement, but there is more to the latest dispute than meets the eye.
In recent weeks, tensions have been running high between Germany and Turkey due to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s referendum campaign. Disagreements over the Gülen movement are now adding fuel to the fire.
On March 27, as Turkish citizens living in Germany began casting their ballots in Turkey’s constitutional referendum, German media dropped a bombshell.
The joint investigative group of Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR reported that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) handed a list of hundreds of suspected Gülen supporters and Gülen-linked organizations in Germany to the Bundesnachrichtendient (BND).
MIT Undersecretary Hakan Fikan, a close confidant of Turkish President Erdogan, reportedly gave the list to BND President Bruno Kahl on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February.
The MIT target list included the names of more than 300 people and about 200 associations, schools and other institutions supposedly linked to the Gülen movement. Among the information provided to the BND were registered addresses, mobile and landline numbers as well as secretly taken photos, for example by surveillance cameras, suggesting that Turkish intelligence had been spying on suspected Gülenists in Germany.
Instead of supporting the efforts of Turkey’s MIT, BND chief Kahl conveyed the files to the Federal Government and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency tasked with counterintelligence.
Authorities across the country were alerted to the Turkish spying and several federal states began warning the targets on the list that they were being watched by Turkish intelligence.
After the joint investigative group of Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR broke the story, German media heaped scorn and derision on Turkey’s MIT.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung mocked Turkish spy chief Fidan for thinking that the Bundesnachrichtendienst would help the Turkish government in pursuing suspected Gülen supporters on German territory, calling it a “fatal mistake.”
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, on the other hand, found it hard to believe that the Turks were “naive” and didn’t know any better when they handed over the list. He suggested that it may have been a deliberate provocation.
This view is shared by some members of the German security apparatus. Others have speculated that Turkey’s list might also include a few Turkish intelligence agents who could unmask employees of German intelligence agencies if they showed up to warn the targets. Therefore, most State Offices for the Protection of the Constitution (LfV) handed the investigations to the police.
German Interior Minister de Maizière said he regretted that the existence of the MIT target list was made public while the investigation into Turkish spying was still at an early stage. He would have preferred to learn more about Turkey’s espionage activities on German soil and inform those at risk before going public with the list.
De Maizière blamed the release of the information on the lack of concrete agreements between the federal states on how to handle the issue.
The timing of the release is noteworthy given that the joint investigative group of Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR broke the story on the same day as Turkish citizens in Germany and five other European countries started to vote in Turkey’s constitutional referendum.
It is important to note that the joint investigative group of Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR has become the main purveyor of government-sanctioned leaks in Germany.
As Left Party MP Sevim Dagdelen pointed out, it seems probable that the Bundesnachrichtendienst itself leaked the information to the media. She regarded the BND move as a warning to Turkish intelligence, reminding the Turks to keep their espionage activities in line with NATO interests.
Dagdelen noted that German intelligence didn’t mind working through lists of alleged PKK supporters, but Ankara’s pursuit of suspected Gülenists was not in the interest of Berlin and Washington.
Even before reports about the MIT target list emerged, the head of Germany’s BND felt the need to publicly defend the Gülen movement.
In an exclusive interview with Der Spiegel, BND President Bruno Kahl said he did not think that the Gülen movement was behind the failed coup.
“Turkey has tried to convince us on a number of different levels. But they haven't yet been successful,” Kahl stressed.
Furthermore, the BND head objected to Ankara’s characterization of the Gülen movement. Asked whether it was an extremist-Islamist movement or perhaps even a terrorist group, Kahl said it was “a civilian association for religious and secular education.” He also refused to call it a sect, merely acknowledging that “the Gülen movement wasn't a meaningless minority.”
The Turkish government was furious about Kahl’s interview and immediately summoned the German chargé d’affaires.
Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Kahl remarks were “a mockery of Turkish people’s intelligence.” He accused the German spy chief of “lying to the German people, the Turkish people, and the whole world.”
Defense Minister Fikri Isik went one step further, claiming that “certain circles” in Europe were unhappy with the outcome of the attempted coup.
“If the German intelligence chief says, ‘We are not convinced that FETO is behind the coup attempt,’ then he must be either blind, deaf, or he needs to hide the plotters as they failed in what they wished to happen,” Isik railed. He added: “This then raises a question: Did you cooperate with them? What was your position in this coup plot exactly?”
Kahl’s remarks do indeed raise some questions.
The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency should know that “the Gulen movement goes much beyond the schools, charities, and inter-faith activities with which it presents itself to the world: it also has a dark underbelly engaged in covert activities such as evidence fabrication, wiretapping, disinformation, blackmail, and judicial manipulation.”
Moreover, it is not exactly a secret that U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen and his followers have been working closely with the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Former high-ranking Turkish officials freely admit this.
As for Gülen’s alleged involvement in the July 2016 coup attempt, Turkey’s Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar testified after his release that one of the senior coup plotters offered to put him in touch with their “opinion leader,” Fethullah Gülen, in an effort to secure his cooperation.
“I am the biggest proof. They wanted me to talk to Gülen,” Akar reportedly told his American counterpart Joseph Dunford when the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman visited Turkey around two weeks after the failed coup attempt.
According to a Western diplomat who has followed Akar throughout his career, “Akar has been, since he took the position, a guy defined by integrity.”
Yet, the head of Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst indirectly accused Turkey’s highest-ranking military officer of being a liar, while doing his best to defend the Gülen movement, designated as a terrorist organization by NATO ally Turkey.
A few days later, Germany’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office (GBA) launched an investigation “against an unnamed entity on suspicion of espionage” after information about the MIT target list was leaked to the media. A spokesman for the GBA declined to confirm German media reports that the entity was Turkey’s MIT, but there is little room for speculation.
It was Germany’s second investigation into suspected spying by NATO ally Turkey.
Earlier this year, the GBA launched an investigation into possible spying by Turkish imams working for the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), an arm of the Turkish government tied to the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet).
On March 31, only four days after the bombshell report on Turkey’s MIT, the investigative group of Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR announced a third GBA investigation.
According to the investigative group, German prosecutors are investigating Halife Keskin, the head of Diyanet’s foreign affairs department and one of the agency’s highest-ranking officials. Keskin allegedly played a key role in Diyanet’s global surveillance effort, which included DITIB imams spying on Gülen supporters in Germany.
American espionage activities on German soil have long been tolerated by the German authorities but Turkish espionage activities are reportedly “unacceptable,” especially if they target the wrong group.
The Gülen movement clearly enjoys the protection of the German government.
As Turkish President Erdogan tries to further consolidate his power in Turkey, it becomes apparent that he can’t expect any help from his NATO partners in fighting the “Gülenist threat.”
With the April 16 constitutional referendum approaching, Erdogan just received another reminder that challenging the U.S.-NATO line on important issues such as Gülen or Russia is dangerous.
Christoph Germann, Newsbud Author & Analyst, is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here
 Georg Mascolo, “Türkischer Geheimdienst: Gülen-Anhänger in Deutschland bespitzelt,” Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), 27 March 2017: http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/guelen-spionage-deutschland-101.html.
 Georg Mascolo, Reiko Pinkert and Ronen Steinke, “Türkischer Top-Spion beging großen Irrtum,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28 March 2017: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/tuerken-in-deutschland-der-folgenschwere-irrtum-des-tuerkischen-top-spions-1.3438536.
 “Türkischer Geheimdienst: MIT-Liste: De Maizière vermutet Provokation,” ZDF heute, 30 March 2017: http://www.heute.de/de-maiziere-im-zdf-morgenmagazn-mit-liste-als-gezielte-provokation-fuer-deutsch-tuerkisches-verhaeltnis-46869630.html.
 Jörg Diehl, Martin Knobbe, Jörg Schindler and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt, “Michelle Müntefering: Auch deutsche Politikerinnen auf türkischer Spionageliste,” Spiegel Online, 29 March 2017: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/michelle-muentefering-auch-deutsche-politikerinnen-auf-tuerkischer-spionageliste-a-1141025.html.
 Ibid., ZDF heute.
 “Voting starts in Europe for Turkish referendum,” BBC, 27 March 2017: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39405210.
 Sevim Dagdelen, “Zurück auf NATO-Weg,” junge Welt, 29 March 2017: https://www.jungewelt.de/artikel/308021.zur%C3%BCck-auf-nato-weg.html.
 Martin Knobbe, Fidelius Schmid and Alfred Weinzierl, “German Intelligence Chief Bruno Kahl Interview,” Spiegel Online, 20 March 2017: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/german-intelligence-chief-bruno-kahl-interview-a-1139602.html.
 Sultan Cogalan, “Turkey summons German envoy over spy chief's comments,” Anadolu Agency, 21 March 2017: http://aa.com.tr/en/europe/turkey-summons-german-envoy-over-spy-chiefs-comments/776645.
 “Germany is lying to us,’ Turkish justice minister says,” Hürriyet Daily News, 21 March 2017: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/germany-is-lying-to-us-turkish-justice-minister-says.aspx?pageID=238&nID=111056&NewsCatID=510.
 “Refusal to see Gulen's role incriminates Germany: Isik,” Anadolu Agency, 19 March 2017: http://aa.com.tr/en/europe/refusal-to-see-gulens-role-incriminates-germany-isik/775044.
 Dani Rodrik, “Is Fethullah Gülen behind Turkey's coup? (with update),” Dani Rodrik’s weblog, 23 July 2016: http://rodrik.typepad.com/dani_rodriks_weblog/2016/07/is-fethullah-g%C3%BClen-behind-turkeys-coup.html.
 Sibel Edmonds, “Turkish Intel Chief Exposes CIA Operations via Islamic Group in Central Asia,” Boiling Frogs Post/Newsbud, 6 January 2011: http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2011/01/06/turkish-intel-chief-exposes-cia-operations-via-islamic-group-in-central-asia/.
 Dexter Filkins, “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup,” The New Yorker, 17 October 2016: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/turkeys-thirty-year-coup.
 Ibid., Rodrik.
 Abdulkadir Selvi, “Is Gülen very close to CIA?,” Hürriyet Daily News, 23 March 2017: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/is-gulen-very-close-to-cia-.aspx?PageID=238&NID=111136&NewsCatID=581.
 Ibid., Filkins.
 Madeline Chambers and Andrea Shalal, “Germany opens new probe into suspected Turkish spying,” Reuters, 28 March 2017: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-referendum-germany-espionage-idUSKBN16Z2FQ.
 Andrea Shalal, “Germany won't tolerate Turkish spying, says spy chief,” Reuters, 19 January 2017: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-turkey-spying-idUSKBN1532UP.
 “Report: German authorities investigate high Turkish religious official,” Deutsche Welle, 1 April 2017: http://www.dw.com/en/report-german-authorities-investigate-high-turkish-religious-official/a-38248062.