The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged and/or jailed 7 percent of intelligence officers from the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2013, when he and his family members were incriminated in a graft probe that involved Iranian and Saudi nationals.
According to a secret document obtained by Nordic Monitor, the agency revealed that 558 MİT employees have been dismissed from the spy agency, corresponding to some 7 percent of its total workforce. Of these, 181 were dismissed immediately after major corruption investigations in December 2013 that exposed how Erdogan had done business with Iranian sanctions buster Reza Zarrab, indicted in the US, and Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi, then listed as an al-Qaeda financier by the UN and the US, in exchange for kickbacks.
Security analysts who spoke to Nordic Monitor say the purge was part of the Erdogan government’s drive to get rid of intelligence officers who objected to or expressed uneasiness with illegal operations that violated Turkish and international laws. They also underlined that some terrorist acts in Turkey, blamed on either the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), were in fact organized by elements within the intelligence agency for the benefit of the Erdogan government.
For example, the European Union’s official intelligence body, EUINTCEN, suggested that the twin suicide bombing attacks on October 10, 2015 that killed 105 people outside the Ankara train station may have been carried out on the orders of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The purge of hundreds of MİT officers on the pretext of their alleged links to the Gülen movement, a civic group that is highly critical of the Erdogan government, was nothing but a coordinated scheme to transform the nation’s spy agency into the private detective bureau of one man, namely Erdogan.
Another well-document illegal MİT operation was al-Qadi’s secret visits to Turkey. The controversial Saudi businessman entered Turkey seven times before his name was taken off a list of people suspected of supporting terrorist activities. He entered Turkey without any travel papers at various airports, where he arrived on his private jet with the full knowledge and protection of the Erdogan government. He was also given an official vehicle, a bodyguard and a driver by the government. He met with MİT chief Hakan Fidan five times during a period when he was not allowed to enter Turkey.
Again, in the case of Zarrab, who put at least three ministers on his payroll in the graft scheme and gave a cut to Erdogan for allowing the use of state banks to bypass US sanctions, MİT was aware of all these illegal activities. In fact, on April 18, 2013 MİT warned Erdogan about alleged corruption links between Iranian businessman Zarrab and two ministers at the center of the Dec. 17, 2013 operation. The agency was supposed to send the information to judicial authorities; yet, it tried to cover it up and informed Erdogan of the possible negative repercussions if Zarrab’s ties were to be exposed.
The secret intelligence memo stated that Zarrab had close links with former ministers Muammer Güler and Zafer Çağlayan, whose sons were detained as part of the corruption investigation on Dec. 17, in which members of Erdoğan’s inner circle and of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) were implicated. At a press conference in İstanbul before his departure for Germany on Feb. 3, 2014, Erdogan accepted the authenticity of the document. “First of all, MİT does not warn, it makes analyses,” Erdoğan said, questioning how the document was acquired. He underlined that MİT’s work is confidential.
MİT dismissed 377 officers from the service in the aftermath of a failed coup on July 15, 2016 using an ongoing state of emergency as a pretext. The coup attempt was believed to be a false flag orchestrated by MİT in cooperation with army chief Hulusi Akar with the approval of Erdogan. Akar was promoted to defense minister after the attempt, and Fidan was empowered with new funding and a fresh mandate. Akar and Fidan had long meetings the day before the coup attempt, and they also got together during the day on July 15 before the limited mobilization was launched. Experts believe the bid was doomed from the start as part of the government plan.
Erdogan has also used MİT to arm and fund jihadists in Syria including ISIL and al-Qaeda and its offshoots. Judicial investigations have documented the links between MİT agents and jihadist groups and revealed how some MİT agents operated outside the boundaries of the Turkish legal system in secret operations unlawfully sanctioned by the Erdogan government. The mass purge in the agency was aimed at removing people who were not comfortable with Erdogan’s illegal operations.
There is no exact figure on how many people were employed by MİT as the numbers are kept secret. In February 2014 Beşir Atalay, the then-deputy prime minister who groomed Fidan to lead the intelligence agency in 2010, stated in parliament that MİT had about 8,000 employees. Most were assigned to the headquarters in Ankara’s Yenimahalle district, while some were serving in regional directorates in Istanbul, Izmir, Hatay and Diyarbakir.
There are no public figures specifying how many people work as MİT contractors, informants and assets, but the official budget numbers for 2019 show the government allocated TL 1.2 billion (some $220 million) for the agency’s payroll alone. That means even the reported number of 8,000 employees was actually downplayed.
It is clear that the agency has become a notorious tool in the hands of the repressive regime of President Erdogan for going after critics, opponents and dissidents. MİT has been busy abducting Erdogan’s critics abroad or plotting assassinations to silence them. The Turkish president has managed to turn the agency into a bureau that pursues his petty interests, which often do not coincide with the national security needs of the country.