Turkish diplomats have spied extensively on critics in the United States

 

Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkish diplomats in the embassy and consulates in the United States have spied extensively on critics of the Islamist government of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, secret documents obtained by Nordic Monitor have revealed.

According to official correspondence sent by the embassy in Washington, D.C., and consulates in other US cities to headquarters in Ankara, Turkish diplomats collected information on the activities of Erdoğan critics, profiled their organizations and listed their names as if they were part of a criminal enterprise. The intelligence report was used in a criminal case in Turkey, where over half a million people have been put in detention facilities in the last three years alone on fabricated terrorism charges.

The campaign of intelligence gathering and profiling of critics and their organizations by the Turkish Embassy in Washington and consulates general in New York, Houston and Chicago follows a similar pattern seen in other diplomatic missions Turkey maintains in foreign countries. The move, which is unprecedented in scale and intensity, created an uproar in many parts of the world, including in Europe, where Turkish diplomats came under increased scrutiny. In one extreme case, Swiss prosecutors launched a criminal probe and issued arrest warrants for two Turkish Embassy officials for attempting to kidnap a Swiss-Turkish businessman who was critical of Erdoğan’s repressive Islamist regime in Turkey.

Among the organizations that were spied on by Turkish diplomats are schools, companies, nongovernmental and not-for-profit organizations and foundations located in New York, Washington, D.C., Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas and Chicago. They are believed to be run by people who are major critics of the government in Turkey.

In New York, the Brooklyn Amity School was profiled as an institution that received recognition by local officials who attended high-profile events organized by the school administration. Turkish diplomats gathered information about the general director of the school, listing his political campaign contributions. The information supplied by the Turkish diplomats were used in a sham criminal investigation under case file No.2014/156758 in Turkey, where the school director was listed as a suspect on fabricated charges.

Another organization that was spied on by consular officers in New York City is the Federation of Balkan American Associations (FEBA), an NGO based in New Jersey that promotes friendly ties between Balkan countries and the United States. The document reveals informants in the Turkish community who were developed as assets by the Turkish Consulate General in New York. Sporting activities, social responsibility projects, summer camps and educational and cultural programs sponsored by FEBA were listed as if they were nefarious activities by the Turkish consulate. The note stated that Turkish diplomats had failed to confirm the identities of the non-Turkish administrators of FEBA.

 

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The Milkyway Education Center, a science school that operates the Pioneer Academy in New Jersey, was targeted in spying activities as well. The participation of Milkyway students in federal science competitions and the receipt of achievements and awards were included in the note sent by Turkish diplomats to Ankara. The document lamented the fact that the school’s performance generated huge interest from local and state officials, with many leading figures from local communities attending intercultural activities organized by the school. The note is also part of a criminal case in Turkey.

Wellspring Cultural Educational Foundation, Inc., established in 2001 in West Haven, Connecticut, is another entity that was profiled by Turkish diplomats. The foundation has an education focus and is active in intercultural and interfaith dialogue activities in Connecticut. The administrators of the foundation were listed in the document as well.

The Stafford, Texas-based North American University, which offers several majors including in computer science, education and business administration, was mentioned in the Turkish Foreign Ministry document. Şerif Ali Tekalan, the president of the university who has critical views of the Erdoğan government, has been facing multiple court cases in Turkey in politically motivated criminal proceedings. The Texas Gulf Foundation in Houston was also profiled in the same document.

The Niagara Foundation, a Chicago-based cultural organization established in 2004, was spied on by the Turkish consulate located in the same city. The foundation’s intercultural and interreligious activities, which the document claimed generated sympathy for the Gülen movement in American society, were listed by the Turkish diplomats. The Rumi Forum, located in Washington, D.C., was described as the most important and most active Gülen movement organization in the US capital.

 

 

 

The documents highlighted in particular that the Golden Generation Workshop and Retreat Center, a Pennsylvania-based organization, is home to Fethullah Gülen, one of the most outspoken critics of the Erdoğan regime. Two Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based organizations — Respect Institute Inc., a not-for-profit organization, and Lehigh Dialogue Center, a cultural organization that promotes interfaith dialogue in the greater Bethlehem area — were also named in the documents.

New Prospect Enterprise LLC, a Georgia-based company that has ceased activities, was cited in the note dispatched by the Turkish diplomats. The Global Spectrum Foundation, Inc, also headquartered in Georgia, is a not-for-profit organization whose seven administrators were spied on according to the documents.

 

 

The documents, pulled from a restricted case file, reveal the extent of spying activity by the Turkish Embassy and consulates targeting critics and organizations in the United States. The people and organizations that were spied on by the diplomatic missions are believed to be affiliated with a civic group led by Gülen, the US-based Muslim cleric who has become a vocal critic of Erdoğan for pervasive corruption in the government and the Turkish regime’s clandestine support for armed jihadist groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda.

 

 

The Turkish president turned against the Gülen movement after major corruption investigations in December 2013 that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and his business and political associates. A month later, in January 2014, an exposé of illegal arms shipments by Turkish intelligence to jihadists in Syria created further troubles for the Erdoğan government for covertly fueling a civil war in the neighboring country.

The order to spy on Gülen-affiliated people and organizations came in early 2014, and volunteers of the movement were targeted with criminal prosecutions on fabricated charges of terrorism. In July 2016 Erdoğan staged a false flag coup to set up the opposition, including the movement, for mass persecution, pushed the army to invade northern Syria and declared himself the imperial president of the new Turkey.

 

Serdar Kilic, Turkish ambassador in Washington DC, led the spying work on Erdogan’s critics in the United States.

Turkish Embassy notes transmitted from the embassy and various consulates in US cities were among Foreign Ministry documents that were later sent to the Turkish police to build a case against critics of the Erdoğan regime. Those who were listed in these embassy documents were often targeted by a campaign of intimidation and harassment and denied consular services abroad, while their relatives and friends back in Turkey risked the possibility of jail time, asset seizure and persecution on fabricated criminal charges.

The collection of data, amounting to refugee spying or unlawful intelligence gathering by embassy and consulate officials, was carried out upon receipt of requests from the Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Department of the Turkish National Police (Kaçakçılık ve Organize Suçlarla Mücadele Daire Başkanlığı, or KOM). According to Turkish law KOM has no jurisdiction abroad and is not authorized to conduct espionage overseas. The information notes sent by the embassy were later incorporated into a report by KOM on January 30, 2017 and were used in the criminal prosecution of government critics on terrorism charges.

The report that included Foreign Ministry intelligence documents was used in several indictments in what was seen as a blatant abuse of the criminal justice system by the Turkish government as part of the crackdown on critics, opponents and dissidents who had nothing to do with terrorism. Some of the accused were jailed for months and even years in some cases without a formal charge, indictment or trial. It also shows how unlawful information gathering by the Turkish Embassy was incorporated in the mass persecution of critics back in Turkey.

For example, the profiling data collected on US organizations by the Turkish Embassy and consulates was used as evidence in a case involving Kaynak Holding, a major conglomerate and the largest publisher in Turkey, which was unlawfully seized by the Erdoğan government on fabricated charges of terrorism in November 2015. Kaynak, a group that operated 22 major companies under its umbrella, was owned and operated by businesspeople who are seen as affiliated with the Gülen movement.

 

Kaynak Holding, a major conglomerate and the largest publisher in Turkey, which was unlawfully seized by the Erdoğan government on fabricated charges of terrorism in November 2015.

A corporate credit line for the purchase of merchandise offered by Kaynak Holding to organizations in the United States and some funds transfers in 2015 as part of business transactions were considered by the Erdoğan government to be criminal evidence. A report prepared by Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK), an agency that was often used by the Erdoğan government to investigate critics and their companies on criminal pretexts, listed the legitimate transactions as criminal activity. The report was compiled by MASAK on May 13, 2015 under file No. 2015/MAR (62) after the Ankara Public Prosecutor’s Office tasked the agency with investigating Kaynak on February 2, 2015 as part of case No. 2014/75025.

Hundreds of people and dozens of firms were dragged into the investigation in what was seen as a crackdown on Turkey’s largest publisher and supplier of educational materials. Some 800 authors were victimized when the government cancelled book contracts after the seizure of Kaynak, and millions of textbooks including some on foreign language skills were destroyed by authorities after the takeover.

Among those investigated in this case file was Ekrem Dumanlı, the former editor-in-chief of Zaman, Turkey’s largest national newspaper that was unlawfully seized by the government in March 2016 as part of a crackdown on the critical media. Dumanlı has been forced to live in exile along with more than 150 other journalists who had to flee to avoid wrongful imprisonment.

 

 

Umut Acar (R), Turkish Consul General in Chicago, is known as a Twitter trolling diplomat for harassing Erdogan’s critics online and resorting to undiplomatic, hate-spewing language.

 

The Erdoğan government brands all of its critics as terrorists, and close to 200 journalists are currently locked up in Turkish jails on terrorism charges, making Turkey the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Over 30 percent of all Turkish diplomats, 60 percent of all senior police chiefs, half of all military generals and some 30 percent of all judges and prosecutors in Turkey were also declared terrorists overnight by the executive decisions of the Erdoğan government without any effective administrative investigation and certainly without any judicial proceedings.

In July 2017 German newspaper Die Zeit reported that Turkey had handed Germany a list of 68 companies and individuals suspected of links to terrorism due to alleged ties to the Gülen movement. It was also revealed that nearly 700 German firms including industry giants Daimler and BASF were being investigated for the “financing of terrorism,” lodged with Interpol by Turkey. After Germany reacted strongly to the witch-hunt and threatened economic sanctions, Turkey backed down and claimed that it was simply a miscommunication.

Nordic Monitor previously published a report disclosing how Turkish embassies and consular officials engaged in spying on government critics in 92 foreign countries as part of profiling and espionage activities that at times amounted to a systematic and deliberate campaign of refugee spying. A document found in papers released by the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court on January 16, 2019 in case No. 2016/238 indicated that the Turkish Foreign Ministry had compiled a long list of foreign entities that were owned and/or operated by people who were seen as close to the Gülen movement.

The government of President Erdoğan has come under intense scrutiny in recent years over rights violations and the jailing of political opposition members, human rights defenders, journalists and representatives of civil society organizations.

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