by Abdullah Bozkurt
Arab, Israeli, and Jewish interests in Turkey are exposed to plots and attacks as the Turkish government no longer believes that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force and its Turkish offshoot, Tevhid Selam, pose a grave threat to Turkey’s national security and public order.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the deadly terrorist organization Tevhid Selam as a hoax despite its track record of murders, assassinations and bombings by operatives who were trained, funded and armed by the Quds Force. There has been an overwhelming body of incriminating evidence gathered over decades of work against the stealthy group by Turkish intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The criminal justice system including the nation’s top criminal court, the Supreme Court of Appeals (Yargitay), have consistently upheld verdicts to that effect, listing the IRGC’s Turkish offspring as a terror organization following successful prosecutions, trials and convictions of its members.
Now police investigators, intelligence officers, prosecutors and even judges who were involved in the prosecution and conviction of Quds Force operatives have been purged, subjected to malicious prosecution and unlawfully arrested. The Cabinet ministers who are in charge of the interior and justice ministries have brushed aside the threat of the IRGC and its affiliates in Turkey. In early 2014, Erdogan helped thwart the most expansive investigation ever pursued against the vast network of espionage run by the IRGC in Turkey. The secret investigation had been running since 2010 and uncovered many Turkish and Iranian operatives of the Quds Force including those attached to Iranian diplomatic missions. Thousands of pages of confidential documents, copies of which I obtained, conclude that the IRGC had moles nested in government agencies.
Against the background of this vicious vendetta pursued by the Erdogan government against IRGC spy and mole hunters, from members of the judiciary to police chiefs, it would be very hard for Turkish authorities to initiate and pursue a serious investigation into Quds Force operations in Turkey. The government’s message is loud and clear: Anybody who touches the clandestine IRGC operations gets burned. This terrible turn of events could have catastrophic consequences not only for Turkish national security but also for the protection of Arab, Israeli and Western interests.
The suicide attack in March 2016 in Istanbul that killed one Iranian and three Israeli nationals, blamed on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was a stark reminder of that gloomy prospect. The identity of the suicide bomber and his network was long known to authorities in Turkey. Yet, nobody lifted a finger to crack down on the group that empowered and enabled jihadist militants to move freely within and across Turkey’s borders. There is more to come as long as the jihadist mindset in the Erdogan government continues to prevent law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system from cracking down on Islamist militants, Sunni and Shiite alike.
As a result, the intelligence cooperation that has been ongoing since the 1950s between Turkey and Israel at various levels and to various extents was dealt a serious blow by the government of Erdogan. Although the agreement on mutual cooperation is still in effect despite fierce opposition by Hakan Fidan, a pro-Iranian Islamist who has headed the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) since 2010, the effective implementation is no longer there. Mossad’s intelligence-gathering operations were leaked to Iran by Turkey in 2012, and blowing the cover of assets was one of the many casualties in this saga.
Even if the intelligence cooperation between Turkey and Israel is restored to its previous level, the action by the Turkish police, the main law enforcement agency in Turkey with manpower totaling 274,000, on the intelligence provided by Israel would likely be very limited. The lack of political commitment in cracking down on IRGC activities in Turkey, the flourishing jihadist mindset with troubling anti-Semitism in the Turkish judiciary and law enforcement agencies, and the demonization of Jews in Turkey’s government-controlled media outlets would be major impediments to acting on intelligence tips provided by Turkey’s traditional allies and partners.
A review of confidential communications from Israel and US intelligence agencies on possible attacks against Western, Israeli and Jewish interests in Turkish territory shows that the threat by the IRGC is real and clear and surely requires closer cooperation and coordination between security and intelligence services. Let me explain how cooperation has benefited both so far, prompting at times a nationwide investigation and manhunt by the police and gendarmerie to locate and identify suspects. The enhanced capabilities with joint work helped derail plots and neutralize threats to Turkey and its partners.
For example, on Jan. 3, 2013, Turkish police dispatched a secret communication to all police departments in 81 provinces with a “very urgent” note, alerting about possible attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets. The intelligence that was provided by Mossad indicated that Iranian national Ali Khodadadi, who was involved in a foiled car bomb attack on Feb. 13, 2012 that targeted the Israeli Embassy in Tbilisi, made trips to Turkey and acquired explosives there. The intel warned that the Quds Force might try to stage an attack in Turkey and informed that a woman identified as Leila Shatirashvili, a Georgian national linked to Khodadadi, was believed to be in Turkey. The intel provided mobile phone numbers that were used by Leila and others in Turkey.
Likewise, in another piece of intelligence provided by Israel on April 9, 2013, an Afghan national called Mir Agha was identified as a migrant smuggler who was tapped by the Quds Force to transport an operative across the Turkish-Greek border to stage an attack in Europe as part of clandestine operations planned by Iran. Police quickly identified the man as Mir Agha Karimi Sayed Karim (DoB: Jan. 11, 1983) from the intel provided by Mossad. Iranian national Mohsen Bkhitari, resident in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district, was also found to be involved with Agha. When the probe was expanded, police intelligence discovered eight Turkish and two Afghan nationals in the smuggling network within a week, putting them under close surveillance.
The intelligence about the Quds Force’s active network in Turkey has not only come from Israel. Both the US and Arab nations’ intelligence services provided similar information to the Turkish side, asking for a further investigation on the tips they received. For example, MIT relayed information it received from a foreign agency on May 31, 2012 to Turkish police, seeking an investigation into a Quds Force-sanctioned attack against Saudi Arabian interests in Turkey. The intel included the names of three Lebanese nationals (Baqira Maliki, Sajad Gaemi Hastand and General Salehi) who would make a trip to Turkey on Kuwaiti passports, and one Iranian national named Mojtaba Mohammadi, who was leading the strike team.
A Turkish police intelligence document dated April 5, 2012 stated that the US had provided information that the Quds Force was plotting an attack and that Iranian nationals Daryoush Alampourshirazi and Abbas Rezaee had entered Turkey on Jan. 3, 2012. Turkish police tracked their whereabouts and cooperated with the US in foiling the plots. Likewise, on July 26, 2013, the Turkish Foreign Ministry received an intel note from the Saudi Arabian Embassy disclosing a possible attack on Saudi targets in Turkey by an armed Shiite group and requesting the beefing up of security around Saudi diplomatic missions in Turkey.
The secret documents reveal more examples of this intelligence cooperation that aimed to undermine Iran’s clandestine operations in and through Turkey and thwart deadly terrorist plots that targeted not only Turkish but also Western, Arab and Israeli interests. Erdogan’s pro-Iranian government has already done great harm to that valuable cooperation and allowed the IRGC to expand its network in Turkey. Strangely enough, old friends are now enemies, and Turkey’s centuries-long foes have become new friends in Erdogan’s Turkey. I suppose as long as Islamist thugs control the levers of power in Turkey, intelligence cooperation between Turkey and its allies and partners will never go back to business as usual. That is yet another reason why Turkish intelligence agency MIT should be treated as a hostile spy agency rather than an ally intelligence service.