New film reveals Turkey increasingly spying on opponents in Germany

The German television channel ZDF released a documentary earlier this month that presented new evidence about espionage in Germany carried out against opponents and critics of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The documentary, entitled “How Erdoğan’s critics are exposed to espionage in Germany", revealed evidence that the espionage is still being done by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB) in Germany on behalf of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MİT)

According to the documentary, the Turkish intelligence agency relies heavily on Turkish mosques operating under DİTİB’s umbrella. DİTİB is Germany’s largest Islamic organisation, and it operates more than 900 mosques located in Germany’s 16 states.

In its documentary, the German channel interviewed Turkish citizens who fled to Germany after the failed coup attempt against Erdoğan in 2016. Exiled Turks living in Germany said that they have been subjected to direct threats from imams of DİTİB mosques due to their criticism of Erdoğan and his government.

In an interview with the channel, Elinal Özil, a young Turkish man who sought refuge in Germany after the coup attempt for fear of arbitrary arrest due to his political activities, said he was under direct threat from Erdoğan’s supporters in Germany.

Özil lives with his family in a small town near to the German city of Kassel, and he sometimes visited the nearby mosque to pray until the imam stopped him and threatened him after saying he knew that he belonged to a group that opposed Erdoğan.

Özil said that he was not expecting to feel fear again after he left Turkey for Germany, especially as he was hoping for a new life full of security and stability in his new country.

Spying directed by the Turkish government is not limited to opponents and critics fleeing to Germany. It also includes German political figures and parliamentarians of Turkish and Kurdish origin.

Speaking to ZDF, Sevim Dağdelen, a Left Party member of the German parliament, said she was afraid of espionage operations run by Erdoğan and the Turkish intelligence agency against anyone who criticises his policies from abroad.

Dağdelen, who has been living under the protection of the German police, said that the German government bears a large part of the responsibility for the violations and spying operations that Turkey allegedly runs because of its "encouraging" policies towards Erdoğan who runs the state with the mind of a "mafia gang head".

According to the documentary, imams at DİTİB mosques are ordered to collect information about targets and their whereabouts. The information is sent directly to the Turkish embassy and consulates in German cities, which in turn send the information regularly to the Turkish intelligence.

Allegations of Turkish spying, as well death and kidnapping threats made against opponents of Erdoğan and his government in Germany, have previously been published, but the German authorities have apparently so far failed to act and have said there is not enough evidence to warrant opening cases.

However, some German politicians and opponents of the Turkish government attribute the German government's inaction to the strong economic and military ties that bind both countries.

Turkey's intelligence agency has dozens of its agents officially in Germany, but the real number of people who work to monitor dissidents and collect information on them is almost 8,000, according to the German channel.

In order to speed up and facilitate reporting and spying on opponents and critics of Erdoğan, it was reported by German media in 2018 that Turkey's intelligence agency has developed a phone application called Emniyet Genel Müdürlüğü-EGM (General Directorate of Security) whereby any Turkish citizen living in Germany can report anyone - regardless of their nationality - who criticises Erdoğan or his government, whether verbally or online.

The Turkish security forces, in turn, can archive notifications and issue arrest warrants against reported people and send their names to border crossings and airports with the aim of arresting them as soon as they enter Turkish territory.

The German Federal Foreign Ministry explicitly warns citizens online over travel and security in Turkey: "Be aware that statements critical of the Turkish government on social media, even if they are old posts, but also sharing posts or liking foreign news and reports links, may expose you to detention by the Turkish security authorities.”

The accusation that DİTİB is spying on behalf of Turkish intelligence and Erdoğan is not new, especially since DİTİB has admitted itself that imams in its mosques have already gathered information about members of the Gülen movement - which Turkey blames for orchestrating the failed 2016 coup - and had sent it to Turkish intelligence in Ankara.

At the beginning of 2017, the General Secretary of DİTİB, Bekir Alboğa, formally apologised, saying, "We deeply regret this glitch."

According to ZDF, this official apology did not deter the organisation and its imams from continuing to spy on opponents and critics of the Turkish government.

The relationship between the German government and DİTİB has deteriorated for years as the perception of the organisation has changed. It transformed from a partner in terms of integrating immigrants and refugees, to a suspicious organisation running spying operations and inciting Turkish citizens to take action against people opposed to Erdoğan.

In 2018, the financial support received by DİTİB’s from the German government fell to 297,000 euros ($333,228, compared to 1.5 million euros in 2017, because of the uncertainties surrounding it, according to German media.

DİTİB’s links to the Turkish government also pushed the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Germany to classify it as a nationalist, rather than religious, organisation in 2018 but it said this did not merit further observation by the authorities. ZDF's recent documentary might suggest they take a closer look. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.