Why the West should take Turkey’s international abductions more seriously
International abductions conducted by Turkey’s security services should draw more concern from Western allies than they are currently receiving, said Serdar San, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto and a researcher on transnational repression.
San, in an article examining Turkey’s practice of using covert methods including the kidnapping of opponents in other countries have grown increasingly aggressive under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish allies in NATO and the European Union should regard this practice with more concern.
In a podcast with Ahval News, San walked through a series of incidents in recent years where pro-government proxies or Turkish agents themselves undertook bold operations in the heart of the West aimed at Ankara’s perceived enemies. These included a failed kidnapping attempt against a Turkish businessman in Switzerland, a thwarted assassination attempt against a sitting member of Austria’s parliament, and a recent assault against journalist Erk Acarer outside his home in Berlin, Germany.
“I believe that Turkey’s transnational intelligence activities should draw more serious concerns from its Western partners, like NATO and the EU,” San said.
Turkey presents a unique challenge for Western countries in countering dangerous covert actions or flat out law-breaking within their borders, San said. Unlike countries like Russia, who has been linked to numerous assassinations in Europe, Turkey is a NATO ally and a strategic partner that is violating their sovereignty.
San explains that Turkey’s actions have grown more aggressive for two reasons: a decline in Western pressure on Erdoğan’s authoritarianism at home and the domestic conflict between the president and his litany of enemies. Many of the targets of Turkish abduction or other covert operations mirror those Erdoğan has singled out at home, he said.
“Turkey’s campaign of transnational repression should be considered a menace to these countries, and not just their targets living in these environments,” he said.
None of these actions are more apparent than Turkey’s pursuit of the current and former followers of exiled preacher and Erdoğan ally-turned-foe Fethullah Gülen. The Gülen movement, as it is known, is regarded in Turkey as a terrorist organisation for its involvement in the failed coup attempt of July 2016. In its aftermath, a major domestic crackdown was launched against Gülenists at home during a years-long state of emergency.
That fight shifted abroad, and in many cases to countries where the strength of the rule of law and democratic institutions are not nearly as robust as in the West. To date, Turkey has managed to capture or extradite Gülenists residing in countries that include Ukraine, Kenya, Mongolia, and Saudi Arabia.
The most recent abduction took place in Kyrgzstan. On May 31, Turkish-Kyrgz educator Orhan İnandı, who worked at a Gülen-linked school, disappeared only to emerge handcuffed on July 5 on Turkish television during a televised address made by Erdoğan. Erdoğan personally denied Turkish involvement when Kyrgz president Sadyr Jarapov visited in June, but some Kyrgz lawmakers accused the national intelligence service of being either incompetent or co-opted by Turkey.
According to San, Turkey’s blatant undermining of countries like Kyrgzstan, a fragile Central Asian republic, only complicates any work towards creating durable and accountable institutions at home. Outside of outright breaking their laws, Turkey relies on inducements like economic or political pressure on top of exploiting corruption in these states’ security services to achieve its goals. He described these actions as a “menace” to the countries they take place in.
“We can say that Turkish extraterritorial operations are not just a threat to Turkish exiles abroad, but to the rule of law in other countries,” San said.
To make matters worse, Turkey has avoided blowbacks for operations like İnandı’s abduction. Often the consequences of Turkey’s actions are borne by the local states themselves, which have already resulted in severe repercussions in some instances.
What San believes is necessary to curb these flagrants violations of national sovereignty is more attention applied to Turkey from its Western partners. In his view, the United States in particular should take the lead given its leadership role within the NATO alliance and the ability to act more decisively against Turkey than even EU states.
To do this, San suggests countries exert pressure on Turkish officials to respect international and domestic law or risk consequences.
“Western countries should continue to urge Turkish officials to stop these practices and respect domestic and international procedures on extraditions,” said San.
“I believe that Turkey’s transnational intelligence activities should draw more serious concerns from its Western partners, like NATO and the EU.
“As the foreign policy of Turkey started to change and as Erdoğan moved towards a more hardline nationalism, we see the AKP government strengthened its ties to overseas nationalist groups.
“We can say that Turkish extraterritorial operations are not just a threat to Turkish exiles abroad, but to the rule of law in other countries”
“Turkey’s campaign of transnational repression should be considered a menace to these countries, and not just their targets living in these environments.
“When we look at the broader campaign of transnational repression, we see that the targets actually mirror the people that the Turkish government targeted in its domestic crackdowns.
“Western countries should continue to urge Turkish officials to stop these practices and respect domestic and international procedures on extraditions.”