Turkey on par with Qatar can complicate the situation in the North Caucasus.
Written by Yevgeny Satanovsky, President of Institute of Middle East
Originally appeared at VPK, translated by James Cooksey exclusively for SouthFront
With the beginning of the Russian Aerospace Forces (RAF) operation in Syria Moscow entered into an open confrontation with Turkey, and its allies in Doha and Riyadh, who in recent years were trying to bring down the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. This resulted in Middle East turning into Islamic terrorist groups’ battlefield for “loot” and the regional Sunni-Shia war.
The failures of the jihadists in Syria and derangement of plans to eliminate the government of Assad by New Year has caused panic in Turkey and Qatar. Saudi Arabia, bogged down in Yemen and fearful of “Islamic state”, supported by Ankara and Doha as well as “Muslim Brotherhood”, is less sensitive to the situation.
In contrast to Riyadh its allies in the Syrian civil war are trying to put pressure on Russia by all available means, using unconventional measures. This includes terrorist attack in Sinai, which brought down Russian airliner with tourists and the downed by Turkey Russian military aircraft (and also a helicopter, destroyed while attempting to evacuate the ejected pilots). We should expect more attempts to organize a high-profile terrorist attack in Russia which in recent years were carried out almost exclusively by groups, under the Saudi General intelligence. But currently, the “Caucasus Emirate”, no matter how weak it is, is funded by Qatar. Turkish intelligence services also sustain long-standing experience in Russia. Consider the history of their activity and capacity, based on the materials prepared for Institute of the Middle East (IME) by Balmasov S. S. and Y. B. Seglovin.
The Chechen project
In the post-Soviet period Turkish secret services were among the most active ones in Russia. Between 1994 and 2006 in Chechnya they propped up local separatists and worked actively with the Turkic population of the Caucasus. Using Turkish channels to establish their influence in the region, the Arab States (including Saudi Arabia) sponsored, supplied weapons and volunteers to illegal armed groups. Ankara was motivated by her historical interest in the North Caucasus, where the Ottoman Empire in the late XVIII – XIX century was forced out by Russia. This revitalization had been viewed by Turkish political elite as a natural course of events long before Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003, who in 2011 as a result of sharp deterioration of relations with the Syrian regime openly departed from his declared foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors”.
Helping “the Forest” seemed for Ankara a proven way to achieve its goals in the context of weakening Moscow after the collapse of the USSR. A special role in bolstering Chechen separatists played a paramilitary organization “Grey wolves”, whom the Turkish intelligence service MIT (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı or National Intelligence Organization) had openly supported.
Among volunteers sent to the North Caucasus were not only ethnic Turks, but also immigrants from Turkic countries, including Azerbaijan, as well as descendants of immigrants from Caucasus. Via Turkish channels wounded separatists and their families were evacuated through Pankisskoye gorge of Georgia, inhabited by Chechens-Kists. Turkish special services oversaw gathering and delivery to Chechnya of donations for militants from across 80 fake organizations, mostly created with the participation of the descendants of the North Caucasians, who fled to Turkey in the nineteenth century, under pressure from Russia. Their work was in coordination with the Caucasus Foundation, the Peoples Confederation of the Caucasus, the Committee of Caucasian-Chechen solidarity, Societies of Solidarity with Chechnya and “Mazlum” who recruited and transferred volunteers to the war torn region. Liaisons and treasurer were deployed. Every major field commander had its financier and sponsor. CCCS leader Muhriddin Bay (Ilhan Muhriddin) was in close contact with MIT, coordinating communications of Ichkeria with the leadership of the Turkish intelligence services. CCCS also performed the representative functions. Its representative Agja Salih fought for the separatists, and while returning from Russia, was engaged in relocation of returning fighters, being a trustee of A. Maskhadov in Turkey. Erhan Bay (Erhan Essay) a high-ranking employee of the Russian Section at MIT oversaw financing and supply chains of the separatists.
Russian security forces have for numerous times detained or eliminated MIT agents who supported Chechen rebels. In 1995 at the border crossing Kamil Oz Turk, Ishaq Kasap and Hussein were arrested. They provided the coordination between the separatists and Turkish security services and helped the transit of finances and weapons to Chechnya. In 2000, MIT lost Ahmed Humus Emer, Ilyas Kush, Molla Hassan Yildirimer and Ilhan Duman. These professional agents of MIT worked through the funding system “Nurdzhular”. In the same 2000 Ankara lost Ufuk Kaydar and Zakariya Al-Turkiy in Chechnya. Then Abulic Kurban, Turkish citizen of Uighur nationality, born in China and wanted for terrorist attacks there was detained in Dagestan. In 2001 the activities of Abu Bakar, commanding officer of a mujahedin group of Khattab, Michael and Taraka Turki militants were suppressed.
With the victory of Erdogan’s party – the JDP (Justice and Development Party) in 2003 elections the situation began to change for the better. “Independent Ichkeria” has lost the struggle for the North Caucasus and sponsors saw no profit in spending resources on the weakened separatists. Turkey was among the leading economic partners of Russia. But the inertia of subversive work against Moscow continued. This was confirmed by the testimony of mujahid Ali Sutekina Olla who was captured in December 2005, who was trained in a group of Turkish citizens of 35 people, led by the Abu Zar.
In November of 2003 and September of 2004 in Shalinsky District of Chechnya two militant groups were annihilated. In the former three Turkish citizen and ethnic Turks from Germany were neutralized. The latter included a Turkish citizen Hassan Umacha whose body was discovered among foreign mercenaries. In November 2004 two Turkish mujahideen – Aydin and Kaya Burhan Chalabi were killed in Grozny. They were senior MIT coordinators in Chechnya and documents discovered on them shed light on the subversive activities of Ankara in the region. Those indicated that the financial support for the separatists has decreased dramatically. Hence, MIT emissaries engaged in a conflict with the separatists, who accused them of embezzlement of funds allocated for anti-Russian activity. The scale of undermining work declined. In December 2006 the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov announced the elimination of foreign mercenaries in the country.
Going into the Turkic world
After the Turkish special services have reduced their direct support of separatism and terrorism, they’ve focusing on the creation of agents of influence in Ankara’s regions of interest (especially in the South of Russia) and intelligence gathering, for the future use. Operations were carried out in accordance with the plan to establish an Northern Caucasus Islamic Confederation through the proposed unification of Karachay-Balkar Confederation with the Turkic “republics” – Kumyk and Nogai, with the leading role given to Chechnya. They were creating a platform for all Muslim and Turkic-speaking republics of the Russian Federation, focusing on the Middle and Lower Volga region, especially Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. The objective was their exclusion from Russia. Subsequently the idea was spread to the Siberian regions, including in the direction of the Turkic Tuvan-Khakas Confederation.
In Russia, the MIT agents often worked as journalists. In 1996, Ozturk Ramaz and Ozerdem Hüseyin Menguc were arrested while posing as Sabah newspaper journalists. But the main bulk of the agents were acting under the guise of cultural, educational and religious structures, including Fethullah Gulen “Nurdzhular” assotiation. This organization was accused of spreading the ideas of a religious leader Saeed Nursi, declared in 2014 by Russia as extremist, also spreading propaganda (especially among youth) of pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism, the intelligence gathering in the Turkic-speaking regions of the Russian Federation and Krasnodar.
“Nurdzhular” worked in Russia through its subsidiaries “Aflac” and “Serhat”, and also “Toros” and “Ufuk” funds. Its galvanization led to the fact that only in 2002 the FSB neutralized more than 50 Gulen’s emissaries in Bashkiria, Dagestan and Karachay-Cherkessia. In 2003, Russian law enforcement agencies stopped the activity of “Serhat”, who oversaw the Turkish schools in Bashkortostan. Counterintelligence neutralized dozens of Turkish secret agents who tried to enter the Russian business, law enforcement agencies and local authorities to promote the interests of Ankara. Thus, for the pan-Turkic cultivation of Russian population employees of MIT Nesrin Uslu and Hacky Mutludohan were involved who operated under the cover of Turkish construction firms.
Dragging the Russian South into Turkish business projects were supposed to contribute to expansion of Ankara’s influence in the region. Legal entrepreneurial activity gave intelligence services the opportunity to work under the guise, thus justifying its appearance in various Russian regions and implementation of financial operations. Since the 90-ies Ankara via the promotion of Turkish economic system tried to implement models which even targeted the policy in the Caucasus region. This is visible in the formation of a common “Caucasian market”, the arbitration court of the Caucasus, “Caucasus Parliament”, joint chamber of Commerce “Turkey – Caucasus”, Caucasus International investment Bank, and the phantasmagoric creation of “United Caucasus currency”.
Turkish intelligence agencies have established cooperation with the leadership of the Meskhetian Turks in the Krasnodar region. On December 25th, 2001 at the expanded Board of the Ministry of interior meeting it was stated that MIT gives their leaders instructions. According to the Governor of the Krasnodar territory, through the “Grey wolves” organization criminal elements were recruited for gaining control of local ports, redistribution of property and entry into the government structures. According to him, establishment of business entities for financing terrorism in the region were underway. In 2002 in Krasnodar eight agents of the Turkish secret services were neutralized. They were involved, as well as some of the Meskhetian Turks in military sites data collection.
Domestic security officials feared that Turkish agents could paralyze the transportation network of the region if ordered to. Their representatives were distributing literature published in Turkey, promoting in the ideas of “Great Turan”, stating that the entire Russian North Caucasus, the Don and the Astrakhan regions must return under the control of Turkey. In Turkey this ideology is preached in the open by a marginal party, which representatives occasionally make their way into Parliament (the Party of the Grand Alliance and the Nationalist Movement Party), but they only voice the ideas of a more serious forces. Conflicts between Turkish-Meskhetian community and local population were exacerbated by the info about the creation of illegal armed formations.
Chechnya, Dagestan and the Volga region are not the only areas where Turkish intelligence agencies could create problems for Russia. Significant opportunities were in Abkhazia, because the breaking of historical ties between the Abkhaz and the Turks (including Muhajirs movement and the resistance to Russian authorities) is almost impossible to forget, and also due to the fact that Turkish economic influence in the republic is vast today.
One cannot underestimate the Turkish capabilities in “swinging” the Circassian problem. Before the Olympics in Sochi Western organizations were trying to galvanize it, but then it met very limited Turkish support. Considering worsening of the Russian-Turkish relations, the situation may change. In Turkey there are up to 6.5 million descendants of the Circassians, and, if desired, Ankara might use them to destabilize the situation in the East of the North Caucasus region.
We should not forget about the Turkish influence on the Crimean Tatars, which she patronized from the late USSR period, providing them with educational and financial support. As much as 2.5 million descendants of the Crimean Tatars and “Turko-tatars” who left the peninsula in the XVIII–XIX centuries are now living in Turkey.
In the case of a serious deterioration of Russian-Turkish conflict, Ankara could significantly complicate the situation in the North Caucasus for Moscow, throwing the region back to what happened in the mid-90s. The problem may be more serious than in 1990-2000es, since Turkey is ready to support Qatar who is the main competitor of Russia’s gas exports, while also being one of the main propagators of radical Islam. If the subversive work of the Turkish secret service will be reactivated, depends largely on the Russian leadership actions after the shooting down of the Su-24 bomber aircraft.
It is possible that leadership takes this into account. Hence, the actions against Turkish businesses in the country are of a preventive nature and are aimed at eliminating agents of the Turkish secret services and the prevention of its activation. However, the potential agents of Ankara are difficult to detect yet alone neutralize, given the fact that the post-Soviet period was widely associated with Turkish-sponsored schools which produced a lot of specialists, which can become distributers of its influence in the Russian regions, should political decision and adequate funding be injected.
The MIT and Power
Currently, the main intelligence agency of Turkey, MIT is headed by a faithful to Erdogan Hakan Fidan, who performs the most delicate tasks of the President. He has his own career ambitions in the JDP, but still under the control of Erdogan. Fidan tried to go into politics before the parliamentary elections on June 7, but Erdogan, fearing that he will join his rivals in JDP, forbade him, promising to create a super special service for him to govern. In fact, however, Erdogan needs a power structure, which would be loyal only to him. For this purpose it is planned to use the JDP’s youth wing led by Ismail Ocaklari, which is expected to head this organisation. Its backbone will be the controlled by him “Ottoman Club”, which sole purpose is the suppression of competing political parties and opposition within the JDP.
MIT for a long time supplied the “Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), banned in Russia with weapons through semi-public Turkish company MKE and up to the present has a close relationship with IS. It is merely a coincidence that Fidan for a long time voiced the idea of establishing IS mission in Turkey. Given that MIT oversees worldwide terrorist group “Muslim Brotherhood” (in alliance with Qatar), including the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza, as well as Turkic militants from the Syrian and Iraqi Turkomans to the Uighurs of China, one should not underestimate the capacity of the organization (including in Central Asia and Northern Afghanistan). Operations through undercover agents in Turkish embassies, has allowed Fidan to create a broad intelligence-subversive network.
Special services against all
The problem of Turkish intelligence services today is mass cleansing of the personnel for the sake of getting rid of Imam Fethullah Gulen’s people from “parallel state” (Jamaat). The usual struggle for power between former allies, which Erdogan and Gulen were for a long time. In this purges the top and middle brass of the special body on special operations “Ozel Tim” and chief Directorate of security police were especially affected. The loss of experienced operatives and leaders led to the loss of combat potential and competence of these units.
In addition to the solutions designed to expel service personnel insufficiently loyal to him, Erdogan has banned contacts with the Iranian counter-terrorism units who specialized in the Kurdish radicals and for a long time successfully cooperated with the Turkish intelligence services. As a result among the veterans of the power block a serious skepticism prevails about Erdogan and his minions. As a result, as for now, MIT is unable to respond adequately to all threats posed to Turkey. In particular, the monopolization of radio reconnaissance assets has led to the fact that the specialists-technicians simply do not have time to process the incoming information, which becomes outdated and cannot be utilized. Moreover, due to serious conflict with the Turkish gendarmerie, which conceded part of its functions to MIT, operational agent units of the former appeared to be lost, which sharply reduced the capabilities of intelligence agencies in border areas and in the Kurdish vilayets of Eastern Anatolia.
It should be noted that essential part of the struggle with the military brass, which resulted in general staff losing the opportunity to perform coup d’etat , being satiated with people loyal to Erdogan, became 2012 order that gave H. Fidan the control over eavesdropping and monitoring mobile communication station Genelkurmay Elektronik Sistemler (GES). Since its construction in 1950, with the help of the American National Security Agency (NSA), the station was owned by the Turkish army. Erdogan promised to push the law “on extraordinary powers” for MIT through the Parliament and legalize its special status in the hierarchy of Turkish power structures. This will surely result in serious discontent of the army. But hoping that hidden opposition at middle level command of the Turkish armed forces can turn into something serious is pretty futile. Days when army could unseat the political leadership in Turkey, have passed.