Turkey using 8,000 spies to track dissidents in Germany

Turkish authorities have increased surveillance and harassment of opponents on German soil after failed 2016 coup

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks to members of his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a video conference call in Ankara, Turkey, July 1, 2020. Mustafa Oztartan/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE
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Refugees and dissidents from Turkey living in Germany have witnessed a surge in harassment from the estimated 8,000 Turkish intelligence agents active on German soil, an investigation has claimed.

In the fallout from the failed 2016 coup in Turkey there has been an unprecedented rise in asylum applications by Turkish citizens in Germany as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increased repression against most forms of opposition. As a result, Turkey’s intelligence apparatus has increased its operations.

Germany, which opened its borders during the 2015 migrant crisis, is believed to be home to at least four million people of Turkish origin but has at times been at odds with Turkey over its influence.

Asylum seekers are often Kurdish or supporters of the banned Gulen movement, which Mr Erdogan has clamped down on and blamed the 2016 coup attempt.

According to the newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, there were nearly 11,500 Turkish asylum applications in Germany in 2019 compared with roughly 1,800 in 2014.

The newspaper spoke to Kamil, who has been in Germany for 30 years and is wanted by Turkish authorities for his alleged support of the Gulen movement.

He said the imam at his mosque had banned him from entering after following orders by Turkey and his annual visits to his home country had stopped since 2017 after a visit by German police.

In 2019 Berlin began efforts to have imams trained in Germany rather than abroad amid concerns over the financing of religious institutions by Turkey.

Two other men, Hussein and Omar, who fled to Germany in 2017, refused to speak Turkish at a local cafe so the owners could not eavesdrop on them.

Hussein told Asharq Al Awsat that his brother had urged him to leave Turkey after the failed coup because he feared he would be tortured.

Controversy over Turkish intelligence agents and informants in Germany has rumbled along for years. In 2016 it was claimed there were more Turkish spies working in Germany than communist East Germany had in West Germany during the Cold War.

At the time, security expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom said Turkish agents were being used for repression rather than intelligence.

"Turkey's internal conflicts between Gulen and Erdogan, and between [ethnic] Kurds and Turks, have been brought into Germany and are impacting the internal peace," Mr Schmidt-Eenboom told Sweden’s The Local website.

In 2017, a paper by the Royal United Services Institute warned the spy network was putting Turkey-Germany relations under intense stress. It also said Turkey’s security service was using imams and officials from local Turkish-Islamic organisations to spy on Gulenists.

“What is very concerning for German and Austrian authorities is the fact that individuals who have been overheard criticising Erdogan face arrest when they travel to Turkey,” said Dr Tessa Szyszkowitz in her commentary for the institute.

In June, Turkey announced it had detained four members of an intelligence cell who were spying for France.