Articles

Turkish Influence and Intelligence Operations in Germany

This paper was written by James Cory for IWP’s course on Geography and Strategy (IWP 634). James Cory is a first-year student at The Institute of World Politics studying international relations. 

Turkey’s role in the political landscape in Europe is of paramount importance. Sitting astride a land mass larger than Texas, and with a population slightly less than Germany, Turkey is a major regional power. It serves as the physical gateway to Europe from the Middle East and controls a significant portion of the Eastern Mediterranean. If Turkey has a sizable diaspora in Germany that can be influenced from Turkey and used as an intelligence base, it could allow Ankara to pull political strings in times of crisis. This will be especially prevalent in the coming generations as the population of Turkish Muslims grows and obtains full political rights and representation. Most recently, Germany was noticeably quiet during the Greek-Turkish spat in the Mediterranean. Turkish influence and intelligence operations are currently active in Germany and will increase in the coming decades due to the volatile nature of the Turkish regime and the ethnic conflicts transplanted from the Middle East.

Although Turks make up the majority of Muslim migrants, Islam in Germany is not a united whole. Muslims currently make up about 6% of Germany’s population with estimates varying between 8%-20% for Germany’s Muslim population by the year 2050.[1] Muslims of Turkish descent make up a little over two-thirds (almost 3 million) of all Muslims in Germany.[2] There is also a significant Kurdish and Arab population in Germany, especially since the 2015 immigration crisis. Many Kurds have immigrated as a result of the fighting between Kurdish factions and the Turkish government, leading to animosity that follows the immigrants to Europe.

Additional polls suggest that second- and third-generation Muslims are more conservative than the first generation.[3] The need to conceal or diminish their religious beliefs might have been necessary for the original Turkish workers in order to interact with the native populace in the 1960s-80s; however, the end of the Cold War and the greater salience of cultural differences, especially as the Muslim population in Germany has grown, has led to increased Muslim identity. A good example of increased Muslim identity has been the head covering debate which has raged in Germany and most of the rest of Europe.[4] Despite the prevalence of Western movements, such as feminism, and concepts like individualism, many of the people protesting head covering bans have been Muslim women.

Turkey’s modern history is a peculiar mix of Western political principles and Islamic principles. The introduction of Kemalism after the First World War brought about significant changes in the Turkish government and the orientation of society. The destruction of the sultanate and the ordering of society around the rule of law and statist principles meant that Turkey no longer seemed to represent that brand of Islam that had attempted the destruction of Christendom for centuries. Turkey found itself part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a major counterweight to the Soviet Union in the region. Indeed, it was generally believed in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks that the Turkish government-backed version of Islam was more moderate due to the perceived secular government in Ankara controlling it. In many respects, this is probably true. However, with the rise of Erdogan and Turkish nationalism – which is intertwined with its Muslim identity – it does not seem that the term extremism is all-encompassing. The post-9/11 world also opens up a bigger debate about what values Ankara represents. Are Western democratic values strong enough to override the ethnic and cultural tensions of the various Middle Eastern factions that have settled within Germany’s borders? And is Western-Islamic conflict mitigated by a Western understanding of the separation of religion from public life?

It would seem that the answer to the last question is no, based on a cursory understanding of the Islamic and Western traditions. Islam does not have the theoretical basis for the separation of church and state like in the West: in fact, it is in opposition to it. This Western dualistic understanding of church and state started with Christ and “repay[ing] to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”[5] This intertwined dualism is further expounded by St. Augustine in his work The City of God. Islam, however, has no such understanding. Islam was propagated by the sword. Dar al-Harb (House of War) was traditionally understood as the non-Muslim majority areas of the world that needed to be converted into Dar al-Islam (House of Islam). The dichotomy of mosque and state seems superficial and artificial at best. This is shown because the Kemalist regime in Turkey was never truly secular, despite Turkish elites attempting to use Western ideas to this end. Kemalism attempted to “banish Islam to the private sphere, while removing the direct influence of religious institutions and leaders over politics.”[6]  It does not appear that this ever fully occurred, as the religious fervor of the lower classes seemed to simmer just below the surface. The military, which saw itself as the safeguard of secularism in Turkey, executed coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997, and, most recently, in 2016. These coups were influenced in part because of a softening of Turkish state interactions with Islam. Whenever the secular state was threatened, the military would step in. The disharmonic nature of Turkish domestic politics played a role later on in Turkish immigration to Germany.

The history of Turkish migrants in Germany starts near the beginning of the Cold War. The splitting of Germany, and Berlin, into East and West spheres after World War II led to different post-war experiences. The influx of economic help in the form of The Marshall Plan, which pumped billions of dollars into Europe’s economy, boosted West Germany economically but did not solve all its problems. This money was used effectively in the 1950s to rebuild the economy; however, West Germany had an acute shortage of manpower. “By 1950, West Germany had received 7.9 ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. In the years leading up to the Berlin Wall’s construction in 1961, an additional 3.8 million persons arrived from East Germany.”[7] This was remedied in part by signing bilateral labor agreements with other countries, namely the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Great Britain. The preference was to import labor from other European powers that had a similar culture. As time went on, it became increasingly difficult to find the necessary labor from other European countries. Turkish migration to Germany began in 1960 once the Berlin Wall was built and Eastern European workers were no longer available. The first wave of labor migrants from Turkey was part of temporary work programs. Unskilled labor became even more important as West Germany’s economy boomed post-war. “In fact, by 1958 defeated West Germany’s economy was larger than war victor Great Britain’s.”[8]

It wasn’t until the 1970s-80s that the temporary work visas came to be understood as something more permanent. What started out as male guest workers living temporarily in Germany to send money home to Turkey changed in 1973 due to the economic crisis. Family reunification occurred as spouses and children migrated to Germany to join the workers.  The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a second migration wave as a result of domestic turmoil within Turkey.[9] There was a minor return migration to Turkey from 1983-1985, but, since the 2000s, there has been circular migration.[10] Kurdish immigration to Germany mostly began in the 1990s due to fighting between Kurdish rebel groups and the Turkish government. This migration has increased since the 2015 immigration crisis due to the Syrian Civil War and has led to “tensions between ethnic Kurds and Turks… and further contributed to the social and political fragmentation”[11] of the Muslim migrant communities in Germany.

It is through Islamic organizations and associations that Turkish Muslim identity is maintained and strengthened in Germany. Diyanet İsleri Türk İslam Birligi (henceforward will be referred to as Diyanet) is the largest and most influential. From the beginning, it was the Diyanet that provided the resident Turkish Muslims camaraderie and connection with the homeland. There were not many civil organizations, and “[n]etworking and cooperation between Muslim community groups were vastly limited to the emerging vertical structures within national or supranational umbrella organisations.”[12] Turkish Muslim identity was thus strengthened on the individual, family, and community levels within Germany.  “Living as a religious minority in Europe has made Muslims aware of the need for an appropriate social and cultural environment that their co-religionists take for granted in Muslim-majority countries. They had to create a space in which they not only could fulfill their religious rituals but also could socialize and inculcate their culture in their children.”[13]

The mosque system was key in retaining the salience of Turkish identity, as the “imams working for the Diyanet are civil servants of the Turkish state, who are sent from Turkey for a limited time period.”[14] The Diyanet was established in 1982 at the behest of the Turkish government, which wanted to set up religious centers for Muslims in Europe.[15]  Even though the imams say there is only a loose agreement between them and the Turkish state, it seems that the Turkish government has a pre-positioned propaganda, recruitment, and intelligence institution in place. The line of control can be traced to Turkey because “[t]he Turkish government coordinates DITIB’s activities through the religious attaché of the Turkish embassy.”[16] Although the imams tend to stay away from political topics in their sermons, it is doubtful whether that would continue if an issue pressing enough arose.

The impetus for Turkish spying in Germany is the 2016 plot by certain factions within the Turkish military. “On 15 July 2016, Turkey witnessed two consecutive historic developments: the botched coup attempt to oust Erdogan and a political Islamist counter-revolution that blocked the coup.”[17] Erdogan called his supporters out into the streets to fight back, and the mosques transmitted these messages throughout Ankara. Tens of thousands of conservative Muslims responded to the call, including many political Islamists, thus showing whose support Erdogan has to keep himself in power. Once the coup was quashed, the clean-up began. Since July 2016, Erdogan has been on the hunt domestically and internationally to find and arrest anyone remotely connected with the coup. He placed the blame on Fethullah Gülen, a cleric based in the United States. The coup was the turning point for Turkey’s influence and intelligence operations in Germany.

According to Germany’s 2019 Report on the Protection of the Constitution, Turkey’s Intelligence Service Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı (MIT) is one of the four foreign intelligence services that operates the most within Germany. “The MIT focuses above all on organisations which Turkey classifies as extremist or terrorist,” but is also very interested in “organisations and individuals which oppose the current Turkish government.”[18] Due to the complexity of the Syrian civil war, and the resulting 2015 immigration crisis to Europe, there are now many different groups in Germany that oppose the current Turkish regime or its policies. MIT has been focusing on the Gulen network, which it blames for the 2016 coup attempt. The fact that Gulen was previously a political ally and supporter of Erdogan highlights the unpredictability and volatile nature of Turkish politics. Most disconcerting is that “[t]he MIT’s [intelligence] activities are accompanied by attempts to influence the Turkish community in Germany as well as individual attempts to shape political opinion and decision-making in all of German society.”[19] This influence is possible due to the established bodies of Turkish identity, such as the mosque system that originated in Turkey. “Organisations with varying degrees of ties to Ankara seek support in Germany and other European countries for Turkey’s current policies and defend the Turkish government against criticism.”[20] This shaping of public opinion could have disastrous effects for German democracy in the near future.

Since the coup attempt in 2016, there has been evidence that the mosques have been used to conduct surveillance.[21] “In its efforts to gather information on alleged terrorists, the Turkish government relies increasingly on Turkish diaspora organisations in Germany. Imams who are or were active in mosques of the ‘Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs’ (DITIB) have been tasked by the Turkish state agency for religion, Diyanet, via the Turkish consulates general to provide information on Gülen members.”[22] Numerous media sources have reported on the issue of Turkey spying on its dissidents, as well as on non-Turkish German politicians. For example, in February 2017, German police raided the homes of four Muslim clerics who were accused of spying for Turkey.[23] There appears to be a concerted effort to know the activities of people that affect domestic politics in Turkey, as well as influencing foreign opinion. Turkey has also introduced a smartphone app to be used by the average person to spy on Turkish opposition in Germany.[24] In essence, a Western democracy is being influenced and spied upon from within and without by a country that does not share the same values.

The tension between the various Muslim factions in Germany plays itself out in street battles, such as in October 2019 when a Kurdish demonstration attacked a café full of alleged Erdogan supporters over the Turkish military offensive into Kurdish land in Syria.[25] This example is just the latest of internal conflicts related to ethnic issues in the Middle East. In October 2014, hundreds of Kurds and “Islamists” brawled in the city of Hamburg.[26] De-escalation within Germany does not seem possible because of the complexity of the ethnic and political issues in the Middle East and the inability, or lack of desire, for full assimilation.

The catalyst for some of these altercations has been the use of hand signals by Turks that symbolize the Grey Wolves, a Turkish paramilitary organization created during the Cold War with a dubious history. Known for their far-right affiliation in Turkey, they have spread to other countries with Turkish people, including Germany. “Clashes between rival extremist groups from Turkey, particularly in the context of demonstrations, [will] continue to pose a threat to Germany’s internal security.”[27] The 2019 Report says there about 11,000 members of Turkish far-right affiliation in Germany. This number will most likely increase and become more active as Turkish identity becomes more salient in Germany and comes into conflict with other groups.

As the tension between the West and Islam grows more acute, it will be within the bounds of Germany that this struggle will transpire. Strained relations between the various migrant factions in Germany will also continue to lead to foreign interference in German internal affairs.  Without an awareness of Islam’s incongruous role in Germany, and an in-depth understanding of the distinct sects within the immigrant community, Germany seems destined to be a place of internal conflict. The deadly combination of ethnic nationalism and religious fervor could find its consummation in the state system in the Turkish regime, leading in turn to a clash of civilizations within Europe in part because of Turkey’s interference in German domestic affairs. Despite the recent heavy emphasis on non-state Islamic actors in Germany, there is a high potential for an inner conflict due to the population of the Turkish diaspora and the influence and intelligence operations of the Turkish state.

Endnotes

[1]Pew Research Center, “The Growth of Germany’s Muslim Population,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project (Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, November 29, 2017), https://www.pewforum.org/essay/the-growth-of-germanys-muslim-population/.  Accessed 10/03/2020.

[2] Deutsche Islam Konferenz, “Muslim Life in Germany,” ed. German Federal Ministry of Interior (2009). Pg. 2.

[3]Deutsche Islam Konferenz, “Muslim Life in Germany,” ed. German Federal Ministry of Interior (2009). Pg. 2.

[4] BBC News, “The Islamic Veil across Europe,” BBC News, May 31, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13038095. Accessed 10/11/2020.

[5] The New American Bible (Catholic World Press, 1987), 1047. Matthew 22:21.

[6] Cagaptay, Soner. ERDOGAN’S EMPIRE: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East. (S.L.: I B Tauris, 2021), Pg.4.

[7] Miller, Jennifer Anne. Turkish Guest Workers in Germany: Hidden Lives and Contested Borders, 1960s to 1980s (Toronto: University Of Toronto Press, 2018), Pg.10.

[8] Ibid, 12.

[9] Aydın, Yaşar. “The Germany-Turkey Migration Corridor: Refitting Policies for a Transnational Age,” Transnational Council on Migration, 2016. Pg. 5.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Peucker, Mario. Muslim Citizenship in Liberal Democracies: Civic and Political Participation in the West. (Springer International Publishing, 2016), Pg. 134.

[13] Yukleyen, Ahmet. Localizing Islam in Europe: Turkish Islamic Communities in Germany and the Netherlands. (Syracuse University Press, 2012), Pg. 9.

[14] Amelina, Anna and Faist, Thomas. “Turkish Migrant Associations in Germany: Between Integration Pressure and Transnational Linkages,” Revue Européenne Des Migrations Internationales 24, no. vol. 24-n°2 (November 1, 2008): 91–120, https://doi.org/10.4000/remi.4542. Accessed 10/03/2020.

[15] Yurdakul, Gökçe and Yükleyen, Ahmet. “Islam, Conflict, and Integration: Turkish Religious Associations in Germany1,” Turkish Studies 10, no. 2 (June 2009): 217–31, https://doi.org/10.1080/14683840902864010. Pg.8.

[16] Oner, Selcen. “TURKISH COMMUNITY IN GERMANY AND THE ROLE OF TURKISH COMMUNITY ORGANISATIONS,” European Scientific Journal October 10, no. 29 (2014): 1857–7881, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/236405445.pdf. Pg. 82.

[17] Cagaptay, Soner. ERDOGAN’S EMPIRE: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East. (S.L.: I B Tauris, 2021), Pg. 266.

[18] German Federal Ministry of the Interior. “2019 Report on the Protection of the Constitution,” 2020. Pg. 43.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Bender, Ruth. “Germany Investigating Possible Spying Activities in Turkish Mosques,” The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2017, sec. World, https://www.wsj.com/articles/germany-investigatingpossible-spying-activities-in-turkish-mosques-1484765832. Accessed 10/14/2020.

[22] German Federal Ministry of the Interior, “2017 Report on the Protection of the Constitution,” 2018. Pg. 39.

[23] Huggler, Justin. “German Police Raids Target Muslim Clerics Accused of Spying for Turkey,” The Telegraph, February 15, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/15/german-police-raids-target-muslim-clerics-accused-spying-turkey. Accessed 10/18/2020.

[24] Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com). “Turkey Used German Spy Software on Opposition Politicians and Activists | DW | 15.05.2018,” DW.COM, May 15, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/turkey-used-german-spy-software-on-opposition-politicians-and-activists/a-43787769. Accessed 10/14/2020.

[25] Agence France-Presse. “Germany Urges ‘restraint’ after Turks and Kurds Clash on Streets,” news.yahoo.com, October 15, 2019, https://news.yahoo.com/germany-urges-restraint-turks-kurds-clash-streets-190937279.html. Accessed 10/10/2020.

[26] The Local DE, “Kurds and Islamists Brawl in Hamburg,” Thelocal.de, October 8, 2014, https://www.thelocal.de/20141008/eight-hurt-in-hamburg-street-battle-isis-kurds-salafists-islamists. Accessed 10/10/2020.

[27] German Federal Ministry of the Interior. “2019 Report on the Protection of the Constitution,” 2020. Pg. 36.

Bibliography

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The Local DE. “Kurds and Islamists Brawl in Hamburg.” Thelocal.de, October 8, 2014. https://www.thelocal.de/20141008/eight-hurt-in-hamburg-street-battle-isis-kurds-salafists-islamists.

The New American Bible. Catholic World Press, 1987. Matthew 22:21.

Welle (www.dw.com), Deutsche. “Turkey Used German Spy Software on Opposition Politicians and Activists | DW | 15.05.2018.” DW.COM, May 15, 2018. https://www.dw.com/en/turkey-used-german-spy-software-on-opposition-politicians-and-activists/a-43787769.

Yukleyen, Ahmet. Localizing Islam in Europe: Turkish Islamic Communities in Germany and the Netherlands. Syracuse University Press, 2012.

Yurdakul, Gökçe, and Ahmet Yükleyen. “Islam, Conflict, and Integration: Turkish Religious Associations in Germany1.” Turkish Studies 10, no. 2 (June 2009): 217–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/14683840902864010.