An Agent from Ankara Did Turkey Plan To Kill Kurdish Official in Germany?
An espionage trial in Hamburg is raising questions about the Turkish government's intelligence activities in Germany. It has shed light on a murky world in which Ankara may even be trying to eliminate its political opponents.
It isn't easy to set up a meeting with Yüksel Koç. He never spends more than three days in the same city and he books his trips at the last minute. Or he just jumps onto the next train; he has an unlimited monthly rail pass for Germany.
As co-chair of the European Kurdish Democratic Societies Congress, he represents a significant number of Kurds living in exile in the world. But it isn't just the office he holds that keeps him on the road. More than anything, it is fear - fear that he could be assassinated.
Our meeting with Koç ultimately takes place in a café in the center of Bremen, the city he has called home since 1990. Koç arrives late, but he brings along discussion minutes, photos and notes that allegedly prove who has been threatening him.
Koç says that his name is on a hit list assembled by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and adds that he was told as much by an agent of the Turkish secret service in May. Not long later, he received via a circuitous route the handwritten notes of another agent who, he says, had been charged with hunting him down. In the documents Koç has in his possession, for example, there is a note from June 28, 2016, reading: "If Yüksel Koç is to die, then we have to be in constant contact with the team and discuss everything precisely."
Since receiving the notes, Koç has made sure that friends are waiting to pick him up in whatever city he travels to, fearful that his murderer could pose as a taxi driver. Only very few people know where his wife and two grown children live. Life in Germany, Koç says, has become more difficult.
One of the alleged spies sent to track down Koç will be on trial in Hamburg starting this Thursday. His files also apparently contained the handwritten note regarding Koç's impending death and German prosecutors have charged the man, named Fatih S., with operating as a secret service agent in the country. German officials initiated the investigation into Fatih S. after they were approached by Yüksel Koç.
An Unexperienced Agent
It is believed that Fatih S. has been an agent for the Turkish intelligence agency Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT) since 2013. In fall 2015, if not before, he is believed to have received orders to begin monitoring the Kurdish scene in Germany. Prosecutors, however, have not found sufficient evidence to suggest that he intended to actually murder the Kurdish politician.
Nevertheless, Fatih S. has testified in his interrogations about MIT plans to murder Koç and another Kurdish man. The suspect also said that an attack against Cem Özdemir, the national co-chair of the Green Party, had been planned. It has been difficult for investigators to determine how much of what he says is true - and whether some of it might just be an attempt to cover his tracks or make himself appear more important than he really is. It has also proven impossible to figure out who was supposed to ultimately carry out the hit.
Fatih S. was apparently not a particularly accomplished Turkish agent. He wasn't able to find out much about the targets he cased and parts of his reports often read like fairy tales. He also didn't operate as one might expect from a real espionage professional, giving out his real name, for example, and sending communications that weren't encrypted. He is only secretive when it comes to his age, to the point that even investigators haven't been able to determine exactly when he was born. In his passport, his birthdate is listed as Jan. 1, 1985, but he has repeatedly claimed that he is actually two years younger, just 30 years of age.
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Still, the case is a sensitive one. The trial in Hamburg means that the political tensions between Germany and Turkey have now reached the German judiciary. German security officials believe that Turkish intelligence agents have long been active in Germany, though speculation in some quarters that the MIT maintains more than 6,000 informants in the country is likely excessive. Experts believe the true number is much smaller.
But it's not just MIT agents that spy on Erdogan's behalf. Earlier this year, it was reported in the German press that some imams at mosques operated by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) also worked as spies. German federal prosecutors are currently pursuing legal action against 20 suspects for allegedly working as Turkish agents, and most of them are clerics. DITIB, which is funded and has direct ties to the Turkish government, operates close to 900 mosques in Germany.
Lists of Names
The Hamburg trial doesn't just shed light on a labyrinthine spy story -- it also shows how the Turkish state attempts to monitor and influence people of Turkish origin in Germany. The Erdogan government's ongoing conflicts with both the Kurds and the Gülen movement are also being carried out within the Turkish communities in Germany.
In addition, the Turkish government has repeatedly sent lists of names to German security officials. The names belong to alleged members of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or of the movement led by the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Erdogan believes was behind the failed coup attempt in July 2016. German prosecutors are investigating whether these lists were compiled by way of espionage.
State prosecutors, however, have found it difficult to find evidence that spying has been conducted on behalf of Turkey. They say that German intelligence hasn't yet been able to provide reliable information and many witnesses refuse to testify for fear of retaliation from the Turkish state.
As such, Fatih S. was a stroke of luck for Germany's federal prosecutor's office. The suspected spy's lover initially told her story to a Kurdish journalist in Frankfurt and handed him material. He then approached Koç, which is how the information ended up in the hands of the state criminal police office in Hamburg before being shared with officials in Bremen and then, ultimately, with German federal prosecutors. Fatih S. then incriminated himself, even if he later withdrew elements of his testimony. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of up to five years.
It was Dec. 12, 2016, when Fatih S. first spoke extensively about his life with German officials. Seven days earlier, he had flown from Istanbul to Germany and applied for asylum. His hearing with the Hamburg branch of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) lasted more than six hours.
Fatih S. said he was a Kurd from Kiziltepe in southeast Anatolia and that he was married and had a daughter and two sons. In 2010, he told officials, he completed his university studies in journalism and had worked as a reporter ever since. His father, he said, was killed by PKK fighters in Iraq in 2004, which is why he quickly agreed to cooperate with MIT when they approached him in 2013. "I was very amenable to cooperating," he said, according to the minutes of his hearing, and he related how he initially was sent to spy on Kurds in Iraq and Syria, supplied with several tens of thousands of euros by the Turkish intelligence agency. He then requested a transfer to Germany.
On Their Side
MIT came up with the perfect cover: Fatih S. got a job with the Kurdish broadcaster Denge TV and was even given his own show in 2014. As a result, his name became known among Kurds, which gave him access to high-ranking functionaries, who all thought that Fatih S. was on their side.
Starting in 2014, the presumed journalist traveled several times to Germany and established contact with Koç, who at the time was still co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Societies Congress in Germany, the umbrella organization of Kurdish groups in the country. According to Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the group maintains close contacts to the PKK. For one extended interview, Fatih S. even visited Koç at his home in Bremen. "He did everything he could to win my trust," Koç says. At Kurdish demonstrations, Fatih S. even showed up to wave the Kurdish flag or helped out with crowd management.
It isn't difficult to understand why Fatih S. was so open with German asylum officials during his December 2016 interview: A short time before, on Nov. 15, the Kurdish newspaper Yeni Özgür Politika had exposed him as an intelligence agent and accused him of planning a murder. The alleged spy's girlfriend had approached a journalist from the paper several weeks before. A confidential assessment assembled by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, concludes that his application for asylum had been a "panic reaction."
The woman thought to have been Fatih S.' lover -- we'll call her Nesrin for the purposes of this article -- is from the same region of Turkey as he and she got to know Fatih S. soon after he joined the Kurdish broadcaster when she became his assistant. Nesrin, who is now 24 years old, says that she was never his lover and claims that he had forced her to act as though they were together. But investigators believe that the two were a couple.
She traveled with Fatih S. to Brussels, Paris, Munich and elsewhere, always under the pretext of producing television spots sympathetic to the Kurdish cause. Together, they met the heads of Kurdish organizations in France and Remzi Kartal, one of the most important Kurdish officials in Europe. Only around 10 percent of the footage they took, Nesrin estimated in her testimony, was used for journalistic purposes. Most of the filming was done on behalf of Turkish intelligence.
According to the prosecution, MIT instructed Fatih S. in fall 2015 to move to Germany and spend at least one year spying on the Kurdish scene in the country. Fatih S. terminated his permanent position with Denge TV, and from then on worked for the broadcaster as a freelancer. He moved into an apartment in Bremen on Jan. 4 together with Nesrin.
The two took German language classes for eight months, with MIT paying the fees, according to the prosecution. The intelligence agency also took care of the couple's living expenses, initially supplying around 1,500 euros per month. Fatih S. received the money in cash whenever he visited his case officer in Ankara. In total, he is thought to have received around 30,000 euros in 2016.
German prosecutors have apparently been unable to find out who Fatih S.' MIT case officers were. During his interrogation, he claimed that he could only remember two first names: Kemal and Ahmed. When in Germany, he received his orders via an email address that bore the name of a supposed cousin of his. When he wanted to indicate that he had new material, he would write that he was bringing "chocolate" along on his next visit.
If one can believe what she told the police, Nesrin quickly became suspicious of the way her colleague worked. She testified that he used two laptops and two external hard drives that nobody was allowed to touch. In September 2015, he took her to an expensive café in Ankara where the waiter greeted him by name and didn't bring him a bill. Fatih S. later said that it was one of the places where he often met with his case officer.
On one occasion, during a stay in a spa hotel in Ankara, Fatih S. disappeared for several days without telling Nesrin that he was leaving. As she later determined from the stamps in his passport, he traveled to Poland, Romania and Ukraine during that period. And although he hardly worked for the Kurdish broadcaster anymore in 2016, he went to numerous political events held by Kurds around Europe, apparently paying for the trips himself.
In summer 2016, Nesrin says she discovered handwritten notes in her partner's travel bag by chance. Among them were notes about the daily and professional life of Yüksel Koç in Bremen. She photographed the notes and began poking around in his computer, where she found some photos that she saved to a USB stick. She then confronted Fatih S., whereupon he admitted to working for MIT and suggested that she too begin working for the intelligence service. Nesrin said he proposed that she begin spying on the wives of Kurdish functionaries and told her she would make 5,000 euros per month. Nesrin says she declined the offer.
Exaggerated or False
Instead, she turned to the Kurdish journalist in Frankfurt using an assumed name. The journalist, in turn, contacted Yüksel Koç and prosecutors in Bremen began investigating in late September 2016. On Dec. 15, 2016, three days after his asylum interview in Hamburg, police arrested Fatih S.
An analysis of his files makes it look as though Fatih S. did everything he could to fulfill the expectations of his handlers. One of the photos shows a police officer in civilian clothing at a demonstration organized by a Kurdish group in Bremen that German officials believe is sympathetic to the PKK. Fatih S. reported that the picture showed the Bremen police chief and claimed that he maintained close contacts to the Kurdish organization. It is an accusation that Erdogan likes to level at German officials: that they protect terror organizations like the PKK instead of fighting them.
But the police officer in the picture is neither a part of the Bremen police department's leadership nor does Koç know him particularly well. Indeed, Koç says that the photo was the first time he had really noticed the officer. Other information provided by Fatih S. was also either exaggerated or completely false.
It remains unclear whether the MIT had serious intentions of murdering Kurdish functionaries like Koç. There have been, to be sure, high-profile killings of Kurds in the recent past. In January 2013, three Kurdish activists were shot and killed in Paris and the suspected assassin died of a brain tumor four years later. It still isn't known if the killer was a Turkish agent.
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Nesrin, Fatih S.' assistant, has exonerated her partner on this point: killing Koç, she said, "was never discussed." In the indictment, however, it says that the two MIT case workers made it clear to Fatih S. at one of their last meetings in September 2016 that the information they were demanding was for the purpose of killing Koç.
Initially, Fatih S. cooperated with investigators. In speaking to an investigative judge at Germany's Federal Court of Justice, he was up front about his work on behalf of MIT and about the agency's assassination plans and other planned attacks. He says he was told to "organize two Kurds" to beat up Cem Özdemir, the German parliamentarian and senior Green Party official who is hated by the Turkish government, at a public appearance.
But in February, Fatih S. told a completely different version of his story to officers with Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office, saying that he had actually never worked for MIT at all but was actually an agent for the Gülen Movement. He said that a joint opposition movement against President Erdogan had been planned with the PKK and that his job had been that of establishing contacts with Kurdish functionaries who were close to the PKK. He said that he had only told asylum authorities that he was working for MIT because he thought it would increase the chance that his application would be granted.
Prosecutors believe this version of the story is merely an attempt by Fatih S. to save his skin. German officials, including the country's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, believe that convergence between the Gülen Movement and the PKK "isn't plausible given the diametrically opposed ideologies of the two entities."
The BND does, however, know of one attempt made by the Gülen Movement to establish contacts with the PKK, but the PKK representatives rejected the effort.
Fatih S.' defenders say that the accusations against their client aren't supported by the facts. The story told about him and his alleged spying activities by his supposed lover Nesrin, they say, isn't plausible. "I am not convinced of the credibility of the testimony this witness gave to the investigating judge," says Marvin Schroth, a lawyer based in Karlsruhe.
Kurdish functionary Yüksel Koç remains uneasy, even though Fatih S. can no longer threaten him. There is, after all, the other MIT agent who told him of the hit list. According to the agent, there are several teams of agents, made up of three spies apiece, who are targeting Kurds in Germany. Koç says he could also report this agent to the authorities and he claims to know his name. But he promised secrecy and it is a promise he intends to keep.
Koç continues to travel extensively by train. And he doesn't spend much time in one place.