by Abdullah Bozkurt
European governments’ increased scrutiny of Turkish imams who were dispatched by Ankara to serve diaspora groups amid embarrassing revelations of pervasive and unlawful profiling and espionage activities in Turkish mosques has forced the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change tactics and adopt a new scheme to mobilize diaspora groups.
A program initially crafted to educate and train imams who speak both Turkish and the language of the host country for better integration was retrofitted by the Erdogan government to pursue the covert proselytizing agenda devised by Turkey’s Islamist rulers. The goal is to create proxy groups that can be used as leverage when Erdogan and his associates feel they need to put them to use. Although the program mainly recruits citizens of Turkish descent in other countries, non-Turkish Muslim community groups were also tapped to increase the portfolio. When the issue of imams was brought up during bilateral talks between Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron, the Turkish leader highlighted this program and urged the French to make use of Diyanet (Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs) services operating out of Strasbourg.
This is what I call Turkish Spy Imams 2.0 in which Erdogan and his political Islamist thugs shifted to a new phase of indoctrinating foreign nationals with a Turkish and/or Muslim background for political goals. Once they complete training and education in Turkey, these young people will be dispatched to their country of residence to serve as clerics and religious figures in their communities. Obviously, it would be much easier for them to blend in, infiltrate and pursue activities on behalf of the Erdogan government. In other words, the traditional policy of dispatching imams from Turkey would eventually be replaced by homegrown, Turkish-government-linked imams in many cities and towns of Europe and other parts of the world.
Just like the Diyanet, previously a relatively neutral institution, was transformed into a partisan whip in the hands of Islamists in the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, the program for foreign seminary students was also overhauled by the government and turned into a heavily politicized, overzealous and fanatical training scheme. In fact, some students were expelled from the program because they did not fit the government’s recommended profile and did not toe the line with Erdogan’s xenophobic and hostile narrative. The same happened with Diyanet personnel as well, with 2,813 imams and other clergy summarily and arbitrarily dismissed by the government in approximately one year because of their perceived critical stance against the Erdogan government.
The program is officially called “Uluslararasi Ilahiyat Programi” (International Theology Program, or UIP) and has been run by the Diyanet, a government agency, and its wealthy foundation, the Turkey Diyanet Foundation (TDV) since 2006. At the operational level, the program is overseen by the Diyanet’s Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB) organization in Strasbourg, l’union turco-islamique des affaires religieuses, which incorporates 62 organizations in the eastern part of France. The candidates must have foreign nationality, be single and under 25 years of age. They were selected by Turkish embassies and Islamist NGOs aligned with the Erdogan government. The prospective students are screened by Turkish imams from neighborhoods where mosques aligned with the Erdogan government in Europe and other countries are located. They are secretly vetted by religious attachés working out of Turkish consulates and embassies.
The screening process is not transparent, giving rise to speculation that only candidates who conform to the Erdogan government’s jihadist narrative will be approved. For example, the application docket has a secret annex called the “reference document,” which requires a Turkish-government-appointed imam to vouch for the applicant and write a profile of him. Then the imams send this profiling document to the attaché in the Turkish embassy, which then forwards it to the Strasbourg DİTİB center with a secret stamp on the documents. Shortlisted candidates are later invited for an interview by a panel of experts sent from Turkey after background checks are performed by the Office of the Prime Ministry in Turkey.
The pointman for the program is Abdullah Gümüşsoy, an imam-turned-bureaucrat who is the head of a department in the Diyanet’s Directorate General for External Affairs. This 44-year-old man had served as an imam attached to Turkish Consulate in Düsseldorf between 2005 and 2009. He returned to Turkey only to become appointed religious attaché for the Turkish Consulate in Hannover in 2010. He was promoted to department head responsible for education abroad and Islamic guidance in 2014. He personally makes trips to Strasbourg and other religious centers run by the Turkish government to interview students for the UIP program. Gümüşsoy was recently quoted as saying that they want to expand the program beyond seminary studies to include different areas.
The students receive scholarships that cover tuition at six designated theology universities in Turkey as well as accommodation and other costs. So, far 388 students have graduated from the program. As of the 2016-2017 session, 671 students were enrolled in the program from 15 countries that include Germany (330), France (166), Belgium (45), the Netherlands (41), Austria (21), Italy (16), Australia (10), Canada (10), the US (8), Denmark (7), Norway (4), the UK (3), Sweden (2), Switzerland (7) and Japan (1). In addition to regular courses at the universities, they often attend special seminars and lectures by Diyanet officials and other imams assigned by the government.
Given how the imams of Turkish nationals were involved in espionage activities in many European countries where government critics, opponents and dissidents were profiled, harassed and threatened, imagine the complexity of cases of host country nationals with a Turkish and Muslim background and how difficult it is to contain, address and resolve the problems when Erdogan gives marching orders to mobilize them. A secret document that was leaked in September 2016 shows how the Diyanet ordered imams to spy on members of the Gülen movement, a civic group that is highly critical of the Erdogan government on corruption and Erdogan’s aiding and abetting of armed jihadists. The order was sent to all Turkish embassies and consulates and signed by Halife Keskin, acting director general of the Diyanet’s external affairs department. It asked imams to send detailed reports about the movement’s members, schools and institutions.
This secret document was later authenticated when comprehensive reports complied by imams abroad as part of this order were submitted to the parliamentary Coup Investigation Commission. The reports were not made public, but parts of them were revealed to the public by members of opposition political parties that participated in the commission meetings. According to the revelations, the Diyanet has gathered 50 intelligence reports via imams from 38 countries that include Germany, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, the UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Japan and Norway.
Some of the files are very detailed and include photos of individuals allegedly linked to the Gülen movement. For example, a report filed by an imam identified only by the initials N.S. who served at the Bergneustadt Central Mosque said that members of the movement operated a prep school named ACTIVE LERNHILFE and worked closely with German authorities and local media. The report was approved by the religious services attaché working at the Turkish Consulate in Köln. Another imam identified as H.A. who was assigned to a Turkish mosque in Fürthen profiled several people including a housewife who have no active role in the Gülen movement but remain sympathetic.
The espionage activities prompted several European governments to launch criminal investigations into Turkish imams. In December 2016 Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens announced that he had ordered security and intelligence units in the country to closely monitor mosques operated by the Diyanet. Long-term visa applications for four Turkish imams were rejected by Belgian authorities in March 2017. The Turkish government had to recalled Yusuf Acar, the religious attaché at the Turkish Embassy in the Netherlands, who recently admitted to spying on followers of the Gülen movement. In February 2017, German police teams raided the apartments of four DİTİB imams in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate who are suspected of acting as informants on sympathizers of the Gülen movement. Ten Turkish imams who work for the DİTİB have fled the country to avoid legal proceedings. Similar investigations are ongoing in Sweden and Austria as well.
It was surprising to see Erdogan trying to make a sales pitch for this UIP program during his meeting with Macron, who must have been briefed on the clandestine activities of the Turkish government using imams. But perhaps it is quite fitting given the fact that İsmail Hakkı Musa, the Turkish ambassador in Paris, served as the deputy head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) before Erdogan sent him to France to represent his interests. I previously published top-secret documents revealing how Ambassador Musa was involved in illegal arms shipments to jihadists in Syria. When trucks carrying heavy arms were intercepted in January 2014, it was he who wrote to the Adana Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office claiming ownership of the trucks in the name of national interests.
The framework of the UIP program was drawn up with the involvement of half a dozen government agencies in Turkey including the Maarif Foundation, an entity that is also known as the Erdogan government’s Trojan horse that operates dozens of Turkish-government-funded schools abroad, especially in Africa. Two critical government agencies, the Turkish Development Cooperation Agency (TİKA) and the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), were also involved. The agencies serve as the main tools for Erdoğan’s long arm overseas, disbursing funds, running logistics and providing political and diplomatic cover for clandestine operations planned by Turkey’s intelligence agency. It is clear that Erdogan wants to raise a new generation of spy imams from the human pool of citizens of other countries, and the UIP is the perfect channel for delivering what he wants.