Is supporting jihadists an intelligence success?

Is supporting jihadists an intelligence success?

The Wall Street Journal’s long and comprehensive analysis on Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), was the most attention-grabbing story of the last week. More than two dozen columns in the Turkish media have tried to respond to the WSJ or to analyze the motives behind its analysis on Fidan, with an overall conclusion about Washington’s concerns and unease about growing an independent Turkish influence in the Middle East, particularly in the Syrian theater. For many, the WSJ story is evidence that Turkey is on the right track, and evidence that seeking an independent policy would always be treated in this fashion by the world powers.

When reading the full analysis, here are some important points that catch my attention:

* Although the WSJ’s analysis depicts Fidan as the man at the center of Washington’s unease, it also recalls that he was accompanied by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in shaping the country’s Middle East policies. It describes the two as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s closest advisers and recalls that they were the ones who attended a crucial meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on May 16, 2013. It also highlights that making once-strong generals lose their influence in security-oriented issues is also a concern in Washington.

* At the core of Washington’s unease is Turkey’s support to the “wrong rebels” and letting arms and fighters flow into Syria indiscriminately and sometimes to the wrong rebels, including anti-Western jihadists. The WSJ report shows that although the message was delivered to Turkish officials at the highest level months ago, the unease about Turkish support to extremists is still there and does not signal an immediate end either.

* The WSJ argues that the concerns about Fidan are not new and date back to three years ago. Citing senior U.S. officials, the paper claims Fidan passed to Iran sensitive intelligence collected by the U.S. and Israel. (Allegedly during Fidan’s service as a governor of the International Atomic Energy Agency, before he joined the MİT. Fidan seemed to be an advocate of Iran’s right to build nuclear sites for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.)

* One important issue the paper underlines is the deepening mistrust between intelligence organizations of Turkey and the U.S. Despite numerous visits by previous and current CIA chiefs, David Petraeus and John Brennan (the last one took place in September according to the WSJ), the mistrust could not be avoided. It further says the CIA spies on Turkey and the MİT runs an aggressive counterintelligence campaign against the CIA. This picture clearly shows despite rhetoric on continued cooperation on Syria, there is a severe clash of interests between the two countries provided by “intelligence war in the field.”

* Another important point made by the story was that the Pentagon regards Fidan as the architect of a campaign against the once-dominant military-intelligence service, without naming the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases in which dozens of top generals have been convicted for allegedly attempting to topple the government. “At the Pentagon,” the WSJ reads, “the jail sentences were seen as the coup de grace for the military’s status within the Turkish system.”

* In the eyes of Washington, Turkey tried to use the Arab Spring for its own regional leadership and its preference for supporting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups was evidence of this. The WSJ asserted that arms shipments bypassed moderate opposition groups and went to the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington’s designation of the al-Nusra Front - an affiliation of al-Qaeda - as a terrorist organization was another message sent but not received by Turkey, it added.

* It also cited President Abdullah Gül’s urging that radical groups were in fact a concern for Turkey’s security, distinguishing the president’s position from that of the government.

It’s very unfortunate that the ongoing civil war is not promising an immediate end in Syria. On the contrary, with the participation of strong-armed radical Islamists in the conflict, the turmoil gives no signs of a speedy normalization in the country; although political transition could one day be provided. Policy makers and intelligence organizations in Turkey should be very cautious in shaping national policies in favor of national interest and security of its citizens. There will always be a clash of interests between countries, even if they are allied, and their intelligence organizations. However, it’s well worth thinking twice when this clash of interests is about supporting radical Islamist groups. Supporting jihadist groups – even unintentionally – is not an intelligence success.

Is supporting jihadists an intelligence success?