The activities of the Turkish National Intelligence office (NIO) and the powerful Turkish Military Intelligence (MIT) have been exposed since the beginning of the so-called “Arab spring” in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. The cover of their agents was disclosed or their shipments of weapons destined to opposition groups in the various Arab countries were caught on suspicious ships flying dubious flags, disguising the real identity of senders and recipients.

The particular motive behind this Turkish clandestine interference has been assisting militant groups belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical organizations to destabilize political rivals (such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Syrian President Bashar Assad). Simultaneously, these furtive efforts sought to promote the greater designs of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for Turkish dominance in the Middle East as part of the revival of the Ottoman Empire legacy.1

The activities exposed by journalists are only the tip of the iceberg; covert activities carried out by the Turkish secret services in different Middle Eastern countries are usually unheard of and unknown until a “gaffe” or miscalculation by the Turks offers a rare view of Turkish subversive actions in the area. Such was the case in Egypt, when the Egyptian secret services caught Turkish intelligence officers red-handed assisting Islamic State extremists in the Sinai Peninsula and when Greek authorities intercepted a ship loaded with a Turkish shipment of weapons supposedly destined for Muslim radicals in the northern part of Lebanon. [See “Egypt Accuses Turkey of Subversion,” JCPA, July 14, 2015]

The Turkish courts themselves were the scene of testimonies that Turkish ammunition and mortar shells taken from Turkish intelligence depots were transported in trucks accompanied by state officials to parts of Syria under extremist Islamist rebel control.3

December 2018 offered additional evidence: In two separate incidents, Libyan customs caught two shipments of weapons in the port of Misurata on Dec. 17, 2018, and one day later in the port of Al-Khoms-100 kilometers east of Tripoli, originating in Turkey and made by the local defense industry. In a statement released by the Libyan army on Dec. 19, the army expressed its concern saying, “The ammunition in those shipments included more than 4.2 million bullets, enough to kill nearly 80 percent of the Libyan people, as well as pistols and assaults and hunting rifles with their accessories, including silencers used for assassinations.”

Libyan National Army chief, Khalifa Haftar, called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn Turkey for the violation of the embargo imposed by the United Nations since February 2011. Haftar also accused Turkey of conducting subversive activities in Libya by supporting illegal armed groups and terrorists. The General Command of the Libyan National Army called on the UNSC to initiate an immediate investigation into Turkish involvement in supplying weapons to militant groups in Libya.4 Libya’s appeal to the United Nations was joined by Algerian officials, who denounced the Turkish shipments, while stating that their purpose was to destabilize Libya and send an arsenal to unstable regions and termed the Turkish action as tantamount to “a real declaration of war against us.”5

Beginning January 2019, the Libyan authorities announced the discovery of a new shipment of weapons originating from Turkey on a ship which had docked at the Misurata port. According to the Libyan customs, the shipment included 20,000 Turkish-made pistols (by EKOL-VOLTRAN, a Turkish company) hidden in a container full of toys and houseware.6

The shipment also included 8 million pills7 of Tramadol (an opioid pain medication) and Artane (an anticholinergic drug). Both drugs are used as stimulants and are often administered to Jihadists before their suicide missions. To camouflage its Turkish port of origin, the ship sailed first from Turkey to India and then was bound for Tripoli.8 A similar shipment of drugs was caught by the Greek Authorities on a Syrian ship in December 2018 en route from the Syrian port of Latakiya to Benghazi. The drugs, worth $113 million, included Captagon pills, an amphetamine used as a stimulant by militants.9

This is not the first time Turkey’s subversive role in Libya has been exposed. In January 2013, Turkey’s leading newspaper Hurriyet reported that the Greek authorities apprehended a ship heading to Libya loaded with weapons after it stopped in Greece due to bad weather. In December of the same year, Egyptian media reported that the Egyptians Customs Authority had “monitored” four containers loaded with weapons coming from Turkey that were believed to be destined to Libyan militias. In August 2014, Khalifa Haftar ordered his forces to shell a ship loaded with weapons coming from Turkey and heading toward the port of Derna in the Cyrenaica, in Libya’s Eastern region, and again in January 2015 both Turkey and Qatar were accused by a Libyan army official of supplying weapons through the Sudanese border to the militant group “the Dawn of Libya,” in violation of the U.N. arms embargo imposed on Libya.10

Parallel to its assistance to the rebels in Libya, Turkey has played an important role in harboring Libyan Islamists and militants within its own borders. According to the Al-Arabiyya website, documents caught by the Americans in Abbottabad (Pakistan) during the raid against Osama Bin Laden indicated that the Libyan militant groups had chosen Turkey to be their center already in the late 1990s. Among those militants was the notorious Libyan terrorist Abd el-Hakim Belhaj (alias Abi Abdallah al-Sadeq) who had advocated at the time initiating contacts with Iran to act against the then-ruler of Libya Moammar Qaddafi.11

In January 2017, the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia radical Islamist group announced that its leader Mohammed al-Zahawi had died in a Turkish hospital, where he had been treated for “an injury sustained in the battles of Benghazi.” His body was sent back to the northwestern Libyan city of Misurata for burial.12

Most interesting is the fact that Turkey has become a pivotal “propaganda platform” for the Libyan opposition through satellite-assisted media stations active on Turkish soil, all dedicated to Islamist groups. Indeed since 2011, satellite media stations funded by Qatar and Turkey and affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood have been acting under the auspices of the Turkish regime: The most active stations are: Al-Ra-ed al-I’lamiyya, Libya Al-Ahrar, Al-Tanassoh and Libya Panorama.13

Such activity has drawn the ire of the Libyan government, which accused Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in January 2019 of trying to intervene in the upcoming Libyan presidential elections.14

Turkey’s mission and motive

There is a pattern in all of this Turkish behavior, and what was exposed in Libya is but a piece in a puzzle where Turkey is actively assisting its allies – mainly groups belonging to or offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. The diverse episodes involving the Turkish secret services in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Libya are but different expressions of this same policy associated with Qatari pretensions of exercising power in the region. Were it not for poor planning, bad weather or mere luck, the subversive activity of the Turkey-Qatar duo would have remained undisclosed and unknown.

Turkey’s covert activities fit into its broader policy of acting as a significant actor in the Middle East alongside Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Israel. This is a Turkey headed by the militant President Erdoğan who is trying to revive the Ottoman heritage and reconstitute wherever possible the unimplemented “National Pact” of 1923—Misak-i Milli of founding Turkish President Ataturk which expands Turkey’s borders well beyond what is considered today to be an integral part of Syria and Iraq and of its northern and western neighbors. The latest signing of a defense agreement with Qatar allowing Turkey to deploy more than 4,000 troops in the Gulf princedom, the recent acquisition of Suakin Island off the coast of Sudan (which used to be the headquarters of the Ottoman fleet in the Red Sea), the military presence in Somalia and parts of Northern Iraq, assistance to Hamas in Gaza and political activities in Jerusalem are all but different expressions of this expansionist policy, which has not met any opposition from the Arab consensus or by Iran and Russia.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

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