Michael Rubin: Will Erdogan Bring Assassinations Here?

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, on September 5. Michael Rubin writes that Turkey already conducts operations in the U.S. against Kurds and Turks with whom Erdogan disagrees. Damir Sagolj/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Turkey has never been known for its respect for human rights, but one of the most troubling aspects of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule has been Turkey’s increasing aggressiveness toward dissidents and political opponents, not only within Turkey’s borders but also abroad.

Related: Michael Rubin: Why is Turkey spying on the U.S.?

There was, of course, the 2013 assassination of three Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) activists on French soil, the responsibility for which appears to lie with Turkey’s intelligence service.

Turkish officials may dismiss the matter based on the identity of the victims—not only Turkey but also the United States considers the PKK to be a terrorist group—but that’s neither here nor there: The women murdered were unarmed and had not been implicated directly in any acts of violence.

Regardless, on French soil their apprehension is the responsibility of the French police. It is not the job of Turkish agents to conduct murder at will.

Now it appears that the Turkish intelligence services may have been contemplating a similar incident in Germany. Two German broadcasters have reported that German prosecutors have opened a case against a Turkish agent spying on two Kurds in Germany and plotting to murder them for their political activities. Kurdish political activists in Belgium fear they are next, especially as Erdogan singles them out for opprobrium.

There is no longer any doubt that Turkey conducts operations in the United States against Turks and Kurds with whom Erdogan disagrees. That problem will likely get worse as Erdogan digs in his heels and demands the extradition of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, a one-time ally turned adversary, whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt.

While Turkish officials have turned over reams of papers detailing why Turkey believes Gülen is a malign influence, none of the evidence Turkey has provided actually implicates Gülen in the events of July 15.

More recently, the case of the New York–based Turkish Heritage Organization should raise alarms. Leaked emails show that Erdogan’s son-in-law was instructing THO President Halil Danismaz in whom and what to attack verbally and in print.

Rather than promote Turkish heritage, the organization basically acted as an unregistered wing of the Turkish government and its ruling political party. Of greater concern has been evidence that the THO was engaged in espionage against the Turkish community in the United States.

According to sources familiar with the case, the THO was allegedly reporting home on the political perspectives and ethnicity of ethnic Turkish and Kurdish owned business in the United States. To create a database of such information has chilling implications.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, Muammar el-Qaddafi's Libya, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Vladimir Putin’s Russia have all assassinated dissidents on European soil, and each have conducted espionage against political opposition living in America.

Turks living abroad aren’t yet drinking polonium tea, but as Erdogan looks toward Putin for inspiration and as the Turkish leader grows more erratic and intolerant of any dissent, that time may not be too far off.

The question is whether not only European countries are ready to conduct counterintelligence against Turkish operatives, but whether U.S. law enforcement will understand that what now occurs aren’t simply violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act out of ignorance, but a sign of far greater and perhaps in the near future more violent Turkish operations on U.S. soil. Erdogan is testing the waters.

Unless the Justice Department is willing to respond with the full weight of the law and without prejudice to Turkey’s status as a NATO partner, Turkey’s operations in America will get far worse and potentially more violent.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.

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