ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey has named a foreign policy expert with close knowledge of Iran as its new top spy, as the country linking Europe with the Middle East adapts its security priorities to deal with external threats.
Hakan Fidan’s appointment this week as head of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) reflects a shift in focus from domestic issues such as Kurdish separatism to transnational threats such as al Qaeda and nuclear proliferation.
“Turkey is an international player, so it is matching its intelligence-gathering activities to its new role,” said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst. “Turkey has been generally introspective but as it gets more involved outside its borders, the nature of the threat has changed.”
Jenkins said bombings in Istanbul in 2003 by al Qaeda, in which more than 60 people were killed, were a “wake-up call” for an intelligence community which until then had mostly focused on separatist guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Sources said Fidan, 42, who has worked as MIT deputy undersecretary and as a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, has played a busy though little-publicized role in Ankara’s mediation efforts between the West and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, accompanying Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Tehran during many of his visits.
Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member, has in recent years raised its profile on the global stage, becoming a major player in the Eurasian theater.
Lying next to the lands around the Gulf and Caspian Sea, where most of the world’s oil and gas is found, Turkey holds geostrategic value in a conflict-prone region. As part of a concerted strategy, it has stretched its foreign policy reach beyond traditional Western partners to the Caucasus, Balkans, Russia, Iran, Central Asia, the Arab world and southeast Asia.
Considered an expert on Central Asia and the Middle East, Fidan advocated in his doctoral thesis the need to create two separate bodies to deal with domestic and foreign intelligence.
“He is somebody Erdogan trusts to reorganize the MIT,” Murat Yetkin, Ankara bureau chief for Radikal daily, told Reuters.
Created in 1965, the MIT is in charge of gathering intelligence from internal and external sources. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Erdogan said he wanted it to “become more active in foreign intelligence.”
Turkey has long perceived as its most pressing security threats Islamic groups at home and PKK violence.
“When (former president and prime minister Suleyman) Demirel appointed the MIT’s first civilian to the post in 1991, he gave him one order: ‘Deal with the PKK’,” Yetkin said.
“The intelligence community is aware that priorities have changed since then and that now they have to deal with the Caucasus, al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Pakistan and nuclear issues.”
Violence by the PKK, which took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, has eased since the group’s leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and jailed in 1999.
Fidan is the fourth civilian to head the MIT, which until the 1990s was controlled by the armed forces. But observers say his appointment has been met with opposition from the military, which regards him as too close to the Islamist-leaning AK Party and sees his promotion as politically motivated.
The military, which considers itself as the guardian of the country’s secular principles, has removed four governments since 1960, most of them for perceived Islamic tendencies.
Erdogan’s AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, has clashed in the past with the military, which has seen its influence pared back by EU-driven reforms.
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Trevelyan