Turkish intelligence chief could be kingmaker in future power struggle

After 16 years of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule, there are signs that politics in Turkey is entering a period of change – a time when the position taken by National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) chief Hakan Fidan is likely to become especially significant.  

Today’s Turkey bears more than a passing resemblance to 2001, the year Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was founded.

The country is nearing economic collapse, the government faces deep splits from within, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is a coalition partner in government, and new leaders are taking the stage.

One is Ekrem İmamoğlu, the new Istanbul mayor who broke the mould for the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), attracting votes from conservative and Kurdish voters.

Another is Ali Babacan, a sidelined founding member and former deputy prime minister of the AKP whose record running Turkey’s economy in better days has earned enthusiasm for his planned new political party. Babacan has the support of veteran politicians who are adept at gauging the pulse of Turkey’s large centre-right voter base, making it increasingly likely he can snatch support from the ruling party.

Meanwhile, Ahmet Davutoğlu, another sidelined veteran AKP politician who has served as the party’s foreign minister and prime minister, has been the centre of talk of another new party that could whittle away the AKP’s command of conservative voters.

But in the executive presidential system inaugurated after last year’s national elections, Fidan and MIT are nestled right at the centre of the state and the intelligence chief has so far always lined up on the winning side.  

Fidan was an officer in the armed forces before resigning to begin a career as an academic. He is said to have been introduced to Erdoğan by Beşir Atalay, a minister of state in the first AKP government who went on to serve as interior minister and deputy prime minister. Former president Abdullah Gül’s press officer Ahmet Sever says it was Gül who discovered Fidan. 

After he was appointed to the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) in 2003, Fidan’s performance earned him a special status in Erdoğan’s eyes.

During that period, TİKA was employed to influence politics through Turkish minority parties in the Balkans and create pro-Erdoğan lobbying groups in the Caucasus, central Asia and Africa. Fidan defined the agency as a branch of Turkey’s “soft power”, and ran it as a type of intelligence institution. This would develop into his later philosophy as the head of MIT.  

When he rose to that position in 2010, the influence of Davutoğlu, then newly appointed as foreign minister, was beginning to take hold of Turkey’s foreign policy. This was the beginning of the period of “Neo-Ottomanism”, a shift away from the more Western-oriented traditional foreign policy to one that instead sought increased influence in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, Asia and Africa.

In the year Fidan became intelligence chief, Turkey twice held joint military drills with China. The drills provoked a warning from the United States that would be echoed again this year, when Washington’s fears over potential military intelligence breaches from Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems led to Turkey’s expulsion from the programme to build F-35 fighter jets. Fidan has been marked out as one of the leaders responsible for that first fissure with NATO. 

The incident that pushed Fidan to the fore of the state came in 2012, when prosecutors linked to the Gülen religious movement called in the MIT chief for questioning. The Gülen movement had established cliques in important state institutions, which worked for some years with the tacit approval of the AKP government.

But the pressure on the MIT staff was a precursor to the AKP-Gülen split that came in subsequent years and is thought to have ultimately led to the July 2016 coup attempt. Anxious to protect Fidan, Erdoğan pushed though a series of legal amendments that made MIT personnel virtually untouchable. At the same time, Erdoğan ordered the country’s largest surveillance facility turned over to MIT.

As MIT’s institutional power grew, so too did its budget, from $410 million in 2010 to over $1 billion within a few years. Much of this was used by the agency’s special operations branch as it took an active role in the Syrian conflict.

In 2012, Fidan openly called for all of Turkey’s intelligence operations to be concentrated in one centre. Critics said he was attempting to turn Turkey into an intelligence state.

After the 2016 coup attempt, Fidan’s dream would become a reality. Erdoğan used his post-coup emergency powers to issue a decree attaching MIT to the presidency, and the National Intelligence Coordination Board was formed. For the first time in history, MIT was granted the authority to gather intelligence in the Turkish military.

Two of Fidan’s statements to the press since becoming head of MIT stand out: that the agency’s main aim was to prevent parallel structures from forming within the state, and that he would serve as the intelligence chief for five years before moving on to politics.

The “parallel structure” in question is the Gülen movement, and Fidan’s strategy to clear it out from the state has clearly been a success. Lists compiled by MIT have led to the dismissal of nearly 150,000 public employees, and 550,000 people have been implicated in cases related to the movement.

But the MIT chief’s plans to enter politics have been obstructed by Erdoğan. In 2015, Fidan made good on his word by resigning from the intelligence agency. Davutoğlu, who had just taken over as prime minister as Erdoğan rose to the presidency, was more than happy to place him on the lists for parliamentary deputies for elections that year.

Erdoğan, however, strongly opposed the move, and before long Fidan was back as head of the agency. The episode hastened the split between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu.

Erdoğan may have chosen Davutoğlu as his successor as prime minister and AKP chairman, but his choice was forced by the poll ratings at the time, as MIT more than any other institution would be aware. Just as the agency must have known Erdoğan would jump at the first opportunity to replace Davutoğlu.

This was the reason for Fidan’s haste to become a deputy and his designs on the foreign minister’s role. He wished to become the next prime minister after Davutoğlu.

But while Erdoğan could accept powerful figures in the bureaucracy, he could not tolerate the same in political positions.

Thus Fidan was forced to postpone his political positions. He would go on to become the longest serving MIT chief since Şükrü Ali Öğel, the agency’s first intelligence chief, appointed by Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Whether or not Fidan will break Öğel’s record depends on how the cards fall in the current political upheaval.

Fidan is known to be close to Gül, who was the first to back him when the Gülenist prosecutors called him for questioning in 2012, and who as president approved all the increased powers to MIT. Gül is also thought to be one of the leading names set to join Babacan in his new party.

Given that the events on the night of the 2016 coup attempt are still murky, and Fidan’s actions of the night have not been seriously examined, he is not likely to shed the protection of his current role to openly side with Babacan and Gül.

But the means Fidan has at his disposal as MIT chief are still in play, and he could place them at an upstart party’s disposal. With MIT holding a monopoly over intelligence activities, his contribution to either Erdoğan or Gül will be of vital importance. Fidan’s fate will depend on whether he can once more choose the winning side.