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Erdogan's spymaster: From 'keeper of secrets' to post-coup hanger-on

Hakan Fidan has led Turkey's spy network for six years, but his failure to detect the July coup attempt has led to questions over his future
Hakan Fidan: Erdogan's workhorse (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Turkey's spymaster Hakan Fidan has been his nation's "keeper of secrets" for six years, in that time running intelligence policy on issues from Syria to the conflict with the Kurdish PKK and the storming of the Mavi-Marmara passenger ship by Israeli commandos.

But earlier this month, Fidan and the National Intelligence Organisation he oversees, known as MIT, failed to detect the attempted coup against his president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prompting questions over his effectiveness and his future.

His number seemed to be up when he was summoned by Erdogan last Friday and, while he retained his job, the comments by the Turkish leader suggested he had much to do to keep his trust. Erdogan's comments came in the form of a Turkish idiom: “You don’t change horses midstream.”

Erdogan said that both Fidan and army chief of staff, General Hulusi Akar, would stay during what he termed a period of “transition”. He said any decision in this regard would be taken later following consultations with the prime minister and others.  

But it is a sharp decline in status for a man Erdogan once called “my keeper of secrets”, who has faced calls from members of Erdogan's ruling AKP party to fall on his sword.

Erdogan has said he had learned of the coup attempt from his brother-in-law and wasn’t informed by MIT, despite reports suggesting it began to suspect something was wrong six hours before tanks appeared on the Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul.

Fidan was also seen visiting the military headquarters a few hours before the attempted coup and meeting Akar, who was later taken hostage by coup conspirators.

The MIT headquarters compound in Ankara was one of the locations to come under heavy attack during the coup attempt.

However, Fidan is no stranger to being in the harsh glare of the spotlight during his six years at the head of Turkey’s intelligence organisation.

Fidan was in his job as Turkey’s chief spymaster for just five days when the Mavi Marmara-led aid flotilla to Gaza was attacked in international waters on 31 May 2010. 

The then Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, directly targeted Fidan and accused him of having close ties with Iran.

“Turkey is a friend and strategic ally. But in the past few weeks, a pro-Iranian person has been appointed head of Turkey’s intelligence service. They [Turkey] have important secrets of ours and the trend we are seeing is that they might get passed on to Iran,” Barak said.

Elsewhere, Fidan was a key figure in peace negotiations with the Kurdish PKK. He became a household name in Turkey when a recording of him negotiating with the PKK in Norway in 2009 was published on the internet.

In the recording, he can be heard saying: “I am the special representative of our prime minister. The prime minister has authorised me in this regard.”

He had attended that meeting with then MIT assistant undersecretary Afet Gunes.

Fidan also created controversy when he said his organisation had not provided the intelligence that resulted in an aerial military attack on civilian smugglers in Uludere near the Iraqi border. Thirty-five civilians were killed in that attack on 28 December 2011.

Fidan again found himself at the centre of a scandal when he was summoned as a suspect by a prosecutor in a 2012 investigation into the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella group that includes the PKK.

This move by the prosecutor was met by a furious response from the government, and the introduction of a law necessitating prior approval from the prime minister before courts could launch criminal proceedings against MIT personnel and some other civil servants.

Turkey’s chief spymaster carries the title of undersecretary and answers to the prime minister. MIT is also under the supervision of the prime minister's office.

Since 2013, Turkish officials have been vociferous in blaming Fethullah Gulen’s supporters of being behind attempts to besmirch Fidan’s reputation.

It was in 2013 when Turkish Muslim scholar Gulen’s Hizmet (service) movement became the arch foe of Erdogan and his AKP party. 

Fidan found himself at the heart of more controversy in the run-in to the June 2015 general election when the then prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, convinced him to resign from his position and announce his candidacy to run for MP.

Erdogan reacted angrily to this move and Fidan backtracked. After one month away from the job Fidan was reinstated as MIT undersecretary.

An impressive CV

Fidan started his career in the Turkish Armed Forces in 1986 working as a computer technician in the land forces.

Later he served at NATO’s allied rapid reaction corps in Germany. He left the Turkish armed forces in 2001 after serving the compulsory 15 years.

He wrote a thesis in 1999 for his Master’s degree comparing the intelligence structures and foreign policy of the UK, US and Turkey, in which he emphasised the need for his country to have a strong foreign intelligence service.

Following his return to civilian life, he served as a political and economic consultant at the Turkish embassy in Canberra, Australia. 

Between 2003 and 2007, Fidan served as head of the prime ministry-linked Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which promotes Turkey abroad. He also acted as an adviser to Davutoglu while he was foreign minister.

In November 2007 he was appointed deputy undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and international security under Erdogan, who was prime minister then, before moving a year later to the executive board of the UN's nuclear security group, the IAEA.

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